June 26, 2017

Colorado Supreme Court: County Assessor Authorized to Retroactively Assess Property Taxes on Oil and Gas Leaseholds

The Colorado Supreme Court issued its opinion in Kinder Morgan CO2 Co., L.P. v. Montezuma County Board of Commissioners on Monday, June 19, 2017.

Oil and Gas—Property Taxation—Statutory Construction.

The supreme court reviewed the court of appeals’ conclusion that the Montezuma County Assessor had statutory authority to retroactively assess property taxes on oil and gas leaseholds operated by Kinder Morgan, after the assessor determined that Kinder Morgan had underreported the wellhead selling price of CO2 gas produced at the leaseholds. The court considered whether this assessment was authorized under the statute permitting retroactive property tax assessments when, pursuant to C.R.S. § 39-5-125(1), “taxable property has been omitted from the assessment roll.” Given Colorado’s self-reporting scheme for property taxation of oil and gas leaseholds and the legislature’s amendments to that scheme—which describe the “underreporting of the selling price or the quantity of oil and gas sold [from a leasehold]” as a form of omitted property, C.R.S. §§ 29-1-301(1) and 39-10-107(1)—the court concluded that the assessor had statutory authority to issue the assessment in this case. The court further concluded that the Board of Assessment Appeals did not err in determining that Kinder Morgan had underreported the wellhead selling price of CO2. The court therefore affirmed the judgment of the court of appeals.

Summary provided courtesy of The Colorado Lawyer.

Colorado Court of Appeals: Oil and Gas Commission Has Authority to Issue Rule at Petitioner’s Request

The Colorado Court of Appeals issued its opinion in Martinez v. Colorado Oil and Gas Commission on Thursday, March 23, 2017.

Oil and Gas Conservation ActColorado Oil and Gas Conservation CommissionPublic Health and Safety.

Petitioners filed a petition for rulemaking pursuant to the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission’s Rule 529(b). Petitioners proposed a rule requesting that the Commission not issue permits for drilling oil and gas wells unless certain conditions were met to demonstrate that the drilling would not have specified adverse effects. The Commission ultimately denied the petition, concluding that (1) the proposed rule mandated action that exceeded the Commission’s statutory authority; (2) the requested third-party review contradicted the Commission’s nondelegable duty to promulgate rules; and (3) the public trust doctrine, which petitioners relied on to support their request, has been expressly rejected in Colorado. The district court affirmed the Commission’s order after concluding that the Commission rationally decided to deny the petition after considering input from stakeholders on both sides of the fracking issue in accordance with the Oil and Gas Conservation Act’s requirement of a balance between the development of oil and gas resources and the protection of public health, safety, and welfare.

On appeal, petitioners contended that the district court and the Commission erred in interpreting the Act. The Colorado Court of Appeals determined that the plain meaning of the statutory language indicates that fostering balanced development, production, and use of natural resources is in the public interest when that development is completed subject to the protection of public health, safety, and welfare. Therefore, the Commission erred in interpreting C.R.S. § 34-60-102(1)(a)(I) as requiring a balance between development and public health, safety, and welfare.

The district court’s and Commission’s orders were reversed and the case was remanded for further proceedings.

Summary provided courtesy of The Colorado Lawyer.

Tenth Circuit: Summary Judgment Affirmed Where No Evidence Presented of Conspiracy to Monopolize

The Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals issued its opinion in Buccaneer Energy (USA) Inc., v. Gunnison Energy Corporation; SG Interests I, LTD.; SG Interests VII, LTD. on February 3, 2017.

Buccaneer Energy (USA) Inc. (Buccaneer) sued SG Interests I, Ltd.., SG Interests VII, Ltd. (together, SG), and Gunnison Energy Corporation (GEC) (collectively, Defendants) alleging that Defendants had conspired in restraint of trade in violation of § 1 of the Sherman Act and that Defendants had conspired to monopolize in violation of § 2 of the Sherman Act. The district court granted summary judgment for the Defendants and the Tenth Circuit affirmed due to Buccaneer’s failure to present sufficient evidence to create a genuine issue of fact on one or more elements of each of its claims.

Defendants each granted each other the option to participate equally in the construction and ownership of any pipeline initiated by the other party. GEC exercised this option to participate in the Bull Mountain Pipeline, which traveled from the Ragged Mountain Area (RM Area) located in Delta and Gunnison Counties, Colorado, to the Questar Interstate pipeline. GEC and SG also equally had ultimate control over the Ragged Mountain Gathering System (RM System), which transported natural gas from the RM Area to the Rocky Mountain natural Gas Pipeline (Rocky Mountain Pipeline).

Buccaneer acquired the Riviera Drilling and Exploration Company’s (Riviera) leases in the RM Area. Buccaneer pursued a means for transporting its expected gas production from GEC on the RM System. GEC offered a rate of $1.52 per MMBtu for interruptible service. Buccaneer countered, revising the interruptible service language but keeping the rate the same. GEC responded raising the rate to $3.92 per MMBtu, and reinserting the interruptible service provisions. Buccaneer did not counteroffer again. Buccaneer failed to secure a transportation agreement and Riviera terminated the Lease Agreement.

