» 2019 » August

Texas Supreme Court rejects plaintiff’s breach-of-contract claim in unambiguous oil and gas farmout agreement

In Barrow-Shaver Resources Co. v. Carrizo Oil & Gas, Inc., on June 28, 2019, the state’s high court issued an opinion in a Texas breach-of-contract case involving a farmout agreement. Generally, a farmout agreement is one in which a party that owns rights to drill for oil on a property agrees to allow another entity to drill on the property in exchange for defined rights. While the underlying claim arose in the context of a dispute involving Texas oil and gas law, the court ultimately resolved the case by applying fundamental contract law.

According to the court’s opinion, the plaintiff was a company that engaged in oil and gas drilling, and the defendant was a current leaseholder of a tract of land. The parties entered into an agreement whereby the plaintiff would drill on the leasehold property. Among other terms included in the contract was a consent-to-assign term, which is the focus of this appeal.

Initially, the contract provided that, “The rights provided to [the plaintiff] under this Letter Agreement may not be assigned, subleased or otherwise transferred in whole or in part, without the express written consent of [the defendant] which consent shall not be unreasonably withheld.” However, the agent for the defendant later submitted a revised draft of the contract, eliminating the phrase “which consent shall not be unreasonably withheld.”

The plaintiff took issue with the removal of this phrase, and was verbally reassured by the defendant that, even without the term in the contract, consent would not be withheld. Ultimately, the final version of the contract provided that, “The rights provided to [the plaintiff] under this Letter Agreement may not be assigned, subleased or otherwise transferred in whole or in part, without the express written consent of [the defendant].”

The plaintiff spent $22 million drilling wells, but was unsuccessful in establishing production. At that time, another company approached the plaintiff interested in purchasing the plaintiff’s drilling rights. The plaintiff negotiated an agreement with the company, and submitted the agreement to stakeholders, all of which approved the assignment of the plaintiff’s rights except for the defendant. As a result of the defendant’s refusal to consent to the assignment, the deal fell through. The plaintiff then sued the defendant for breach-of-contract, fraud and tortious interference.

The Court’s Decision

Ultimately, the court rejected each of the plaintiff’s claims against the defendant, first discussing the breach-of-contract claim. The court explained that when a contract is unambiguous, interpretation of the agreement is a matter of law which is to be resolved by a judge. Despite the plaintiff’s arguments to the contrary, the court concluded that the contract was unambiguous because it provided an unqualified right for the defendant to refuse to consent to the assignment of the plaintiff’s drilling rights. In so holding, the court rejected the plaintiff’s request to read in an implied requirement of good faith, noting that Texas contract law imposes no such duty.

The court then discussed the plaintiff’s fraud claim, holding that the plaintiff could not rely on the defendant’s oral assurances that consent would not be withheld and therefore, the defendant was not liable for fraud. The court noted that it is a basic principle of contract law that “a written contract vitiates any oral promises.” Here, the court explained that regardless of what the defendant may have told the plaintiff during contract negotiations, the only relevant agreement between the parties was the written document. The court went on to hold that because there was no limitation included in the contract regarding the defendant’s ability to withhold consent, the plaintiff’s fraud claim must fail.

Are You Involved in a Texas Oil and Gas Dispute?

Texas oil and gas law can be exceedingly complex. The Law Offices of Gregory D. Jordan helps individuals and businesses effectively navigate the legal system to resolve their claims efficiently and practically. Through his Austin oil and gas practice, Attorney Jordan confidently serves clients throughout the State of Texas, including those involved in the Eagle Ford Shale and in the Permian Basin, and he has been doing so since 1989.

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