Along with a much-needed economic boom, the recent shale frenzy in northwestern Louisiana has brought the typical controversy. Accidents and spills have raised environmental concerns and caused some to question whether the new jobs are safe. For one Caddo Parish couple, however, the shale boom has brought a very unique set of concerns—from whom should one accept legal advice?
Chesapeake Louisiana, L.P. held a mineral lease on the Stockmans’ property which was set to expire on July 14, 2008. The Stockmans desired to continue leasing the property, so in April they signed an extension of the lease. A month later, they were solicited by an agent of Petrohawk Properties, L.P., a competing mineral producer. The Stockmans informed the Petrohawk agent that they had already leased the property to Chesapeake. This, however, did not deter the Petrohawk agent.
The Petrohawk agent explained that “Louisiana is a race state” and “if Petrohawk recorded its lease first, the Chesapeake extension would be invalid.” It is true that in a “race” state, the first party to the courthouse to record the lease is said to have put the entire world on notice of the lease. That party’s lease then takes precedence over any subsequent lease on that property, even if the subsequent lease was signed first. While this may seem silly at first, the “race” concept reflects a basic preference the law makes for certainty. Recording provides a far more objective measure by which parties may determine priority and, indeed, this entire dispute could have been avoided if Chesapeake had simply recorded its extension immediately after signing.
On the other hand, while this statement may have been loosely true with respect to Petrohawk, it was highly misleading with respect to the Stockmans. Although the Petrohawk lease, if filed first, would trump the Chesapeake lease, it would nevertheless render the Stockmans liable for breach of the Chesapeake lease, in violation of the most fundamental principle of property law—that one may not sell what he does not own.
Unfortunately, tempted by the prospect of higher lease payments, the Stockmans took Petrohawk’s misguided advice without professional legal counsel. Instead Mr. Stockman only confirmed that Louisiana was indeed a “race” state and spoke with his neighbor, a geologist. His neighbor advised him to strike the warranty of title from the Petrohawk lease, an act which did nothing to relieve the Stockmans of their duties to Chesapeake. Upon learning of the Petrohawk lease, Chesapeake immediately slapped the Stockmans with a breach of contract suit.
Undoubtedly furious over having been lied to, the Stockmans filed a claim against Petrohawk for fraud. In Louisiana, a fraud claim has three elements: first, a “misrepresentation, suppression, or omission of true information”; second, the “intent to obtain an unjust advantage or cause damage or inconvenience to another”; and third, “that the error induced by the fraudulent act relates to a circumstance that substantially influenced the victim’s consent to the contract.”
The Stockmans claim rested on the notion that Petrohawk told them a half-truth. In stating that Petrohawk’s winning the race to the courthouse would “invalidate” the Chesapeake lease, Petrohawk assumed a duty to disclose to the Stockmans the rest of the truth. By only telling the Stockmans as much as they did, however, Petrohawk led them to believe they would not be in breach of their existing contract. This omission, the court held, amounted to fraud.
While the Stockmans eventually got out of their legal problems, they only did so at the expense of considerable time and resources. Real property law presents many complications and pitfalls for the ordinary layperson, the nuances of which should be explained by competent legal counsel. Avoid the hassle.
If you find yourself confronted with this situation, contact the Berniard Law Firm and obtain professional legal advice before signing.