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
MISSISSIPPI POWER COMPANY
OF JUDGMENT: 02/09/2017
COUNTY CHANCERY COURT, HON. EDWARD C. FENWICK JUDGE.
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.
ATTORNEYS FOR APPELLEE: BEN H. STONE JONATHAN P. DYAL K.C.
HIGHTOWER BRYAN C. SAWYERS J. RICHARD BARRY.
RANDOLPH, CHIEF JUSTICE.
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.
AND PROCEEDINGS BELOW
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 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.
MPC also moved to transfer the circuit-court suit to chancery
court-the constitutional and traditional forum for such
disputes-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,  negligence, and breach of
fiduciary duty, were "ancillary to and contingent upon
first determining the title to the lignite . . . ."
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.
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.
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.
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.
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") 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.
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.
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.
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, §
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.").
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