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Murphy Land Group, LLC v. Atmos Energy Corp.

Court of Appeals of Texas, Twelfth District, Tyler

April 17, 2019

MURPHY LAND GROUP, LLC, APPELLANT
v.
ATMOS ENERGY CORPORATION, APPELLEE

          Appeal from the 3rd District Court of Houston County, Texas (Tr.Ct.No. 16-0099)

          Panel consisted of Worthen, C.J., Hoyle, J., and Neeley, J.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION

          GREG NEELEY JUSTICE

         Murphy Land Group, LLC appeals the trial court's order granting summary judgment in favor of Atmos Energy Corporation. Murphy Land raises two issues on appeal. We affirm.

         Background

         Murphy Land owns forty-eight acres of land in Houston County, Texas. The property is burdened by three pipeline easements.[1] In pertinent part, these express easements grant Lone Star Gas Company and its successors and assigns the "right of way and easement to construct, maintain, and operate pipe lines and appurtenances thereto" along with "ingress to and egress from the premises, for the purpose of constructing, inspecting, repairing, maintaining, and replacing the property of [Lone Star and its successors] . . . ." Lone Star constructed three pipelines on the property pursuant to the easements: Line SU in 1953 at Navarro Crossing; Line L8AEA in 1955; and Line CT-990 in 1964 (collectively, the "pipelines"). Atmos Energy is the successor-in-interest to Lone Star Gas Company's rights under the easements. Lone Star and its successor Atmos Energy have continuously operated the pipelines since their inception.

         On May 2, 2012, Murphy Land and Atmos Energy executed a "Roadway Lease." The Roadway Lease granted to Atmos Energy "the right of way and easement to construct and maintain a roadway forty feet (40') in width, on a route to be selected by [Atmos Energy], together with the right in said [Atmos Energy] to free and uninterrupted use, liberty, privilege and easement in, on and over said roadway to extend on, over, through and across [Murphy Land's 48 acre tract]." The Roadway Lease expired under its own terms on May 1, 2015.

         Murphy Land believed that the pipeline easements merged into the Roadway Lease when the parties executed the lease on May 2, 2012, and therefore those easements ceased to exist as independent interests in the land. Consequently, according to Murphy Land, once the Roadway Lease expired on May 1, 2015, any entry on the land by Atmos Energy was unlawful. Moreover, on March 21, 2016, Atmos Energy commenced a temporary "pigging" operation, which is a form of pipeline maintenance, and Atmos Energy utilized a "gas flaring" technique as part of its pigging operation on the property. Murphy Land believed that this procedure was unauthorized.

         Accordingly, Murphy Land filed a declaratory judgment suit alleging that Atmos Energy had no right to access Murphy Land's property. Murphy Land sought to recover damages for Atmos Energy's unlawful trespass and use of the property, injunctive relief enjoining Atmos Energy's entry thereon and any gas flaring maintenance pigging procedures, along with attorney's fees. Atmos Energy filed a traditional and no-evidence motion for summary judgment. The trial court granted the motion, ordered that Murphy Land take nothing against Atmos Energy, and dismissed its claims. This appeal followed.

         Summary Judgment - Merger Doctrine

         In its first issue, Murphy Land argues that the three pipeline easements ceased to exist when the parties executed the Roadway Lease under the "merger doctrine," and that Atmos Energy's entrance onto the property after the Roadway Lease expired constituted trespass.

         Standard of Review

         We review a summary judgment de novo. Travelers Ins. Co. v. Joachim, 315 S.W.3d 860, 862 (Tex. 2010). A movant for traditional summary judgment has the burden of showing there is no genuine issue of material fact and it is entitled to judgment as a matter of law. Tex.R.Civ.P. 166a(c); Nixon v. Mr. Prop. Mgmt. Co., 690 S.W.2d 546, 548-49 (Tex. 1985). Rule 166a provides a method of summarily terminating a case when it clearly appears that only a question of law is involved and that there is no genuine fact issue. Rhone-Poulenc, Inc. v. Steel, 997 S.W.2d 217, 222 (Tex. 1999). A defendant-movant who conclusively negates at least one essential element of a plaintiff's cause of action is entitled to summary judgment on that claim. Frost Nat'l Bank v. Fernandez, 315 S.W.3d 494, 508 (Tex. 2010).

         A no-evidence motion for summary judgment must show that no evidence exists of one or more essential elements of a claim on which the adverse party bears the burden of proof at trial. Tex.R.Civ.P. 166a(i); Timpte Indus., Inc. v. Gish, 286 S.W.3d 306, 310 (Tex. 2009). Once the motion is filed, the burden shifts to the nonmovant to produce evidence raising a genuine issue of material fact on the elements specified in the motion. Tex.R.Civ.P. 166a(i); Mack Trucks, Inc. v. Tamez, 206 S.W.3d 572, 582 (Tex. 2006).

         A fact issue exists, precluding summary judgment, if there is more than a scintilla of probative evidence to support each element of the plaintiff's claim. Neely v. Wilson, 418 S.W.3d 52, 59 (Tex. 2013). Evidence is more than a scintilla if it rises to a level that would enable reasonable and fair-minded people to differ in their conclusions. Serv. Corp. Int'l v. Guerra, 348 S.W.3d 221, 228 (Tex. 2011). Evidence is less than a scintilla if it is so weak as to do no more than ...


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