March 15, 2016 § Leave a comment
A 1979 deed included the language that “Grantee herein retains all mineral rights on said land and property.”
After Michael and Amy Ward had entered into a gas, oil, and mineral lease in 2007, they discovered to their chagrin that the royalties they had contracted for were not being paid to them, but rather to Carolyn Harrell, a successor in title to the grantor of the 1979 deed. The Wards were successors in title to the grantees.
The Wards filed suit to quiet and confirm and remove cloud from title, and to recover the payments made to Harrell. Harrell counterclaimed to remove cloud, and to cancel the Wards’ mineral lease.
At trial, the Wards argued that the 1979 deed must be construed according to its plain meaning. Harrell countered that the 1979 deed should be reformed to state that Grantor retains, due to mutual mistake and scrivener’s error. The chancellor applied the three-tiered rules of contract construction of an ambiguous instrument set out in Pursue Energy Corp. v. Perkins, 558 So.2d 349, 352-53 (Miss. 1990). The Wards appealed.
In Ward v. Harrell, handed down February 23, 2016, the COA affirmed the chancellor, holding that, although the trial court applied the wrong legal standard, it reached the correct result. Judge Lee writing for the court, distinguished between contract construction and reformation:
¶13. In reforming the 1979 warranty deed, it appears that the chancellor relied solely on Pursue Energy Corp. v. Perkins, 558 So. 2d 349 (Miss. 1990). In that case, our supreme court set out a three-tiered approach for construing and interpreting written instruments when an ambiguity exists. [Fn 5] Id. at 351-53.
[Fn 5] (1) The court is to look solely to the language contained within the “four corners” of the instrument; (2) if the language within the instrument’s “four corners” is ambiguous, the court applies the relevant canons of construction in a discretionary manner; and (3) if the intent of the parties is still unknown, the court looks to extrinsic evidence. Pursue Energy Corp. v. Perkins, 558 So. 2d 349, 352-53 (Miss. 1990).
¶14. However, contract construction, or interpretation, is distinguishable from contract reformation. Essentially, reformation is a remedy—the changing of words—to a contract- formation defense. In contrast, rules of construction, or interpretation, do not change the actual words of the contract but determine the meaning of those words.
¶15. Although an ambiguous deed may be reformed, [Fn 6] when a deed is unambiguous, “the party asserting reformation must prove (1) a mistake on the part of both parties; or (2) a mistake on the part of one party with fraud or inequitable conduct on the part of the other party; or (3) an error on the part of the scrivener.” In re Estate of Summerlin, 989 So. 2d 466, 480 (¶47) (Miss. Ct. App. 2008) (quoting Bacot v. Duby, 724 So. 2d 410, 417 (¶35) (Miss. Ct. App. 1998)). “Moreover, the mistake must be proven beyond a reasonable doubt.” Id.
[Fn 6] Estate of DeLoach v. DeLoach, 873 So. 2d 146, 150 (¶14) (Miss. Ct. App. 2004).
¶16. Here, we do not find the language at issue in the 1979 warranty deed to be ambiguous. See Cypress Springs LLC v. Charles Donald Pulpwood Inc., 161 So. 3d 1100, 1104 (¶13) (Miss. Ct. App. 2015) (finding an instrument is ambiguous if one or more terms or provisions are susceptible to more than one reasonable meaning). Therefore, the chancellor’s reliance on the standard set forth in Pursue Energy Corp. was erroneous. See 17A C.J.S. Contracts § 386 (2011) (The “[r]ules of construction may be used only where the language of the contract, or a portion of it, is ambiguous.”).
¶17. As such, we do not give deference to the chancellor’s findings of fact and conclusions of law. See Brooks [v. Brooks], 652 So. 2d [1113,] at 1118 [(Miss. 1995)]. Instead, we review the record de novo. See id.
The court went on to find that there was a scrivener’s error because only a grantor can make a reservation out of the estate granted (citing Thornhill v. Ford, 213 Miss. 49, 56 So.2d 23,29 (1952), and MCA 27-31-77.
The main things to take away here are that: (1) there are specific rules governing reformation of a deed; and (2) the burden of proof is beyond a reasonable doubt.