Searching over 5,500,000 cases.


searching
Buy This Entire Record For $7.95

Download the entire decision to receive the complete text, official citation,
docket number, dissents and concurrences, and footnotes for this case.

Learn more about what you receive with purchase of this case.

Barham v. Mississippi Power Co.

Supreme Court of Mississippi, En Banc

March 28, 2019

JOHN M. BARHAM, JR., MARSHA B. PRICE, GREGORY P. BRADY, WILLIAM J. ROSS, JAMES E. GUNN a/k/a ED GUNN AND DOUGLAS J. GUNN
v.
MISSISSIPPI POWER COMPANY

          DATE OF JUDGMENT: 02/09/2017

          KEMPER COUNTY CHANCERY COURT, HON. EDWARD C. FENWICK JUDGE.

          TRIAL COURT ATTORNEYS: WILLIAM F. BLAIR ERIC LEE PATTERSON BEN HARRY STONE JONATHAN PAUL DYAL KARL CRAWFORD HIGHTOWER J. RICHARD BARRY HENRY PALMER.

          ATTORNEYS FOR APPELLANTS: ERIC LEE PATTERSON WILLIAM F. BLAIR.

          ATTORNEYS FOR APPELLEE: BEN H. STONE JONATHAN P. DYAL K.C. HIGHTOWER BRYAN C. SAWYERS J. RICHARD BARRY.

          RANDOLPH, CHIEF JUSTICE.

         ¶1. Our role, as a court of errors and appeals, is to determine whether any reversible error occurred in the court whence came the appeal. Today, two orders from separate courts are at issue. The orders were authored by two learned trial judges-one chancery, one circuit. Although our review is de novo, the applicable law is neither new nor novel. Because neither trial court failed to follow controlling law, we affirm.

         FACTS AND PROCEEDINGS BELOW

         ¶2. Barham, et al. ("the families"), filed suit in the Circuit Court of Kemper County, seeking, inter alia, a declaratory judgment that they owned lignite under a Mississippi Power Company ("MPC") plant built on land MPC had purchased, a fact not disputed by any party. One month later, MPC filed suit to confirm and quiet title to its property and further asserted that lignite could only be removed economically by surface mining, a fact not disputed by any party. MPC asked to enjoin all defendants[1] from asserting any right, title, or interest to the lignite. Alternatively, MPC asked for a declaratory judgment that lignite removal would deplete and destroy the surface of its land, rendering it unusable, a fact not disputed by any party.[2]

         ¶3. MPC also moved to transfer the circuit-court suit to chancery court-the constitutional and traditional forum for such disputes[3]-because the families and MPC both sought to be declared owners of the lignite. The circuit court found the suit to be one "to confirm and quiet title to mineral estate owners and the surface estate owners, which is a determination of real property interests." The circuit court found the families' other counts, i.e., breach of duty of due regard, breach of duty of good faith and fair dealing, inverse condemnation, [4] negligence, and breach of fiduciary duty, were "ancillary to and contingent upon first determining the title to the lignite . . . ."

         ¶4. The circuit court found that

In this case, there is no doubt that the ultimate issue will be the determination of the rights of the mineral holders, which affects the real property upon which Mississippi Power is constructing its plant. A suit to confirm and quiet title has been filed, albeit after the filing date of this action, which has brought in all parties with potential claims to the lignite at issue. All of those parties have been served with process and are properly with the jurisdiction of the Kemper County Chancery Court. This Court is of the opinion that regardless of the timing of filing the complaint in this Court and the action in the chancery court, the issues involved are issues that would under ordinary circumstances be taken up by a chancery court.

         The circuit court granted MPC's motion to transfer to the chancery court, finding that

The Court is of the opinion that at the core of this litigation is a determination of ownership of the lignite in the subject property, which will require an interpretation of the terms contained within the deeds conveying the property wherein the reservations of parts of the mineral estate were made. As such, the Court finds this matter involves fundamental questions involving title to interests in real property which are more appropriately heard in a court of equity; and therefore, this cause should be transferred to the Chancery Court of Kemper County.