Buccaneer filed this case on June 21, 2012 and alleged that the “RM System was essential to effective competition for production rights and the sale of natural gas from the Ragged Mountain Area.” It further claimed that because Defendants refused to provide Buccaneer with access to the RM System, Defendants violated §§ 1 and 2 of the Sherman Act by engaging in a conspiracy in restraint of trade and a conspiracy to monopolize.

The district court granted summary judgment for Defendants on both of Buccaneer’s antitrust claims because Buccaneer did not present evidence to show that Defendants caused, or could cause, injury to competition in a defined market. Buccaneer also did not demonstrate its own preparedness to enter the market. The Tenth Court affirmed, concluding that Buccaneer failed to present sufficient evidence to survive summary judgment on either of its claims.

Section 1 of the Sherman Act prohibits “every contract, combination in the form of trust or otherwise, or conspiracy, in restraint of trade or commerce among the several States.” 15 U.S.C. § 1. This provision has been construed to forbid only restraints of trade that are unreasonable. The Tenth Circuit analyzed the Defendants’ conduct under the rule of reason because Buccaneer did not allege a per se rule violation.

First, the Tenth Circuit dismissed Buccaneer’s allegation that the Defendants unreasonably denied it access to the RM System, which was Buccaneer claimed was “essential” to Buccaneer’s ability to compete. Buccaneer failed to prove the second element of the “essential facilities doctrine,” a competitor’s inability to duplicate the facility. Here, the relevant facility is the RM System, and while it may be difficult to duplicate, Buccaneer did not present any evidence on the matter. Buccaneer focused on the Bull Mountain Pipeline, which was not at issue in this case.

Next, the Tenth Circuit held that Buccaneer did not adequately establish its claim under the rule of reason. Under the rule of reason, the plaintiff has the initial burden of showing an agreement had a substantially adverse effect on competition. The burden then shifts to the defendant to show pro-competitive virtues of such conduct. Then the plaintiff must show that such conduct was not reasonably necessary to achieve the legitimate objectives.  A court must then weigh the harms and benefits of such conduct to determine if it is reasonable.

A plaintiff must show an adverse effect on competition in general, not just that the conduct adversely affected the plaintiff’s business. Buccaneer failed to meets its burden of showing that the challenged conduct had anticompetitive effects. Buccaneer did not present any evidence of actual anticompetitive effect; such as fewer production rights being acquired in the RM Area or that Defendants’ position allowed them to pay less than competitive prices.

The Tenth Circuit next addressed whether Buccaneer had shown harm to competition by Defendants’ possession of market power in the relevant market. The “relevant market” consists of both the product area and the geographic area. The product market consists of products that are sufficiently substitutable with each other based on the purpose for which they are produced, as well as their price, use, and quantities. The geographic market encompasses the area in which competition occurs. Once the relevant market has been identified, a plaintiff must show market power by demonstrating that the defendants had either the power to control price or the power to exclude competition.

Buccaneer asserted that the first relevant product was “production rights” and the relevant geographic market was the RM Area. The Tenth Circuit held that Buccaneer did not adequately define either market. Buccaneer did not offer its own definition of the product market for “production rights,” for which it bore the burden of defining. Buccaneer also failed to establish the relevant geographic market with any precision; it simply stated the area and did not define its boarders. Therefore, the Tenth Circuit held that Buccaneer failed to meet its burden of establishing either the product or the geographic market. The district court therefore did not err when it dismissed the claim for failure to allege a legally sufficient market.

Further, even if Buccaneer did define a relevant market, it did not establish that Defendants possessed market power. Market share, or size, is not enough to establish market power, and the absence of market share creates a presumption that market power does not exist. Buccaneer did not present evidence to demonstrate Defendants’ market share. It did not allege what percentage of the “production rights” market that Defendants possessed. Additionally, Buccaneer did not present evidence that that Defendants created any barriers of entry into the relevant market for competitors. Therefore, Buccaneer failed to satisfy its burden of showing market power and also failed to establish any anticompetitive effect in the alleged market for production rights.

Buccaneer next alleged that the second relevant product was natural gas, which was undisputed. The Tenth Circuit held that Buccaneer’s defined relevant market, which was “the market for downstream sales of gas,” was insufficient to address that market for considerations relevant under the rule of reason analysis. Buccaneer also failed to show that the Defendants possessed market power in any relevant market. The Tenth Circuit held that Buccaneer did not set forth facts from which a jury could find that the Defendants possessed market power in that market.

Finally, the Tenth Circuit quickly dismissed Buccaneer’s § 2 conspiracy claim because such a claim requires proof of a relevant antitrust market. As with Buccaneer’s § 1 claim, it did not establish a relevant market, so its § 2 claim fails for the same reasons as its § 1 claim.

