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Seventh District Court of Appeals holds Internet Search Not Required under Dormant Mineral Act (DMA)

Krugliak, Wilkins, Griffiths & Dougherty Co., L.P.A.

On October 26, 2020, in Crum v. Yoder, 2020-Ohio-5046, the Seventh District Court of Appeals (covering Belmont, Carroll, Columbiana, Harrison, Jefferson, Mahoning, Monroe and Noble counties) held that an internet search is not required when searching for heirs of a severed mineral interest.  In that case, Ernie Morris conveyed approximately 60 acres in Monroe County to himself and his wife, Louise I. Morris, “for their joint lives, remainder to the survivor thereof” in a quit-claim deed recorded on January 21, 1987. On July 25, 1990, Ernie and Louise I. Morris recorded a deed transferring the surface of the property with a clause stating: “Grantors except and reserve for theirselves and their heirs and assigns all oil and gas royalty, all oil and gas, together with all leasing rights.” The six grantees listed in the 1990 surface deed were Robert E. Morris, Sara Lallathin, Betty Crum, Byron Morris, Kenneth Morris, and Rodney Morris. The grantees were the children of Ernie and Louise Morris, but this was not specified in the deed.

In May 2011, the Yoders searched the names of Ernie and Louise Morris in the Monroe County deed records, lease records, preservation notice indexes, official records, and probate records.  No internet search was conducted.  Not finding any address for Ernie and Louise Morris, or their heirs, the Yoders published a notice of abandonment in the local newspaper, and after no timely response proceeded to have the interest abandoned of record. 

Subsequently, in 2018, the Morris heirs alleged the 2011 notice of abandonment was deficient because the Yoders did not attempt service by certified mail and did not engage in reasonable diligence in identifying heirs.   The Morris heirs noted that the reserving deed transferred the property to six grantees, four of whom had the same last name as the grantors (and the two with different last names were females). It was urged that a reasonable person would have researched these grantees to ascertain if they were the heirs of Ernie and Louise Morris. The Morris heirs also submitted the affidavit of a title examiner who said: she noticed how four of the six surface grantees shared the same last name as the grantors; she conducted a general internet search in 2016 on Google for Ernie and Louise Morris in Monroe County; and within minutes, she found their obituaries in the local newspaper which contained “the names and potential locations for their children, being those same individuals identified as grantees in the 1990 Deed.”

The Court noted the DMA shall be liberally construed to effect the legislative purpose of simplifying and facilitating land title transactions by allowing persons to rely on a record chain of title. The term “records,” by statute, includes “probate and other official public records, as well as records in the office of the recorder of the county in which all or part of the land is situated.” Regarding general online searches, the Court of Appeals noted that the information available on the internet is not always reliable and changes continually.  The availability of information may vary depending on the search engine used, the exact search terms employed, the use of quotation marks, and even the searcher's geographic location and past search history. Accordingly, the re-creation of a general internet search conducted years in the past is difficult. A search of the official public records does not engender these same difficulties.

Therefore, the Court of Appeals concluded the surface owners engaged in reasonable efforts by using the names of the record holders to search the public records of Monroe County. It is undisputed that no heirs were revealed by these searches. Further, the Court held a general internet search is not a mandate in determining the identity of the heirs of a record holder, and our position is not changed based on the last names of some of the surface grantees in the deed severing and retaining the minerals in favor of the grantor-record holders

NOTE: This general summary of the law should not be used to solve individual problems since slight changes in the fact situation may require a material variance in the applicable legal advice.

 
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