WV Supreme Court decides landowner case, defines ‘surface’ - Beckley, Bluefield & Lewisburg News, Weather, Sports

WV Supreme Court decides landowner case, defines ‘surface’

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A landowner's language was not ambiguous when conveying "surface" rights in an early 1900s deed, West Virginia Supreme Court justices recently ruled.

Justices overturned a previous syllabus point under Ramage v. South Penn Oil Co., which determined the word "surface" as being ambiguous when used in conveyance of a deed and thus subject to modern interpretation, according to the opinion.  

The June 13 opinion, delivered by Justice Menis Ketchum, defined surface in this context of conveyance as "the exposed area of land, improvements on the land, and any part of the underground actually used by a surface owner as an adjunct to surface use (for example, medium for the roots of growing plants, groundwater, water wells, roads, basements or construction footings.)"

Marvin Morgan filed his complaint for declaratory judgment and alternatively verified petition for sale or lease of mineral interests owned by missing, unknown or abandoning owners Feb. 7, 2011.

The case sought to decide who owned the oil and gas rights in a 225-acre tract of land in Preston County.

Morgan acquired interest in the tract of land in 1967 along with a now-deceased joint tenant. Since the joint tenant's death, Morgan claims he is the sole owner of the tract of land.

Faith United Methodist Church and Novus Exploration entered into a gas lease in 2010 for interest in oil and gas. Trinity Methodist Church also entered into a gas lease in 2010, documents state.

The interest to the property was handed down through different heirs and given to the churches through wills. 

The history of this fight stems from 1869 when Calvin Forman became vested in the tract of land from two deeds that conveyed an undivided one-half interest.

When he died, each of his seven children inherited an undivided, one-seventh fee interest in the land. However, five of the children sold their interest in the real estate to their brother Walter Forman.

Morgan is the successor in title to Walter.

Walter Forman's sister, Florence, did not sell her interest until 1907 when she conveyed her one-seventh undivided interest in the surface to her brother.

Meanwhile, defendants Faith United Methodist Church and Cemetery of Terra Alta and Trinity Methodist Church of Terra Alta are seeking to have Florence's heirs receive the oil and gas rights.  

Previously, both siblings had sold all the coal under this tract of land. However, the agreement did not reference oil, natural gas or any other minerals, court documents state.

The crux of the case revolves around the words "surface" and "surface only" and whether Florence intended to give up her oil and gas rights or just the part used for agricultural purposes.

Morgan argues the Forman deed serves to define the "surface only" granting language, making it clear that Florence Forman intended to convey her entire undivided interest in the tract of land, including any previously unsevered oil and gas to her brother.

However, defendants argue the "surface only" language is unambiguous and referred to the "part of the earth used for agricultural purposes," and that Florence intended to reserve or sever an undivided one-seventh interest in the oil and gas rights.

The Preston County Circuit Court disagreed, saying the record contained no evidence that Florence intended to sever the surface.

The circuit court also determined the language was ambiguous and that Florence took no action to demonstrate intent to retain ownership of the tract of land.

In cases of ambiguity in deed language, the court says the rule is to interpret language "most strongly against the grantor and in favor of the grantee."

Because of that, the court determined Morgan to be the owner.

Faith United Methodist Church and Cemetery of Terra Alta and Trinity Methodist Church of Terra Alta appealed this decision to the state Supreme Court.

In their appeal, the churches argued the word "surface" has a definite meaning, reiterating that the word refers to the portion of land used for agricultural purposes.  

The churches said the question isn't whether Florence reserved the oil and gas rights under the property but instead whether the oil and gas rights were conveyed to her brother in the 1907 deed.

Justices reversed and remanded the decision, saying the circuit court erred in finding the language to be ambiguous.

"The deed clearly conveyed from Florence Forman to Walter Forman her share of ‘the surface only' to the 225 acre tract, and reserved to Ms. Forman the remainder of the tract. Accordingly, as the successors to Florence Forman, the petitioners (the churches) are owners of a portion of her 1/7 interest in the minerals (other than coal) underlying the tract," the opinion states.