In conclusion, the Tenth Circuit held that, because Buccaneer failed to present evidence from which a jury could conclude that Defendants’ conduct actually or potentially harmed competition in a relevant antitrust market, both its § 1 and § 2 Sherman Act claims fail. The Tenth Circuit affirmed the district court’s order granting summary judgment in favor of Defendants on that basis.

Colorado Court of Appeals: Complaint Filed After Denial of Motion to Reconsider was Untimely

The Colorado Court of Appeals issued its opinion in Sterling Ethanol, LLC v. Colorado Air Quality Control Commission on Thursday, February 23, 2017.

Interlocutory Appeal—Motion to Dismiss for Lack of Subject Matter Jurisdiction.

Sterling Ethanol, LLC and Yuma Ethanol, LLC (collectively, Companies) are ethanol manufacturing plants that are sources of air pollution in northeastern Colorado. They are required to operate in accordance with air permits issued by the Colorado Air and Pollution Control Division (Division). After the Division issued two compliance orders addressing the Companies’ alleged violations of their air permits, Companies sought timely administrative review from the Air Quality Control Commission (Commission), which operates pursuant to the Colorado Air Pollution Prevention and Control Act (APPCA). Following an evidentiary hearing, the Commission issued a final order affirming the Division’s orders.

Companies filed a motion to reconsider, which the Commission denied. Companies then filed a complaint in the district court 69 days after the Commission issued its final order and 35 days after the Commission denied its motion to reconsider. The Commission filed a motion to dismiss for lack of subject matter jurisdiction, arguing the complaint was untimely filed. The district court denied the motion. The district court, on the Commission’s request, certified for review the question whether the State Administrative Procedure Act (APA), the APPCA, and the Commission’s procedural rules, read together, compel the conclusion that the complaint was untimely filed, thus depriving the court of appeals of subject matter jurisdiction.

The court held that the district court erred in denying the motion to dismiss because Companies’ complaint was untimely. The party seeking judicial review must file a complaint within 35 days of the effective date of the Commission’s final order, even if that party first filed a motion to reconsider, and the Commission declined to reconsider its order. The plain language of the APPCA, the APA, and the Commission’s procedural rules required such a conclusion.

The order was reversed and the case was remanded for entry of an order dismissing the action.

Summary provided courtesy of The Colorado Lawyer.

SB 17-035: Increasing Penalties for Tampering with Oil and Gas Equipment or Facilities

On January 11, 2017, Sen. Jerry Sonnenberg introduced SB 17-035, “Concerning Tampering with Equipment Associated with Oil and Gas Gathering Operations.”

There is a current crime of tampering with equipment associated with oil or gas gathering operations. The bill includes placing another at risk of death or serious bodily injury as part of the crime and increases the penalty from a class 2 misdemeanor to a class 6 felony.

The bill was introduced in the Senate and assigned to the Agriculture, Natural Resources, & Energy Committee. It was amended in committee and referred to the Senate Committee of the Whole for Second Reading. The bill was amended on Second Reading and laid over.

HB 17-1124: Local Governments that Ban Fracking Liable to Mineral Interest Owners for Damages

On January 26, 2017, Rep. Perry Buck and Sen. Tim Neville introduced HB 17-1124, “Concerning a Requirement that a Local Government that Interferes with Oil and Gas Operations Compensate Persons Damaged by the Interference.”

The bill specifies that a local government that bans hydraulic fracturing of an oil and gas well is liable to the mineral interest owner for the value of the mineral interest and that a local government that enacts a moratorium on oil and gas activities shall compensate oil and gas operators, mineral lessees, and royalty owners for all costs, damages, and losses of fair market value associated with the moratorium.

The bill was introduced in the House and assigned to the State, Veterans, and Military Affairs Committee. It is scheduled for hearing in committee on February 22, 2017, at 1:30 p.m.

Top Ten Programs and Homestudies of 2016: The Best of the Rest

The year is drawing to a close, which means that the compliance period is ending for a third of Colorado’s attorneys. Still missing some credits? Don’t worry, CBA-CLE has got you covered.

Today on Legal Connection we are featuring the Best of the Rest: the top programs and homestudies in the areas of law not previously covered, including construction law, disability law, agricultural law, water law, natural resources law, immigration law, and marijuana law. Although these practice areas are varied, the homestudies and programs featured below are top-notch. For practitioners in these areas of law, visit cle.cobar.org/Practice-Area to find more programs and homestudies in your area of practice, and visit cle.cobar.org/Books to search our selection of books.

