To arbitrate or not?

By Jeffrey K. Lewis, Esq., Program Coordinator Ohio State University Income Tax Schools & ANR Extension

One of the core principles of the American legal system is that people are free to enter into contracts and negotiate those terms as they see fit.  But sometimes the law prohibits certain rights from being “signed away.”  The interplay between state and federal law and the ability to contract freely can be a complex and overlapping web of regulations, laws, precedent, and even morals.  Recently, the Ohio Supreme Court ruled on a case that demonstrates the complex relationship between Ohio law and the ability of parties to negotiate certain terms within an oil and gas lease.  

The background  

Ascent Resources-Utica, L.L.C. (“Defendant”) acquired leases to the oil and gas rights of farmland located in Jefferson County, Ohio allowing it to physically occupy the land which included the right to explore the land for oil and gas, construct wells, erect telephone lines, powerlines, and pipelines, and to build roads.  The leases also had a primary and secondary term language that specified that the leases would terminate after five years unless a well is producing oil or gas or unless Defendant had commenced drilling operations within 90 days of the expiration of the five-year term. 

After five years had passed, the owners of the farmland in Jefferson County (“Plaintiffs”) filed a lawsuit for declaratory judgment asking the Jefferson County Court of Common Pleas to find that the oil and gas leases had expired because of Defendant’s failure to produce oil or gas or to commence drilling within 90 days.  Defendant counterclaimed that the leases had not expired because it had obtained permits to drill wells on the land and had begun constructing those wells before the expiration of the leases.  Defendant also moved to stay the lawsuit, asserting that arbitration was the proper mechanism to determine whether the leases had expired, not a court. 

What is arbitration and is it legal?  Arbitration is a method of resolving disputes, outside of the court system, in which two contracting parties agree to settle a dispute using an independent, impartial third party (the “arbitrator”).  Arbitration usually involves presenting evidence and arguments to the arbitrator, who will then decide how the dispute should be settled.  Arbitration can be a quicker, less burdensome method of resolving a dispute. Because of this, parties to a contract will often agree to forgo their right to sue in a court of law, and instead, abide by any arbitration decision.   

Ohio law also recognizes the rights of parties to agree to use arbitration, rather than a court, to settle a dispute.  Ohio Revised Code § 2711.01(A) provides that “[a] provision in any written contract, except as provided in [§ 2711.01(B)], to settle by arbitration . . . shall be valid, irrevocable, and enforceable, except upon grounds that exist at law or in equity for the revocation of any contract.”  What this means is that Ohio will enforce arbitration clauses contained within a contract, except in limited circumstances.  One of those limited circumstances arises in Ohio Revised Code § 2711.01(B).  § 2711.01(B)(1) provides that “[s]ections 2711.01 to 2711.16 . . . do not apply to controversies involving the title to or the possession of real estate . . .”  Because land and real estate are so precious, Ohio will not enforce an arbitration clause when the controversy involves the title to or possession of land or other real estate.  

To be or not to be?

After considering the above provisions of the Ohio Revised Code, the Jefferson County Court of Common Pleas denied Defendant’s request to stay the proceedings pending arbitration.  The Common Pleas Court concluded that Plaintiffs’ claims involved the title to or possession of land and therefore was exempt from arbitration under Ohio law.  However, the Seventh District Court of Appeals disagreed with the Jefferson County court.  The Seventh District reasoned that the controversy was not about title to land or possession of land, rather it was about the termination of a lease, and therefore should be subject to the arbitration provisions within the leases.   

The case eventually made its way to the Ohio Supreme Court, which was tasked with answering one single question: is an action seeking to determine that an oil and gas lease has expired by its own terms the type of controversy “involving the title to or the possession of real estate” so that the action is exempt from arbitration under Ohio Revised Code § 2711.01(B)(1)? 

The Ohio Supreme Court determined that yes, under Ohio law, an action seeking to determine whether an oil and gas lease has expired by its own terms is not subject to arbitration.  The Ohio Supreme Court reasoned that an oil and gas lease grants the lessee a property interest in the land and constitutes a title transaction because it affects title to real estate.  Additionally, the Ohio Supreme Court found that an oil and gas lease affects the possession of land because a lessee has a vested right to the possession of the land to the extent reasonably necessary to carry out the terms of the lease.  Lastly, the Ohio Supreme Court provided that if the conditions of the primary term or secondary term of an oil and gas lease are not met, then the lease terminates, and the property interest created by the oil and gas lease reverts back to the owner/lessor.  

In reaching its holding, the Ohio Supreme Court concluded that Plaintiffs’ lawsuit is exactly the type of controversy that involves the title to or the possession of real estate.  If Plaintiffs are successful, then it will quiet title to the farmland, remove the leases as encumbrances to the property, and restore the possession of the land to the Plaintiffs.  If Plaintiffs are unsuccessful, then title to the land will remain subject to the terms of the leases which affects the transferability of the land.  Additionally, the Ohio Supreme Court concluded that if Plaintiffs were unsuccessful then Defendant would have the continued right to possess and occupy the land.  Therefore, the Ohio Supreme Court found that Plaintiffs’ controversy regarding the termination of oil and gas leases is the type of controversy that is exempt from arbitration clauses under § 2711.01(B)(1). 

Conclusion  

Although Ohio recognizes the ability of parties to freely negotiate and enter into contracts, there are cases when the law will step in to override provisions of a contract.  The determination of title to and possession of real property is one of those instances.  Such a determination can have drastic and long-lasting effects on the property rights of individuals.  Therefore, as evidenced by this Ohio Supreme Court ruling, Ohio courts will not enforce an arbitration provision when the controversy is whether or not oil and gas leases have terminated. 

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