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Plum Creek Timberlands, L.P. v. Yellow Poplar Lumber Co., Inc.

United States District Court, W.D. Virginia, Abingdon Division

November 10, 2016

PLUM CREEK TIMBERLANDS, L.P., ET AL., Plaintiffs,
v.
YELLOW POPLAR LUMBER COMPANY, INC.,, Defendants.

          Francis H. Casola and Erin Boyd Ashwell, Woods Rogers PLC, Roanoke, Virginia, Aaron B. Houchens, Stanley, Houchens & Griffith, Moneta, Virginia, and T. Shea Cook, T. Shea Cook, P.C., Richlands, Virginia, for Plaintiffs Plum Creek Timberlands, L.P., and Highland Resources, Inc.;

          Wade W. Massie and Seth M. Land, Penn, Stuart & Eskridge, Abingdon, Virginia, for Defendants Range Resources-Pine Mountain, Inc., Range Resources-Appalachia, LLC, EQT Production Company, and EQT Production Nora, LLC;

          J. Scott Sexton, Gregory D. Habeeb, Kathleen L. Wright, and Daniel R. Sullivan, Gentry Locke Rakes & Moore, LLP, Roanoke, Virginia, for Defendants Edwin F. Legard, Jr., ;

          R. Lucas Hobbs, Elliott Lawson & Minor, P.C., Bristol, Virginia, for Unknown Descendants, etc., of G.W. Charles,, and Other Parties Unknown; and John M. Lamie, Browning, Lamie & Gifford, P.C., Abingdon, Virginia, for Defendants John J. Horschel,, Guardian ad Litem for Unknown Successors in Interest to Yellow Poplar Lumber Company, Inc., and Trustee for Yellow Poplar Lumber Company, Inc.

          OPINION AND ORDER

          James P. Jones United States District Judge.

         This case involves a dispute over ownership of the gas estate in land located in this judicial district. The principal parties have moved for summary judgment, and their motions are now before me for decision. The plaintiffs, Plum Creek Timberlands, L.P. (“Plum Creek”) and its affiliate, Highland Resources, Inc. (which will be referred together as “Plum Creek/Highland”), have requested that summary judgment be entered in their favor and against the various defendants. The defendants, Range Resources-Pine Mountain, Inc., Range Resources-Appalachia, LLC, EQT Production Company, and EQT Production Nora, LLC (“Range/EQT”) have requested that summary judgment be entered in their favor and against both the plaintiffs and their codefendants. Finally, the defendants Edwin F. Legard, Jr., Elizabeth Anne Cox, Trustee of the Elizabeth Anne Cox Trust, William G. Baker, Jr., Trustee of the Emily P. Baker Generation Skipping Trust, Matthew and Michael Trivett, individually and as Trustees of the Trivett Family Trust, Donald A. McGlothlin, Jr., Leah McGlothlin, Kevin T. McGlothlin, Wayne Burton, Mary LePerla, and Joseph LaPerla (“Baker/Trivett/McGlothlin”) have moved for summary judgment in their favor and against the plaintiffs and their codefendants.[1]

         The parties agree that the gas estate in question was owned by a corporation named Yellow Poplar Lumber Company, Inc. (“Yellow Poplar”), which went bankrupt in 1928. The issue in this case is what became of that gas estate. There are at least four possibilities. Plum Creek/Highland claim that a 1929 deed from the bankruptcy trustee conveyed the gas estate to their predecessor in title. Range/EQT contend that the gas estate was conveyed prior to bankruptcy by deeds executed in 1921, 1924, and 1925 to Range/EQT's predecessor in title.[2]Baker/Trivett/McGlothlin argue that another deed from the bankruptcy trustee in 1930 conveyed the gas estate to their predecessor in title. Finally, it is possible that a certain portion of the gas estate remains an asset to be administered in the reopened bankruptcy case.

         The parties' interest in this case is exploitation of the natural gas underlying the land, particularly the natural gas known as coalbed methane, which resides in coal. Although it is connected to coal, coalbed methane gas is recognized in Virginia as a distinct property estate that can be severed and owned separately from other interests in the land. See EQT Prod. Co. v. Adair, 764 F.3d 347, 352-53 (4th Cir. 2014).

