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Precht v. Columbia Gulf Transmission LLC

United States District Court, W.D. Louisiana, Lake Charles Division

July 24, 2019





         Before the court are Motions for Summary Judgment filed, respectively, by plaintiffs Flavia and Kelly Precht [doc. 37] and defendant Columbia Gulf Transmission, LLC ("Columbia") [doc. 35]. Both motions are opposed and are now ripe for review.

         I. Background

         This matter began as a suit for damages filed under state tort and contract law by the Prechts in the Fourteenth Judicial District Court, Calcasieu Parish, Louisiana. Doc. 1, att. 2. The Prechts claim to have a farming lease over three tracts of land owned by Stone Family, LLC ("Stone"), which began as a verbal agreement in 2014. Id. at ¶ 3; doc. 37, att. 3, ¶ 3. Stone acquired the property from Barbara Helms Stone in December 1999 and has maintained ownership since that time. Doc. 35, att. 3, ¶ 9; doc. 35, att. 4.

         In October 2014, while the Prechts allege their lease was already in existence, Stone entered into a Right of Way Agreement ("ROWA") with Columbia for the latter's installation of a natural gas pipeline through that land. Doc. 35, att. 5; see doc. 1, att. 2, ¶ 3. Through this agreement Stone granted Columbia a permanent servitude across the property, measuring approximately 50 feet wide by 4, 112 feet long, and an adjoining temporary servitude. Id; doc. 35, art. 3, ¶¶ 10-11. As part of the ROWA, which was recorded in Calcasieu Parish on January 8, 2015, Columbia promised to replace and restore the area disturbed by pipeline construction, repair, and maintenance, and "to pay for any damage to marketable timber, crops, approved fences (if any) and approved tile drains (if any) that is caused by the activities conducted pursuant to this Agreement." Doc. 35, art. 5, p. 2; doc. 35, art. 3, ¶¶ 12-14. The Prechts' lease had not been recorded by the time the ROWA was recorded or executed. See doc. 35, art. 8, p. 1. A written lease was eventually signed by the Prechts and Bobby Welch in January 2017, but there is no evidence that it was ever recorded. See doc. 38, art. 8, pp. 57-59.

         On the same date it executed the ROWA, in October 2014, Stone also signed a Release of All Claims against Columbia. Doc. 35, art. 3, ¶ 15. In exchange for the sum of $216, 800, it provided, it agreed to release

[Columbia], its successors, assigns, affiliates, contractors, agents and employees, of and from any and all claims . . . whatsoever which [Stone] now has or may hereafter have against them, arising out of, or in any way associated with, the laying, construction, maintaining, repairing and operating of pipelines and related facilities constructed across [Stone's property] . . . pursuant to [the ROWA], and specifically including, but not limited to, claims for damages necessarily resulting from the construction and operation of pipelines, which specifically include but are not limited to, (1) any and all liability for severance damages; (2) interference with the operations or use of the property by, [Stone], his lessee(s), and permittee(s); and (3) damage or destruction of any and all vegetation, including trees and growing crops, located within the permanent and temporary servitudes granted under the [ROWA].

Doc. 35, art. 6; see doc. 35, art. 7 (proof of Stone's acceptance of payment).

         Columbia became aware of the Prechts' agricultural operations on the land by at least October 2016, when its agent met with plaintiff Kelly Precht about the project's impact on the latter's rice farming plans.[1] See doc. 43, art. 2, p. 10. Construction of the pipeline and restoration of the surrounding area lasted from December 2016 to May 5, 2018. Doc. 35, att. 3, ¶¶ 18-20. The Prechts then filed this suit against Columbia on May 18, 2018, seeking equitable and monetary relief under the ROWA and in tort based on damages Columbia allegedly caused to their farming operations. Doc. 1, att. 2.

         Columbia removed the suit to this court on the basis of diversity jurisdiction, 28 U.S.C. § 1332. Doc. 1. The parties then filed cross-motions for summary judgment. Columbia asserts that the Prechts' claims are barred by the terms of the release, the ROWA, and their lack of ownership interest in the crops. Doc. 35, att. 1. The Prechts, meanwhile, maintain that the release is a nullity, that Columbia is responsible for damages to their farming operations, and that they are entitled to recover as third party beneficiaries to the ROWA. Doc. 37, att. 2. Both motions are opposed.

         II. Summary Judgment Standard

         A court should grant a motion for summary judgment when the movant shows "that there is no genuine dispute as to any material fact and the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law." Fed.R.Civ.P. 56. The party moving for summary judgment is initially responsible for identifying portions of pleadings and discovery that show the lack of a genuine issue of material fact. Tubacex, Inc. v. M/VRisan, 45 F.3d 951, 954 (5th Cir. 1995). The court must deny the motion for summary judgment if the movant fails to meet this burden. Id.

         If the movant makes this showing, however, the burden shifts to the non-moving party to "set forth specific facts showing that there is a genuine issue for trial." Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 248 (1986) (quotations omitted). This requires more than mere allegations or denials of the adverse party's pleadings. Instead, the nonmovant must submit "significant probative evidence" in support of his claim. State Farm Life Ins. Co. v. Gutterman, 896 F.2d 116, 118 (5th Cir. 1990). "If the evidence is merely colorable, or is not significantly probative, summary judgment may be granted." Anderson, 477 U.S. at 249 (citations omitted).

         A court may not make credibility determinations or weigh the evidence in ruling on a motion for summary judgment. Reeves v. Sanderson Plumbing Prods., Inc.,530 U.S. 133, 150 (2000). The court is also required to view all evidence in the light most favorable to the non-moving party and draw all reasonable inferences in that party's favor. Clift v. Clift,210 F.3d 268, 270 (5th Cir. 2000). Under this standard, a genuine issue of material fact exists if a ...

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