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BNSF Railway Co. v. Chevron Midcontinent, L.P.

Court of Appeals of Texas, Eighth District, El Paso

March 22, 2017

BNSF RAILWAY COMPANY, Appellant,
v.
CHEVRON MIDCONTINENT, L.P.; ROBERT BENSON JONES; RHETT D. BENTLEY; MARCH RANCH, L.L.C.; PONDEROSA ROYALTY, L.L.C.; MARQUERITE COX STELL BARTLETT; BARBARA STELL PRUNITY; WILLIAM H. GOODE IV; ANDREW A. GOODE; SUSAN L. SMITH; GAYLE FRANCIS WHIPKEY NELSON; AMY SMALLWOOD; MARY SMALLWOOD; CAROLINE DELAMATRE; EDITH SMALLWOOD LEDONNE; MARGARET GREENE BLADINE; and, BROWN ROYALTIES, Appellees.

         Appeal from the 112th District Court of Upton County, Texas (TC# 14-07-U4369-OTH)

          Before McClure, C.J., Rodriguez, and Palafox, JJ.

          OPINION

          YVONNE T. RODRIGUEZ, Justice

         He who owns the soil owns everything from the heights of Heaven down to the depths of Hell-or so the old Latin maxim goes.[1] If only Texas land law was that simple.

         After learning that the defendants (collectively "Chevron") struck oil underneath railroad tracks in Upton County, Texas, BNSF Railway Company sued for trespass to try title, arguing that a 1903 deed granted to BNSF's predecessor gave the company not just a right of way easement, but the entire strip of land described in the deed-from Heaven to Hell-in fee simple absolute. Chevron countered that the 1903 Deed only granted BNSF the right to pass trains over that strip of land; what lay beneath the train-tracks was free and clear of BNSF's interest and had been properly leased to Chevron by a separate deed. On cross-motions for summary judgment, the trial court sided with Chevron. BNSF appealed.

         We must decide whether by virtue of the 1903 Deed, BNSF controls both the surface and mineral estates or whether it merely holds an easement over the surface estate. After reading the deed, we find that the trial court correctly determined that BNSF holds only an easement over the land. The judgment of the trial court is affirmed.[2]

         BACKGROUND

         On October 21, 1903, W.H.C. Goode, for one dollar and "the benefits which will accrue . . . by reason of the construction of a line of railroad over the land hereinafter described[, ]" signed a deed in Ohio conveying an interest in his Texas land to the Panhandle & Gulf Railway Company. What exactly that interest was is in dispute. The 1903 Deed begins by stating:

WITNESSETH, That the said party of the first [Goode], for and in consideration of One Dollar . . . and of the benefits which will accrue to the party of the first part by reason of the construction of a line of railroad over the land hereinafter described . . . has GRANTED, BARGAINED, SOLD and RELINQUISHED, and by these presents does GRANT, BARGAIN, SELL, RELINQUISH and CONVEY unto the said party of the second part [Panhandle], and unto its successors and assigns, for a right of way, that certain strip of land hereinafter described, as the same has been finally located over, through or across the following tracts of land situated in Upton County in the State of Texas . . . .[3]

         The deed then describes a line traced by surveyors across various plots of land and between various train stations. Using this line as a reference point, the 1903 Deed continues to describe the width of the "right of way:"

The said railway right of way being 100 feet wide on each side of the center line thereof except [for certain sections where the right of way varies between 50 feet and 150 feet] . . . Said railway right of way containing an area of 28 and 55/100 acres. Together with the right and privilege of taking and using all of the wood, water, stone, timber and other materials on said strip of land, or appertaining thereto, which may be useful or convenient in the construction and maintenance of said railway or any part thereof.
The 1903 Deed concludes with the following habendum clause:[4]
TO HAVE AND TO HOLD the said premises, together with all appurtenances thereunto belonging, in fee simple, unto the said part of the second part [Panhandle] its successors and assigns forever.

SDISCUSSION

         For a right of way, that certain strip of land.

         At issue here is what exactly that phrase means in the 1903 Deed's granting clause, particularly in light of other clashing deed provisions that, on one hand, suggest that BNSF as assignee holds a "certain strip of land . . . in fee simple . . . forever, " and, on the other hand, imply that the 1903 Deed conveys only a right-of-way easement over a strip of land, not the land itself. We read deeds as one cohesive document, and do not cherry-pick phrases and read them in isolation, but rather harmonize conflicting provisions to the best extent possible. Neither side argues that this deed is ambiguous; both argue that the deed is clear, and that it militates in their favor. But are both parties wrong? Can these apparently contradictory provisions actually be harmonized, or is this deed ambiguous on its face?

         Standard of Review and Textual Interpretation Principles

         Summary judgment is an appropriate disposition where there is no genuine issue of material fact and a party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law. Tex.R.Civ.P. 166a(c). When the parties file dueling cross-motions for summary judgment in the court below, this Court may render whatever judgment the trial court ...


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