         ¶5. After the case was transferred to chancery court, the parties acceded to the jurisdictional authority of the chancery court to resolve their disputes and agreed to consolidate the cases. The chancellor realigned the parties.

The Barham-Gunn Suit and the MPC Suit involve common questions of law or fact, as both suits involve the question as to ownership of the lignite at issue. In the interest of judicial economy, and to save time and effort of the Court and parties, the Barham-Gunn Suit and the MPC Suit should be and are hereby consolidated. . . . In the consolidated action, the Barham-Gunn Families shall proceed at trial, if necessary, as the Plaintiffs and shall have the right to first present their case-in-chief.

         ¶6. Subsequently, MPC and the families filed motions for summary judgment in the chancery court, each claiming that no material facts were in dispute and that they were entitled to their requested relief. The parties agreed that MPC owned fee-simple title to the surface, that MPC began construction of the plant without authorization from or payment to the families, that the families were prevented from surface mining by MPC, and that lignite could only be removed economically by surface mining.

         ¶7. MPC argued that it was entitled to judgment as a matter of law on three separate bases. In reverse order, the Surface Coal Mining and Reclamation of Land Act ("Surface Mining Act")[5] deprived the families of the right to mine the lignite deposits. And then, because the families remained silent while MPC made substantial improvements on the property, the families were equitably estopped from claiming ownership of the lignite. Alternatively, as the surface owner, MPC owned the lignite as a matter of law.

         ¶8. The families offered that they owned the lignite in, on, and under the subject property, that MPC wrongfully covered up their minerals without just compensation, and that the Surface Mining Act did not apply because the families were not applicants for a permit. However, the families failed to offer any proof and no evidence is in the record that they were prohibited from offering any proof about the value a willing buyer would pay with the restriction in place.

         ¶9. The chancellor denied summary judgment as to MPC's ownership and equitable- estoppel claims, finding each issue fact driven. The chancellor granted summary judgment as to MPC's claim that the Surface Mining Act deprived the families of the right to mine the lignite deposits.

         ANALYSIS

         ¶10. This Court reviews motions to transfer de novo. Issaquena Warren Ctys. Land Co., LLC v. Warren Cty., 996 So.2d 747, 749 (Miss. 2008). The circuit court did not err in granting MPC's motion to transfer this suit to the chancery court, because it involved a title dispute. Under our Constitution, statutory law, and precedent, jurisdiction of suits involving title questions lies with the chancery court. See Miss. Const. art. 6, § 160[6]; Miss. Code Ann. §§ 11-17-29 (Rev. 2004) (the chancery court has jurisdiction for actions to confirm, quiet, clear, or remove cloud on title); and Graves v. Dudley Maples, L.P., 950 So.2d 1017, 1022 (Miss. 2007) ("However, no justifiable basis exists for arguing that a chancery court does not have jurisdiction over matters involving property. Such authority is conferred by our constitution, history, and precedent.").

         ¶11. In reviewing the chancellor's grant and denial of MPC's summary-judgment motion, we also apply a de novo standard of review. Hosemann v. Harris, 163 So.3d 263, 267 (Miss. 2015). The chancellor rightfully denied summary judgment as to MPC's ownership and equitable-estoppel claims, finding each issue fact driven. Determination of ownership of the lignite would require review of the language of the grant or reservation, the surrounding circumstances, and the intention of the parties. See Cole v. McDonald, 236 Miss. 168, 109 So.2d 628, 635 (1959). The chancellor determined that "[t]he factors of 'intention of parties' and ...


Buy This Entire Record For $7.95

Download the entire decision to receive the complete text, official citation,
docket number, dissents and concurrences, and footnotes for this case.

Learn more about what you receive with purchase of this case.