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Manning v. WPX Energy Appalachia, LLC

United States District Court, M.D. Pennsylvania

June 30, 2015

TAMMY MANNING, et al., Plaintiffs,
v.
WPX ENERGY APPALACHIA, LLC, et al., Defendants.

MEMORANDUM

A. RICHARD CAPUTO, UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE

Presently before the Court is a Motion for Partial Summary Judgment filed by Defendants WPX Energy Inc., the Williams Companies, Inc., and WPX Energy Appalachia, LLC. (Doc. 83.) Plaintiffs’ Third Amended Complaint (Doc. 41) contains six (6) counts, and Defendants seek summary judgment on Counts I, IV, and VI, claims for intentional trespass in Count V, and all claims by Plaintiffs Bryanne Burton, Amanda Grondin, and Robert Lee, Jr. In response to the Motion for Summary Judgment, Plaintiffs withdrew their claims under Count I, Count IV, and Count VI, and stated that they do not claim intentional trespass, only negligent trespass. (Doc. 89, 6.) Thus, the Summary Judgment Motion remains pending only with respect to Plaintiffs Grondin, Burton, and Lee.

Because Plaintiffs have withdrawn these claims, the Motion for Summary Judgment will be denied as moot with respect to Counts I, IV and VI of Plaintiffs’ Third Amended Complaint (Doc. 41). Because Plaintiffs do not assert intentional trespass, Defendants’ Motion will be denied as moot to the extent that it seeks summary judgment on intentional trespass. Because Plaintiffs Grondin and Burton do not oppose summary judgment, their claims will be deemed abandoned, and Defendants’ Partial Motion for Summary Judgment will be granted with respect to the claims of Plaintiffs Grondin, Burton, and their minor children. Because Plaintiff Lee retains the deed to the allegedly damaged property, as well as legal title, and may in the future regain equitable title, he has potentially suffered an injury and summary judgment will be denied with respect to the claims of Plaintiff Lee.

I. Background

A. Factual Background[1]

The plaintiffs in the underlying action are seven (7) adults and three (3) minor children. (Doc. 41, 3-4.) For the purposes of the instant motion (Doc. 83), only facts that relate to Plaintiff Robert Lee, Jr. and his property are pertinent. Plaintiff Lee is an adult who resided at all relevant times in Washington Crossing, Pennsylvania. (Doc. 41, ¶ 9.) Plaintiff Lee owned property located at 20784 State Road 29, Montrose, Pennsylvania (“State Road 29 property”). (Doc. 85, ¶ 1.) Defendants are WPX Energy Inc., the Williams Companies, Inc., and WPX Energy Appalachia, LLC, which all have their principal place of business at One Williams Center, Tulsa, Oklahoma. (Doc. 41., 5.) Defendants own, operate and conduct exploration of natural gas wells. (Id., 6.) Plaintiffs allege that their property and drinking water were contaminated as a result of the defendants’ natural gas operations.

1. Agreements between the Mannings and Plaintiff Lee

In October 2010, Plaintiff Lee entered into a “Lease with Purchase Option” agreement with Plaintiffs Tammy and Matthew Manning (“the Mannings”) to sell his State Road 29 property. (Doc. 85, ¶ 2; Tammy Manning Dep. 46:9, October 8, 2014.) Pursuant to this agreement, the Mannings paid Plaintiff Lee $800 in rent every month, and an additional $400 every month toward purchasing the property. (Id., 47:4-10.) The purchase price was $110, 000, and the down payment was $5, 000. The Mannings would only begin purchasing the property once the sum of the monthly $400 payments totaled $5, 000. (Id., 48:12-24.) In November 2010, the Mannings moved into Plaintiff Lee’s property on State Road 29 in Montrose. (Id., 46:21-23.)

On June 12, 2012, Plaintiff Lee, along with his wife (“the Lees”), and the Mannings signed an agreement to sell the property to the Mannings. (Doc. 85, ¶ 3; Doc. 86-1, Ex. A, 19.) The Mannings agreed to pay $110, 000 for the property, in monthly installments of $886.05 over the course of fifteen (15) years. (Id.) According to the agreement, attached as an exhibit to the Motion for Summary Judgment, the deed of conveyance was to be made, executed, and delivered once the whole purchase price was paid. (Doc. 86-1, 19.) On June 12, 2012, the Lees entered into a separate agreement with the Mannings, attached to the Motion as an exhibit. (Id., 15.) This agreement recognized that “there is currently a problem with the well water on said real estate allegedly caused by the gas industry, and the parties are involved in a lawsuit against the gas company.” (Id.) The agreement had three (3) central provisions: First, the Mannings (identified in the agreement as the “Buyers”) would release the Lees (identified as the “Sellers”) from all liability stemming from the quality of well water on the property. (Id.) Second, “in the event the parties hereto receive any monies” from this action, “Buyers will pay the outstanding balance of the parties’ land contract from said monies. Any monies received from said lawsuit over and above the remaining balance . . . shall be the sole property of Buyers.” (Id.) Finally, the Agreement stated that: “However, in the event Buyers should abandon the premises or default on said land contract to the point where Sellers take possession of said real estate, then and in that event, Buyers shall have no interest in the monies from said lawsuit and said monies shall be the sole property of Sellers.” (Id.) This agreement forms the basis of Defendants’ Motion for Summary Judgment on Plaintiff Lee’s claims.

2. Alleged Contamination

Plaintiffs allege that their property and drinking water were contaminated as a result of Defendants’ natural gas operations at two sites beginning in December 2011. Both sites were permitted by the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (“DEP”). (Doc. 85, ¶¶ 28, 31.) One site, the “Hollenbeck wells, ” consists of four (4) natural gas wells, and is located approximately 4, 000 feet from the State Road 29 property. (Id., ¶¶ 27, 29.) The other site, known as the “Depue wells, ” also consists of four (4) natural gas wells, and is located approximately 7, 000 feet from the State Road 29 property. (Id., ¶¶ 30, 32.)

In December 2011, the Mannings allegedly began to notice problems with their water, specifically that it was grey and their well was spouting. (Id., ¶ 5; Manning Dep. 93:8-13.) The DEP began an investigation. (Id., ¶ 6.) Defendant WPX provided the Mannings with an alternate water supply in the form of a water storage tank and water to fill it. (Id.) The Mannings also purchased bottled water, and had water delivered from a neighbor’s hydrant that came from the town’s water. (Manning Dep. 250:15-252:5.) In April 2013, the DEP concluded its investigation, and WPX stopped providing water to the tank. (Doc. 85, ¶¶ 7-8.)

B. Procedural Background

Plaintiffs initiated this action on April 9, 2012 by filing a Complaint (Doc. 1), which they amended on May 3 (Doc. 2) and May 7 (Doc. 7). On June 28, Defendants filed an Answer (Doc. 10). On August 13, 2013, I issued the first Case Management Order, since ...


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