For seven years, Lisa Hobbs‘ clients Leon and Minerva Ramirez fought for their share of oil and gas royalties from their family’s ranch in South Texas owed by ConocoPhillips — money they desperately need.
After battling a corporate energy giant that threw every possible legal hurdle their way, Hobbs recently convinced San Antonio’s Fourth Court of Appeals that the brother and sister are entitled to $11.7 million in damages from ConocoPhillips.
The brother and sister are in their mid-60s and Leon is the caretaker for Minerva, who has Down syndrome and is in poor health.
The background to the Fourth Court’s decision in ConocoPhillips Co. v. Ramirez is as follows, according to the decision.
The dispute arises out of the family’s ownership in the mineral estate of a 1,058-acre tract of land known as the Las Piedras Ranch in Zapata County. ConocoPhillips owns several leases on the land, which has produced oil and gas since 1995.
Family matriarch Leonor Ramirez handed down the mineral interests to her sons, Leon Ramirez Sr. and Rodolfo, in her will upon her death in 1990. And Leon Sr. handed down his mineral interests to his children, including Leon Jr. and Minerva Ramirez, upon his death in 2006.
In 2010, Leon Jr. and Minerva discovered they had a mineral interest in the family ranch and filed a lawsuit against ConocoPhillips and Rodolfo Ramirez in a Zapata County district court. The brother and sister sought declarations that they owned a mineral interest in the family ranch and that they were entitled to their share of production from the leases.
Multiple summary judgement motions were filed over the course of four years, and the trial court ultimately denied ConocoPhillips their affirmative defenses of limitations, ratification and estoppel. The trial court granted judgment for Leon and Minerva in 2015, awarding them $3.7 million each for their share of production. That included $950,000 in prejudgment interest and $1.1 million in attorneys fees, for a total of $11.7 million.
ConocoPhillips appealed the trial court’s judgment to the Fourth Court on numerous appellate points, alleging the trial judge erred by not ruling that Leon and Minerva only had an interest in the surface rights to the land — not the more valuable mineral rights to oil and gas below.
“Based on the plain language of the face of the documents in the chain of title, we hold the trial court properly granted summary judgment for the grandchildren on their claim to the disputed ¼ mineral interest in Las Piedras Ranch, and properly denied summary judgment for ConocoPhillips on the issue of title,” wrote Justice Rebeca C. Martinez in a June 7 decision affirming the trial court’s award.
The decision is huge for Leon and Minerva, who live in Laredo and face constant financial troubles, Hobb said.
“Because Minerva has been incapacitated her whole life, this is money the family needs. This isn’t a wealthy family by any stretch of the imagination,” said Hobbs, a partner in Austin’s Kuhn Hobbs.
While the legal issues in the case were not challenging, the ConocoPhillips’s litigation and appellate posture of fighting at every turn was, Hobbs said.
“The heavy lift was ConocoPhillips digging in. They raised a ton of issues, many of which we believe are frivolous. And they delayed the case as much as they could,” Hobbs said. “They took it up on appeal over subject matter jurisdiction and they would move for summary judgment and a motion for reconsideration of summary judgment — at every procedural turn, they fought and fought and fought. And that’s why this case has drug on for seven years.”
Mike Powell, chair of Locke Lord’s energy litigation group who represents ConocoPhillips in the case, did not return a call for comment.
“Mike Powell is definitely a formidable opponent. Getting that opinion made for a very special Wednesday for me,” Hobbs said.
“We’re hopeful that ConocoPhillips will stop fighting and pay what is due to the Ramirez family,” Hobbs said. “But this week they filed a motion for extension to file a motion for rehearing and a motion for rehearing en banc.”