247 Longoria v. ExxonMobil Corp.

Thursday, September 3rd, 2015

Richard F. Brown

 
The following is not a legal opinion. You should consult your attorney if the case may be of significance to you.
 
Longoria v. ExxonMobil Corp., 255 S.W.3d 174 (Tex. App.—San Antonio 2008, pet. denied) reviews party joinder issues in the context of trespass to try title and declaratory judgment claims. The claims were based on adverse possession prior to the severance of the surface and mineral estates. Longoria and forty-one other plaintiffs claimed an interest in 9,200 acres based on the adverse possession of the tract by Jose M. Longoria, his brother and sister-in-law beginning in 1898. The underlying dispute involved an alleged fraudulent deed in 1919 and a 1924 partition suit which did not name the Longorias as parties. The Longoria plaintiffs originally claimed an undivided one-half interest in the surface and the minerals in the entire 9,200 acres. Longoria sued in trespass to try title and for a declaratory judgment against eleven oil and gas companies, which leased over 6,200 acres, and Lopez, who was unleased and owned approximately 1,016 acres in fee. Longoria did not sue the surface owner, the other unleased mineral owners, the royalty owners, the non-participating royalty owners, or the owners of the possibility of reverter under the oil and gas leases.
 
There was a protracted fight over joinder and various motions to dismiss and amendments to the pleadings. The trial court eventually dismissed the case without prejudice because of the Longorias’ “failure to join absent mineral owners.” After considering the application of Rule 39 of the Texas Rules of Civil Procedure and the discretion given to the trial court as to matters of joinder and in determining dismissals, the court of appeals affirmed.
 
The trial court’s discretion is governed by Rule 39:
 
Rule 39(a) provides that a person who is subject to service of process shall be joined as a party to an action if (1) his presence is needed to adjudicate the dispute and accord complete relief to those already parties; (2) his ability to protect his interests may be impaired or impeded if he is absent; or (3) his absence leaves one already a party subject to a substantial risk of multiple or inconsistent obligations.
 
Although expressed in mandatory terms, it is left to the trial court to determine whether an absent person falls within the Rule. Rule 39 is applicable to both trespass to try title and declaratory judgment claims.
 
In their attempt to avoid dismissal, the Longorias amended their pleadings to claim that joinder of additional parties was not required. They made no claim to the surface estate, and they claimed only those minerals owned and possessed by parties who were named as defendants. Royalty, non-participating royalty, and the possibility of reverter are each non- possessory interests. The Longorias claimed that they were unleased cotenants and stipulated they would be burdened by the royalties otherwise payable by the named defendant oil and gas company lessees. The Longorias argued that the possibility of reverter had no real ascertainable value and that the unjoined mineral owners would not be prejudiced by a judgment which was not binding on them. In other words, the Longorias narrowed their claim to the leasehold interest of the named defendant oil companies and the fee mineral interest of Lopez.
 
The court held that “the fact an absent person does not have title to or possession of the minerals to which the Longorias seek title is not dispositive if the relief the Longorias seek could impair the person’s ability to protect any interests he claims.” The court emphasized that a person must be joined if, as a practical matter, the disposition might impair or impede his ability to protect that interest. The court noted that a judgment in this case could “impair the absent lessors’ ability to convey the royalty interest and possibilities of reverter they claim to own,” and a declaration that the 1924 judgment was void, “even if not technically binding on the absent lessors, royalty interest owners, and owners of the unleased mineral estate, would cloud their title.”
 
The Longorias relied heavily on the two supreme court cases of Brooks v. Northglen Ass’n and Clear Lake City Water Auth. v. Clear Lake Utilities Co. to support their claim that the trial court abused its discretion. The court of appeals rejected that argument and distinguished the supreme court cases cited as limited to whether it was fundamental error for the trial court to proceed without the absent parties in those cases. The defendants in those supreme court cases failed to raise the issue of joinder in the trial court, so the issue on appeal was not judicial discretion under Rule 39, but lack of jurisdiction based on fundamental error. Although the trial court was not deprived of jurisdiction in those cases, the trial court could be required to join those same parties, if the issue was timely raised under Rule 39 in the trial court. “When, as here, the necessity of joining additional parties has been raised in the trial court,” the fact that the decree would not be technically binding on the absent party is not the controlling factor.” “When the trial court determines a person falls within the provisions of Rule 39(a) and is subject to service of process, he must be joined.”
 
Because the Longorias were given the opportunity to join the additional parties, but made no attempt to do so, the court held Rule 39(b) was not applicable. Rule 39(b) only governs the analysis of trial court’s discretion in proceeding when parties cannot be joined. Here, there was nothing in the record to show that the absent parties could not be joined.
 
The case is significant because it carefully analyzes the narrow grounds upon which the failure to join parties was not reversible error in the supreme court opinions. It is authority for the premise that all owners should be joined in trespass to try title and declaratory judgment actions affecting title. However, the trial court’s discretion is very broad, and that discretion may produce different results on similar facts. In applying Rule 39(a) “there is no arbitrary standard or precise formula for determining whether a particular person falls within its provisions.”