         Deciding these conflicting motions requires a careful review - in light of Virginia law - of the evidence submitted and a determination as to whether the dispute regarding ownership is susceptible to resolution on summary judgment.

         I. Procedural History.

         Plum Creek[3] initially filed suit in the Circuit Court of Buchanan County, Virginia, seeking ownership of the subject gas estate. The suit named the defunct Yellow Poplar as the only defendant. Yellow Poplar failed to answer the suit, and the court declared Plum Creek the owner of all property previously owned by Yellow Poplar in Buchanan County.

         When Range/EQT contested the validity of the court's order on the ground that they were not parties to the suit, Plum Creek obtained an order vacating the prior default judgment. Plum Creek then filed an Amended Complaint in state court against fifty-two different defendants, including Range/EQT and Baker/Trivett/McGlothlin. Range/EQT timely removed the case to the United States Bankruptcy Court for the Western District of Virginia. At the request of Plum Creek, this court withdrew reference from the bankruptcy court. See 28 U.S.C. § 157(d).[4]

         Thereafter, new parties were added and the present summary judgment motions were filed. However, before hearing argument on the motions, and in order to ensure that all necessary parties were before the court, I directed Plum Creek/Highland to seek to reopen the Yellow Poplar bankruptcy case in the District of South Carolina and add the bankruptcy trustee as a party to this action, since it had become evident that one possible resolution of the case is that the gas estate had never been conveyed by Yellow Poplar. The bankruptcy case was subsequently reopened and transferred to this court. Attorney John M. Lamie was appointed by this court as the substitute trustee for Yellow Poplar's estate.[5]

         The motions for summary judgment have now been fully briefed and argued and are ripe for decision.

         II. Factual Background and Claims of the Parties.

         The following facts are taken from the summary judgment record.

         The land in question is located in Buchanan and Dickenson counties in the mountains of southwest Virginia. In 1906, Excelsior Coal and Lumber Corporation deeded more than 22, 000 acres of land to Yellow Poplar (the “Excelsior deed”). Included within those 22, 000 acres were the three tracts of land at issue in this case, which the Excelsior deed identified as Tracts 4, 10, and 11.

         The Excelsior deed stated that Tract 4 was a 157-acre tract located in Dickenson County. Tract 10 was a 1, 000-acre surface tract located in Buchanan County, and Tract 11 was a 3, 877.5-acre mineral tract also located in Buchanan County. The entirety of Tract 10 overlays a portion of Tract 11.

         In conveying the tracts of land to Yellow Poplar, the Excelsior deed reserved for Excelsior all of the “oil, coal and other minerals, except stone, fire clay, gas and cement rock.” (ECF No. 331-1, p. 255.)[6] The parties thus agree that Excelsior conveyed the gas estate to Yellow Poplar. What happened next is in dispute.

         A. The G.B. Long and Big Sandy Conveyances.

         The conveyances that serve as the basis for the claim brought by Range/EQT begin with a 1921 deed by which Yellow Poplar conveyed to G.B. Long eight tracts of land in Buchanan and Dickenson counties (the “Long deed”). Two of these eight tracts were derived from the Excelsior deed. The Long deed did not convey any interest in Tracts 4, 10, or 11. However, the Long deed did contain the following language, stating that it

excepts and reserves from the operation of this conveyance and from all of the lands herein mentioned and conveyed, all of the coal, oil, gas, and other minerals, mining rights and easements, timber and timber rights, privileges and easements, and all other rights, privileges and easements, which are or have been reserved, excepted or contained in those certain instruments of conveyance to [Yellow Poplar] to which special reference is here made for a more particular description of said exceptions, reservations, rights, privileges and easements as follows:
1. Deed by the Excelsior Coal & Lumber Co. . . . to Yellow Poplar Lumber Co., dated January 5, 1906.[7]

         (ECF No. 331-6, p. 564.)

         In 1924 and 1925, Yellow Poplar conveyed certain tracts of land to Big Sandy Fuel Corporation (“Big Sandy”), Range/EQT's predecessor in interest. The 1924 deed generally described the land that was to be conveyed, and it indicated that a survey would be completed so that the land could be described with more specificity in a later deed. The 1924 deed also conveyed the rights to gas and certain other minerals from the land previously conveyed to Long, “together with all other property rights and ...


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