Construction Law — Residential Construction Defect Law 2016: Intermediate to Advanced Class
The program will highlight significant construction defect liability, damages and insurance developments occurring over the past two years and described in the Fifth Edition of Residential Construction Law in Colorado (CLE in Colo., 2015) written by Ronald M. Sandgrund, Scott F. Sullan and Leslie A. Tuft. A copy of the book is included as part of the course materials. No written materials other than a list of cases and statutes discussed will be supplied. This program is an advance program and is not intended to provide a general overview of construction defect law or practice. Each Homestudy includes a PDF copy of the CLE book, Residential Construction Law in Colorado, 5th Edition. Order the Video OnDemand here, the CD homestudy here, and the MP3 here. Available for 3 general credits.

Immigration Law — Immigration Law 2016
Attend this program and you will receive practical training for representing individuals in immigration proceedings, including juveniles and survivors seeking asylum and other humanitarian relief. Topics covered include: Immigration Law 101, Special Immigrant Juvenile Status, U Visas, T Visas, and VAWA, Cancellation of Removal and Trial Advocacy Skills in Immigration Court, Asylum Law, and Model Asylum Hearing. Order the Video OnDemand here, the CD homestudy here, and the MP3 here. Available for 7 general credits.

Water Law — Water Law 101 in 2016
This is the eighth in a series of courses related to Colorado water law and administration. This particular course will introduce you to the basic legal framework governing Colorado water law, rights, and administration as of 2016. You will become familiar with court cases, matters and issues critical to your understanding of water and water law in Colorado. You will learn about Colorado’s different types of water rights, how they are administered, the role of the State and Division Engineers, and what is required for changes of water rights. Order the Video OnDemand here, the CD homestudy here, and the MP3 here. Available for 7 general credits.

Environmental Law — Colorado’s Future Energy Economy: Legal Landscape
Attend this program and hear perspectives of officials and leaders at national and state and federal government levels on the direction of Colorado’s energy industry. Plus, gain invaluable insights on such from environmentalists, the energy industry, academia, and private firm practitioners. Take advantage of this unique opportunity to learn about the latest developments in the legal landscape behind Colorado’s energy and natural resources industries. Attend this program and personally unravel the issues with the experts. AND, at the same time, you will sharpen your practice skills and expand your knowledge to better serve your clients! Order the Video OnDemand here, the CD homestudy here, and the MP3 here. Available for 7 general credits, including 1 ethics credit.

Natural Resources Law — Oil, Gas, and Mining: Current Legal Issues
This Oil, Gas and Mining Law program is the one to attend to get up to speed on energy issues currently affecting Colorado and the West. You will leave this seminar with a better understanding of the latest regarding pertinent litigation, regulations and solutions for quieting title, financing, and distressed companies. Taught by experts, this program will provide you with an opportunity to network with colleagues and experts, and to catch up on hot topics in the energy law arena. Order the Video OnDemand here, the CD homestudy here, and the MP3 here. Available for 9 general credits, including 1 ethics credit.

Disability Law — Social Security Disability: Advanced Practice
Your distinguished panel of Judges, ODAR and Colorado Disability Determination Services Officials, a vocational expert, and seasoned private firm SSDI practitioners will provide you with the latest information on: Changes, Statistics, and Findings of the Colorado Disability Determination Services Office, What’s Happening in Region 8 and at Headquarters – Office of Disability Adjudication and Review?, State of the Denver Regional Office of Disability Adjudication and Review, Attorney Fee Agreements and Fee Petitions, How-to’s of Vocational Expert Examination, Perspectives of the Appeals Council, Appeals Council and Federal District Court Arguments, Case Law and Rulings, and How to File in Federal Court and Win! Order the Video OnDemand here, the CD homestudy here, and the MP3 here. Available for 8 general credits.

Agricultural Law — Rural Land Transactions: Contract Issues
Whether you represent the buyer or seller of ranch land, cattle, timber or recreational ranches, farms or other rural lands, this program is for you! Attend and your faculty of seasoned real estate attorneys and brokers will guide you through the nuances of rural land transactions, and help you avoid mistakes and potential pitfalls. You will receive straightforward guidance on Buyer Entity Pros and Cons, Federal Grazing Permits, Water, Mineral and Wind Rights, Growing Crops, and much more. Order the Video OnDemand here, the CD homestudy here, and the MP3 here. Available for 4 general credits.

Marijuana Law — Enforcing Cannabis Contracts, Including the Use of Arbitration in the Cannabis Industry
A key fear in the cannabis industry is the extent to which cannabis-related contracts are enforceable. This goes beyond contracts for the sale of cannabis itself and may include any number of legal instruments that touch a cannabis business. Although a number of recent court decisions in the Colorado state and federal courts indicate a trend toward the enforcement of cannabis-related contracts, and these cases will be discussed, many doubts remain regarding the enforceability of cannabis-related contracts. Arbitration provides a unique forum for the resolution of cannabis-related disputes that may provide greater legal certainty and enforceability. This CLE presentation covers the nuts and bolts of arbitration law relevant to the enforcement of purportedly illegal contracts, and goes beyond to identify techniques counsel should consider when drafting arbitration clauses for cannabis businesses and their partners. Order the Video OnDemand here, the CD homestudy here, and the MP3 here. Available for 3 general credits.

