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Adair v. EQT Production Co.

United States District Court, Western District of Virginia, Abingdon Division

February 6, 2015

ROBERT ADAIR, ON BEHALF OF HIMSELF AND ALL OTHERS SIMILARLY SITUATED, Plaintiff,
v.
EQT PRODUCTION COMPANY, Defendant. EVA MAE ADKINS, ON BEHALF OF HERSELF AND ALL OTHERS SIMILARLY SITUATED Plaintiff,
v.
EQT PRODUCTION COMPANY, Defendant. JULIE A. KISER, ON BEHALF OF HERSELF AND ALL OTHERS SIMILARLY SITUATED, Plaintiff,
v.
EQT PRODUCTION COMPANY, ET AL., Defendants. JEFFERY CARLOS HALE, ON BEHALF OF HIMSELF AND ALL OTHERS SIMILARLY SITUATED, Plaintiff,
v.
CNX GAS COMPANY LLC, ET AL., Defendants. DORIS BETTY ADDISON, ON BEHALF OF HERSELF AND ALL OTHERS SIMILARLY SITUATED, Plaintiff,
v.
CNX GAS COMPANY LLC, ET AL., Defendants.

David S. Stellings, Lieff Cabraser Heimann & Bernstein, New York, New York, for Plaintiffs

Wade W. Massie, PennStuart, Abingdon, Virginia, for EQT Production Company; Jonathan T. Blank, McGuireWoods LLP, Charlottesville, Virginia, for CNX Gas Company LLC; Kathy L. Wright, Gentry Locke Rakes & Moore, LLP, Roanoke, Virginia, for Torch Oil and Gas Company

Blair M. Gardner, Jackson Kelly PLLC, Charleston, West Virginia, for Buckhorn Coal Company, Commonwealth Coal Corporation, and Harrison-Wyatt, LLC.

OPINION AND ORDER

James P. Jones United States District Judge

In these related cases, the court of appeals vacated this court’s earlier class certifications and remanded for “a more rigorous analysis as to whether the requirements for class certification have been satisfied.” EQT Prod. Co. v. Adair, 764 F.3d 347, 352 (4th Cir. 2014). The parties now dispute the proper method of conducting that analysis and in particular the appropriateness and scope of any further discovery on class certification by the plaintiffs. I have received submissions from the parties in this regard and herein will set forth my decisions on these issues.

In order to adequately explain the reasons for my decisions, it is necessary to first review the specific concerns of the court of appeals and its directions to me, as well as the lengthy procedural history of these cases.

I.

The five cases involve two coalbed methane (“CBM”) producers, EQT Production Company (“EQT”) and CNX Gas Company LLC (“CNX”), with the Adair, Adkins, and Kiser cases concerning EQT and the Hale and Addison cases involving CNX. The earliest case - Adair - was filed in this court on June 15, 2010, and the other four following thereafter, with the last - Kiser - being filed on April 20, 2011. Numerous hearings have been held in the five cases, and dozens of orders and opinions entered, either by me or U.S. Magistrate Judge Pamela Meade Sargent, covering a wide range of procedural and substantive issues.[1] After substantial briefing and argument, I certified classes in all of the cases on September 30, 2013. The defendants then sought interlocutory appeals of the certifications pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 23(f). After briefing and argument, the court of appeals granted the appeals and remanded the cases by opinion dated August 19, 2014.

In its opinion, the court of appeals summarized the classes certified by this court as follows:

Four of the five classes - Adair, Addison, Hale, and Kiser - consist of persons who have never received CBM royalties for a CBM interest they claim to own. As defined by the district court, the classes include (1) all persons or their successors, (2) whom EQT or CNX have identified as being the owners of the gas estate in a tract underlying a CBM drilling unit, (3) whose interest in the CBM is “in conflict” because a different person owns the coal estate in the same tract.
The ownership classes can be further broken down. In two cases (the “force pooled” classes) - Adair and Hale - the plaintiffs’ purported CBM interests have been force pooled by a [Virginia Gas and Oil] Board order.
In the other two ownership cases (the “voluntary lease” classes) - Kiser and Addison - the defendants entered voluntary lease arrangements with the putative class members. Nonetheless, the class members’ CBM interests have been subject to pooling, and their royalties have either been paid into Board escrow accounts or internally withheld by EQT and CNX.
The primary object of the ownership classes is to obtain the release of escrowed or suspended royalties. To that end, they seek a declaratory judgment that: (1) the ownership conflict EQT and CNX identified between gas estate owners and coal estate owners is “illusory”; (2) as gas estate owners, the class members are entitled to the CBM royalties withheld; and (3) any royalties held in escrow or internally suspended by EQT and CNX as a result of the “illusory” ownership conflict must be paid to the class members.
. . . .
The fifth class - Adkins - is unique, as it consists of persons whose CBM ownership interest is not disputed. Instead, the putative class includes persons who have received a royalty from EQT at some point since January 1, 1995. The Adkins plaintiffs allege that EQT has systematically underpaid CBM royalties. The four other classes make similar claims against the defendants. Each of the classes seek a complete ...

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