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 USG then rescinded the Trans-Western lease both orally and in writing.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.