Colorado Court of Appeals: Exhaustion of Administrative Remedies Required but Dismissal With Prejudice was in Error

The Colorado Court of Appeals issued its opinion in Grant Brothers Ranch, LLC v. Antero Resources Piceance Corp. on Thursday, December 1, 2016.

Subject Matter Jurisdiction—Summary Judgment—Exhaustion of Administrative Remedies—Dismissal Without Prejudice.

Antero Resources Piceance Corporation (Antero), an oil and gas exploration and production company, received approval from the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission (the Commission) to establish a drilling and spacing unit to produce oil and gas. Antero wanted to produce oil and gas underlying Grant Brothers Ranch, LLC’s (Grant Brothers) property, which was within the unit, but Grant Brothers refused Antero’s offer to lease the minerals or participate in their production. Antero then requested that the Commission pool all nonconsenting interests in the unit and allow Antero to produce and sell the oil and gas of the nonconsenting owners. Following a hearing, the Commission granted the request. A year and a half later, to produce from a deeper formation, Antero sought to establish a new unit within the same lands. Again, Antero asked Grant Brothers to participate in their production, and Grant Brothers refused. Following objection by Grant Brothers and a hearing, the Commission granted this request and issued an order pooling all nonconsenting interests in the second unit. Pursuant to these pooling orders, Grant Brothers was entitled to receive its interest in the proceeds from the production and sale of oil and gas from wells in the units after the wells reached “payout.” Antero was required to furnish Grant Brothers monthly statements concerning its costs and proceeds.

Three years after the second order, Grant Brothers asked Antero for permission to audit its books and records regarding the wells. Antero refused, stating it had been sending Grant Brothers the required monthly statements.

Two years later, Grant Brothers sued Antero and Ursa Operating Company, LLC (which assumed operation of the wells in 2012) (Operators), requesting an equitable accounting and alleging the wells had reached payout, but Operators had not paid Grant Brothers. Operators filed a motion for summary judgment arguing that Grant Brothers had not exhausted its administrative remedies under the Oil and Gas Conservation Act (the Act) and therefore the district court lacked subject matter jurisdiction. The court agreed and dismissed the action with prejudice.

On appeal, Grant Brothers argued that the district court improperly granted summary judgment because Grant Brothers was not required under the Act to exhaust its administrative remedies. The Colorado Court of Appeals noted that because the district court had not resolved a number of factual disputes and resolved Antero’s motion solely on the basis that the court lacked subject matter jurisdiction, the summary judgment motion was more properly characterized as a motion to dismiss for lack of subject matter jurisdiction under C.R.C.P. 12(b)(1) and it therefore treated it as such.

The Act gives the Commission a broad grant of jurisdiction over operations for the production of oil and gas, including payment disputes, unless such dispute is one over interpretation of a payment contract, which would be resolved by a district court. In determining whether a court has subject matter jurisdiction where a party did not exhaust administrative remedies, courts examine whether (1) the claim was filed pursuant to the relevant statute, (2) the statute provides a remedy for the claim asserted, and (3) the legislature intended the statute to provide a “comprehensive scheme” addressing the issues underlying the claim.

First, Grant Brothers’ claim was one for payment of proceeds under C.R.S. §§ 34-60-116 and -118.5. Grant Brothers is entitled to receive payment only if and when payout occurs. Primary jurisdiction to make this determination rests with the Commission. Second, because there was no contract between the parties, Grant Brothers needed to first submit a written request for payment. If there is a payment dispute, Grant Brothers may request a hearing before the Commission, whose order would then be appealable to the courts. Third, the Act’s language and structure indicate that a proceeding before the Commission is the primary remedy for nonconsenting owners’ claims for the payment of proceeds when there is no contract between the parties. Grant Brothers was required to exhaust its administrative remedies and because it did not do so prior to filing suit in the district court, the court properly dismissed the action.

Grant Brothers also contended that the district court erred in dismissing its claim with prejudice solely on the basis that the court lacked subject matter jurisdiction. A dismissal under C.R.C.P. 12(b)(1) does not adjudicate the merits, but results from the court lacking the power to hear the claims asserted. Thus the dismissal is necessarily without prejudice.

The judgment was affirmed in part and reversed in part, and the case was remanded with directions.

Summary provided courtesy of The Colorado Lawyer.

Tenth Circuit: Attorney Fee Award Appropriate Where Oil and Gas Well Sustained Physical Damage

The Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals issued its opinion in Sundance Energy Oklahoma, LLC v. Dan D. Drilling Corp. on Friday, September 2, 2016.

