Leiter Minerals, Inc. v. United States

Decision Date03 March 1964
Docket NumberNo. 19963.,19963.
Citation329 F.2d 85
PartiesThe LEITER MINERALS, INC., Appellant, v. UNITED STATES of America et al., Appellees.
CourtU.S. Court of Appeals — Fifth Circuit

S. W. Plauche, Jr., Lake Charles, La., Tucker, Martin, Holder, Jeter & Jackson, John H. Tucker, Jr., H. M. Holder, Shreveport, La., Plauche & Plauche, Lake Charles, La., for The Leiter Minerals, Inc., defendant-appellant.

Eugene D. Saunders, New Orleans, La., H. M. Holder, Shreveport, La., Milling, Saal, Saunders, Benson & Woodward, Charles D. Marshall, New Orleans, La., for The California Co. and individual appellees.

Kathleen Ruddell, Asst. U. S. Atty., New Orleans, La., Ramsey Clark, Asst. Atty. Gen., Roger P. Marquis, Atty., Dept. of Justice, Washington, D. C., C. D. Marshall, Louis C. LaCour, U. S. Atty., New Orleans, La., for appellees.

Before RIVES and GEWIN, Circuit Judges, and SHEEHY, District Judge.

RIVES, Circuit Judge.

The question presented is the right to mine and remove oil, gas, and other minerals from about 8711 acres of land in Plaquemines Parish, Louisiana, a right worth many millions of dollars. The mineral right was established in a deed dated December 21, 1938 from Thomas Leiter conveying the lands to the United States, and reserving the right to the minerals as follows:

"The Vendor reserves from this sale the right to mine and remove, or to grant to others the right to mine and remove, all oil, gas and other valuable minerals which may be deposited in or under said lands, and to remove any oil, gas or other valuable minerals from the premises; the right to enter upon said lands at any time for the purpose of mining and removing said oil, gas and minerals, said right, subject to the conditions hereinafter set forth, to expire April 1, 1945, it being understood, however, that the vendors will pay to the United States of America, 5% of the gross proceeds received by them as royalties or otherwise from all oil or minerals so removed from in or under the aforedescribed lands, until such time as the vendors shall have paid to the United States of America, the sum of $25,000 being the purchase price paid by said United States of America for the aforedescribed properties.
"Provided, that if at the termination of the ten (10) year period of reservation, it is found that such minerals, oil and gas are being operated and have been operated for an average of at least 50 days per year during the preceding three (3) year period to commercial advantage, then, and in that event, the said right to mine shall be extended for a further period of five (5) years, but that the right so extended shall be limited to an area of twenty-five acres of land around each well or mine producing, and each well or mine being drilled or developed at time of first extension, to-wit: April 1, 1945.
"Provided, that this said right to mine as previously stated shall be further extended from time to time for periods of five (5) years whenever operation during the preceding five (5) year period has been for an average of 50 days per year during this period, and
"Provided that at the termination of the ten (10) year period of reservation, if not extended, or at the termination of any extended period in case the operation has not been carried on for the number of days stated, the right to mine shall terminate, and complete fee in the land become vested in the United States.
"The reservation of the oil and mineral rights herein made for the original period of ten (10) years and for any extended period or periods in accordance with the above provisions shall not be affected by any subsequent conveyance of all or any of the aforementioned properties by the United States of America, but said mineral rights shall, subject to the conditions above above (sic) set forth, remain vested in the vendors."

The appellant, Leiter Minerals, Inc., hereafter Leiter, is the successor in interest to the right reserved by Thomas Leiter, and bases its claim upon that reservation. It concedes that no minerals have ever been produced by either Thomas Leiter or any successor in interest to the right established by that reservation. The United States issued four oil and gas leases to Frank J. Lobrano and Allen Lobrano, who entered into operating agreements with The California Company, hereafter California. California completed the first producing well in January 1950. By May of 1954, 80 wells were producing, under which the royalty paid to the United States had then exceeded $3,500,000.00.