Sundance contracted with Dan D. to drill several oil and gas wells, and used a standard International Association of Drilling Contractors (IADC) form for each individual well. Dan D. was unable to drill several of the wells because it could not acquire permits, so Sundance asked Dan D. to drill a different group of wells instead, including the Rother well, under the supervision of Tres Management. Although Dan D. did not have a contract, it began drilling the Rother well in December 2012 under the supervision of a Tres company man. Days later, Dan D.’s drill pipe became stuck in the hole. After several failed attempts to remove the pipe, the company man instructed the Dan D. employees to stop pulling on the pipe. A driller ignored the instructions and continued pulling on the pipe, causing the drilling line to break and throw debris, killing the driller. A medical examiner later determined the driller had substantial amounts of methamphetamine in his blood at the time of his death.

A subsequent OSHA investigation suspended all drilling at the Rother well, concluding that the drilling failure resulted from progressive fatigue on the drill line. OSHA issued a citation to Dan D. for failing to inspect and properly maintain the drill line. After the OSHA investigation concluded, Sundance attempted to fish out the stuck drill pipe, but the wellbore had deteriorated and the well was ultimately plugged and abandoned as a total loss.

Sundance sued Dan D. for damages, asserting that Dan D.’s negligence, gross negligence, and breach of implied contract to drill the well in a workmanlike manner resulted in the loss of the hole. Dan D. filed several motions in limine prior to trial, including objecting to the admission of the OSHA narratives and the medical examiner’s toxicology report. The district court denied the motion to suppress the toxicology report and partially denied the motion to suppress the OSHA reports, allowing only portions of the documents to be used. At trial, Sundance’s expert witness testified that Dan D.’s failure to log and track the ton miles of the drill line was “unheard of” in the industry, and that Dan D. should have slipped and cut the drill line to prevent the accident. Sundance relied on Dan D.’s gross negligence caused the line failure and the ultimate loss of the hole. Dan D. disagreed, arguing the fault should lie with Tres and the company man. Dan D. also argued that the IADC contract’s exculpatory provisions state that Sundance was liable for any loss or damage to the hole. Dan D. also asked the district court to instruct the jury that it should impute negligence to Tres, but the district court declined to do so. The district court instead instructed the jury that if it did not find Dan D. was grossly negligent, it should not consider whether an implied contract between the parties incorporated the IADC contract’s exculpatory provisions.

The jury returned a verdict for Sundance, finding Dan D. was grossly negligent and breached an implied contract to drill the well in a workmanlike manner. The jury attributed 75% of the loss to Dan D.’s negligence and 25% to Tres’ negligence, awarding Sundance $1.2 million in damages. Dan D. moved for a new trial under F.R.C.P. 59(a). The district court denied the motion and Dan D. appealed that order. Sundance then filed a motion for attorney fees, which the district court granted. Dan D. also appealed the attorney fee award. The appeals were consolidated.

Dan D. first argued the district court erred in instructing the jury that it need not consider whether the implied contract included the allocation of risk provisions if it found Dan D. grossly negligent, and refusing to impute Tres’ negligence to Sundance. The Tenth Circuit analyzed Dan D.’s claims for abuse of discretion and found none. The district court based its instruction regarding gross negligence on an Oklahoma Supreme Court case where a federal district court certified a question to the Oklahoma Supreme Court regarding whether an exculpatory provision was valid and enforceable. The Oklahoma Supreme Court ruled it was not enforceable in cases involving, among other things, gross negligence. The Tenth Circuit approved of the district court’s reliance on this case and found no abuse of discretion.

Dan D. also argued the district court should have granted a new trial based on its refusal to give Dan D.’s proposed instructions on whether Sundance owed Dan D. a non-delegable duty. The Tenth Circuit found that even if it agreed with Dan D. that the district court erred by not giving the proposed instruction, the error did not prejudice Dan D. because the jury’s verdict for Sundance on the breach of implied contract claim independently supported the damages award. Accordingly, any imputation of negligence would not have affected the breach of contract award.

The Tenth Circuit also found no error in the district court’s admission of the toxicology report or OSHA narratives. Because Dan D. did not object to the admission of any other evidence, and other evidence showed Dan D.’s failures, Dan D. could not show prejudice by the admission of the toxicology report or OSHA narratives.

Finally, the Tenth Circuit addressed Dan D.’s challenge to the attorney fee award. The Tenth Circuit evaluated Okla. Stat. tit. 12, § 940(A), which provides for attorney fees to the prevailing party in any action related to the negligent or willful injury to property, and found the statute applicable in the instant action. The Tenth Circuit noted the physical deterioration of the Rother well during the 12-day OSHA investigation was precisely the type of injury contemplated under § 940(A). Because Sundance prevailed in the action regarding physical injury to a well, the attorney fee award was appropriate.

The Tenth Circuit affirmed the district court.

Tenth Circuit: No Error where District Court Granted Summary Judgment Prior to Rule 26(f) Meeting

The Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals issued its opinion in Trans-Western Petroleum, Inc. v. United States Gypsum Co. on Tuesday, July 26, 2016.

United States Gypsum (USG) owns the oil and gas underlying 1,700 acres of land in Utah. USG entered into an oil and gas lease in 1995 that was subsequently assigned to Wolverine Oil & Gas Corp. and extended through August 17, 2004. In 2004, Douglas Isern, the owner and sole officer of Trans-Western, called USG and expressed interest in leasing the oil and gas rights when the Wolverine lease expired. Trans-Western sent USG a proposed five-year lease beginning August 17, 2014, and a check for $32,680. USG executed the lease on September 15, 2004 but did not cash the check.

On October 1, 2004, Wolverine protested the recording of the lease, claiming its lease remained valid. USG then rescinded the Trans-Western lease both orally and in writing. Trans-Western brought suit against Wolverine in 2006, seeking a declaratory judgment that Wolverine’s lease had expired on August 17, 2004. The district court determined that the lease had expired and granted the parties’ joint motion for a Rule 54(b) certification and stay. The Tenth Circuit affirmed on appeal. Thereafter, USG and Trans-Western executed a Ratification and Lease Extension for a primary five-year term beginning December 11, 2009.

In 2010, Trans-Western filed a second amended complaint, seeking a declaratory judgment that its lease with USG was valid and damages for breach of contract and breach of the covenant of quiet enjoyment. Trans-Western moved for partial summary judgment, which USG opposed. The district court granted partial summary judgment but denied attorney fees due to disputed material facts on damages. At a bench trial on damages, Trans-Western contended it was entitled to expectation damages because USG deprived it of the opportunity to assign. The district court disagreed, finding Trans-Western was entitled to only nominal damages based on the contract’s value on the date of the breach. The parties appealed.

The Tenth Circuit certified a question to the Utah Supreme Court regarding how expectation damages should be measured for the breach of an oil and gas lease. The Utah Supreme Court responded that consequential damages are those that are reasonably foreseeable by the parties at the time the contract was made. The court also held that the trial court may exercise its discretion to allow for the use of post-breach evidence to help calculate expectation damages.

The Tenth Circuit first evaluated USG’s cross-appeal, in which it argued that the district court should have granted its Rule 56(d) motion and deferred ruling on its partial summary judgment motion so that USG could conduct discovery. The district court determined that USG had a correct understanding of certain facts and constructive notice of others, thereby allowing the case to be resolved as a matter of law. In the district court, USG argued that extra time would allow it to discover evidence that Trans-Western was aware that USG was under a mistaken impression. On appeal, USG argued that discovery would have shown there was no meeting of the minds due to a lack of consideration from Trans-Western. The Tenth Circuit found these arguments different, and ruled that USG waived its argument. The Tenth Circuit further noted, though, that even if it were to consider the argument, USG did not meet the requirements for Rule 56(d) deferral because its allegations were vague and non-specific.

USG also argued the district court violated a scheduling order by granting summary judgment prior to the Rule 26(f) meeting. The Tenth Circuit found no abuse of discretion, noting that nothing suggested that USG sought to enforce the scheduling order and the order did not preclude motions practice. USG next argued the district court erred by granting Trans-Western’s motion for partial summary judgment because the lease failed for want of mutuality and consideration. The Tenth Circuit again disagreed. Trans-Western issued a bank draft in 2004, and USG had the ability to negotiate the draft from the moment of its delivery. Because the parties exchanged promises with adequate consideration, the district court did not err in granting partial summary judgment.

The Tenth Circuit affirmed the district court but remanded for calculation of damages consistent with the Utah Supreme Court’s opinion.

Tenth Circuit: Plain Statutory Language Requires Insurer to Reimburse Insured for Settlement Costs

The Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals issued its opinion in Lexington Insurance Co. v. Precision Drilling Co., L.P. on Tuesday, July 26, 2016.

Precision Drilling, an oil and gas company, paid a settlement to an injured worker. Precision sought repayment of the settlement expenditure from its insurer, Lexington. Lexington denied the claim based on Wyoming’s anti-indemnity statute, Wyo. Stat. Ann. § 30- 1-131(a)(iii)(B), which prohibits agreements seeking to relieve indemnity from those who operate oil and gas wells. The district court granted summary judgment to Lexington, holding it free from liability and granting it fees and costs. Precision appealed.

The Tenth Circuit analyzed the statute in question and remarked that immediately following the prohibition on relief from indemnity was an exception for insurance contracts. Lexington argued that the Wyoming legislature intended to limit the insurance clause to only those entities that purchase their own insurance policies, but the Tenth Circuit disagreed, declining to read language into the statute’s plain and unambiguous exception. The Tenth Circuit refused to speculate as to the intentions of the Wyoming legislature.

Lexington also argued that the absurdity doctrine prevented Precision from recovering its settlement payments. The Tenth Circuit again disagreed after examining the use of that doctrine in Wyoming’s courts. Because the statutory language in this case was plain, unambiguous, and not obviously erroneous, the Tenth Circuit rejected Lexington’s absurdity doctrine argument.