Under the terms of the reservation, it would be clear that the right to mine terminated and complete fee in the land became vested in the United States but for the possible operation on the mineral right of two Louisiana statutes. Act No. 151 of 1938, in existence at the date of the deed, provided:

"* * * That when real estate is acquired by the United States of America, the State of Louisiana, or any of its subdivisions, from any person, firm or corporation for use in any public work and/or improvement, and, by the act of acquisition, oil, gas and/or other minerals or royalties are reserved, prescription shall not run against such reservation of said oil, gas and/or other minerals or royalties."

That Act was repealed by Act 315 of 1940, LSA-R.S. 9:5806, which provides:

"* * * That when land is acquired by conventional deed or contract, condemnation or expropriation proceedings by the United States of America, or any of its subdivisions or agencies, from any person, firm or corporation, and by the act of acquisition, verdict or judgment, oil, gas, and/or other minerals or royalties are reserved, or the land so acquired is by the act of acquisition conveyed subject to a prior sale or reservation of oil, gas and/or other minerals or royalties, still in force and effect, said rights so reserved or previously sold shall be imprescriptible."

The ownership of the mineral right depends upon whether the mineral reservation provided for a contractual prescription for the conditional extinguishment of the mineral servitude which was rendered inoperative by the Louisiana statutes.

The first suit was filed in a Louisiana state court on August 13, 1953 by Leiter, against California and Allen L. Lobrano. The United States then filed in the federal district court the present action to quiet title, asserting its right to the minerals. The district court granted a preliminary injunction enjoining Leiter from prosecuting the state court action.1 This Court affirmed.2 On certiorari, the Supreme Court modified the judgment of this Court to permit an interpretation of the Louisiana statute involved to be sought with every expedition in the Louisiana courts, saying:

"The Government contends that Act No. 315 of 1940 does not apply when the parties themselves have contracted for a reservation of specific duration and that if the statute is construed to apply to this situation, it would impair the obligation of the Government\'s contract. Petitioner disagrees. The Supreme Court of Louisiana has never considered the specific issue or even discussed generally the rationale of the statute, especially with reference to problems of constitutionality. The District Court recognized the importance of the statute in deciding this case; it also recognized that a problem of interpretation was involved, that the statute cannot be read by him who runs. What are the situations to which the statute is applicable? Is the statute merely declaratory of prior Louisiana law? What are the problems that it was designed to meet? The answers to these questions are, or may be, relevant. Before attempting to answer them and to decide their relation to the issues in the case, we think it advisable to have an interpretation, if possible, of the state statute by the only court that can interpret the statute with finality, the Louisiana Supreme Court. The Louisiana declaratory judgment procedure appears available to secure such an interpretation, La.Rev.Stat., 1950, 13:4231 et seq., and the United States of course may appear to urge its interpretation of the statute. See Stanley v. Schwalby, 147 U.S. 508, 512-513 13 S.Ct. 418, 37 L.Ed. 259. It need hardly be added that the state courts in such a proceeding can decide definitively only questions of state law that are not subject to overriding federal law.
"We therefore modify the judgment of the Court of Appeals to permit an interpretation of the state statute to be sought with every expedition in the state court in conformity with this opinion."

Leiter Minerals, Inc. v. United States, 1957, 352 U.S. 220, 229, 230, 77 S.Ct. 287, 292, 293, 1 L.Ed.2d 267. The Louisiana courts rendered three published opinions, the last of which is presently of most importance.3 The Supreme Court of Louisiana summarized its advice to the federal courts as follows:

"To summarize in conclusion, it is our view, and we hold: First, that if the reservation in the Leiter deed is construed as establishing a mineral servitude for a definite, fixed, and specified time which has elapsed, then Act 315 of 1940 is not applicable and cannot be constitutionally applied; and second, that if the reservation is construed as not establishing a servitude for a fixed, definite and certain time, and if it is decided that the provisions of the reservation show that the parties were stipulating for a period of contractual prescription for the conditional extinguishment of the mineral servitude created, then Act 315 of 1940 is applicable and constitutional. The interpretation of the contract is for the United States courts."

Leiter Minerals, Inc. v. California Co., La.1961, 241 La. 915, 132 So.2d 845, 854, 855.

The federal district court then granted summary judgment in favor of the United States.4 This appeal is from that judgment.

The United States argues that the deed is explicit that under the admitted circumstances the right was "to expire" and "the right to mine shall terminate, and complete fee in the land become...

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