The Tenth Circuit reversed summary judgment and remanded for further proceedings. Judge Lucero wrote a separate concurrence to comment that he would not have even explored Lexington’s absurdity doctrine argument because Lexington did not raise the issue until oral arguments.

Tenth Circuit: Declaratory Judgment Action Moot where Business Interests Sold During Litigation

The Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals issued its opinion in Schell v. OXY USA, Inc. on Monday, December 14, 2015, and modified the opinion on February 9, 2016.

The plaintiff class (appellees and cross-appellants in the Tenth Circuit) consists of approximately 2200 surface owners of Kansas land burdened by oil and gas leases held or operated by OXY, the appellant and cross-appellee. The leases contained a “free gas” clause that, in substance, purported to grant the lessor access to free gas for domestic use. In August 2007, OXY sent letters warning free gas users that their gas may become unsafe to use, either because of high hydrogen sulfide content or low pressure at the wellhead, as a result of the well reaching the end of their productive life.

On August 31, 2007, leaseholders David Schell, Donna Schell, Howard Pickens, and Ron Oliver filed this action on behalf of themselves and others similarly situated, seeking a permanent injunction and a declaratory judgment based on alleged breaches of mineral leases entered into with OXY for failure to supply free usable gas. The district court certified a class of all surface owners of Kansas land burdened by oil and gas leases held or operated by OXY which contain a free gas clause. Plaintiffs and OXY then filed cross-motions for summary judgment. The district court denied OXY’s motion for summary judgment and granted the plaintiffs’ motion for summary judgment. The district court granted the plaintiffs declaratory relief requiring OXY to provide free useable gas under the contract; however, the district court denied the plaintiffs’ motion for a permanent injunction.

Because the district court found that the free gas clauses were ambiguous and interpreted them according to principles of Kansas law, OXY moved to vacate the judgment to permit it to discover extrinsic evidence of the clauses’ meaning. The district court agreed and vacated its judgment. The district court subsequently granted plaintiffs’ resubmitted motion for summary judgment. It also denied plaintiffs’ motion for attorneys’ fees, expenses, and incentive awards. OXY then filed this appeal, and the plaintiffs cross-appealed. After the appeal and cross-appeal were filed, OXY sold all of its interests in the Kansas leases to Merit Hugoton, L.P. (“Merit”). The plaintiff class filed a motion to dismiss the appeal as moot based on this sale. The Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals permitted the appeal to proceed to briefing and oral argument. One week after oral argument, Merit filed a motion to intervene as an appellant and cross-appellee, which was denied by the Tenth Circuit.

The Tenth Circuit concluded the appeal is moot, thereby granting the motion of the plaintiff class to dismiss the appeal, reasoning OXY’s sale of the leases to Merit leads to the conclusion that its conduct cannot be affected by a declaratory judgment concerning the same leases. The Tenth Circuit dismissed OXY’s argument that the leaseholders could sue OXY over its prior conduct during the time when it was operating the wells, considering the fact that allowing OXY to continue the present litigation in order to protect itself from hypothetical unfiled future litigation would render the instant declaratory judgment action a prohibited advisory opinion. Further, the court stated Merit’s request to intervene does not change the conclusion that the declaratory judgment action is moot, in that the record is devoid of any evidence suggesting that a judgment against OXY would bind Merit with respect to the plaintiff class.

Next, the Tenth Circuit determined it was appropriate to dismiss the appeal without vacating the district court’s granting of the plaintiff class’s declaratory judgment action. Although the general rule is to vacate the judgment below when the case becomes moot on appeal, the court found OXY’s intentional conduct (i.e., selling of the leases to Merit) caused the issue over the free gas clauses of the leases to be moot, and that no other entity was more responsible for mooting the controversy, thereby justifying the equitable resolution of leaving in place the district court’s judgment granting the plaintiffs declaratory relief. To act otherwise, the court noted, would permit OXY to benefit from its voluntary act by wiping away a loss.

Lastly, with respect to plaintiffs’ cross-appeal challenging the district court’s denial of their motion for attorneys’ fees, expenses, and an incentive award, the Tenth Circuit determined it had jurisdiction over the matter, as the issue of attorneys’ fees (and related issues) was not moot, despite the mootness of the merits of the appeal. The Tenth Circuit then affirmed the district court’s holding that the plaintiff class has not shown a legally sound basis for an award of attorneys’ fees and other related relief. In so holding, the court found that neither the common-benefit exception to the American Rule nor 28 U.S.C. § 2202 was applicable. Because OXY sold all of the leases to Merit, the common benefit exception does not apply, as an award of attorneys’ fees under the exception would be an impermissible penalty on OXY. The Tenth Circuit affirmed the district court’s statement that there is no independent statutory or contractual basis for attorneys’ fees under § 2202.

Max Montag is a 2016 J.D. Candidate at the University of Denver Sturm College of Law.