In a case involving a “richly ambiguous” 1903 deed and a mining company’s claims to “all the coals,” the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed a District Court’s judgment for defendant landowners.
At issue in American Land Holdings of Indiana, LLC, et al. v. Stanley Jobe, et al., and William Boyd Alexander, Nos. 09-3151 and 09-3265, was whether the affiliates of Peabody Energy Corp. could strip mine 62 acres of farmland in Sullivan County on which there are farmhouses and other buildings. Peabody already was strip mining all of the land around these 62 acres. According to a 1903 deed, Peabody could mine “all the coals” on those acres and could damage 5 acres of that land without having to pay for the damage. The deed said no coal could be removed from under any dwelling on the land. The deed also said it could acquire the portions of the surface for $30 an acre, but removal of the surface for purposes unrelated to underground mining isn’t authorized, unless it is under “all the coals.”
Peabody wants the land because it believes there is $50 million worth of coal under the 62 acres. It claims if it can’t strip mine the land, then it will lose out on a lot of coal.
The District Court deemed the 1903 deed ambiguous when referring to “all the coals” and strip mining the land, and it used extrinsic evidence to rule in favor of the defendants. In 1903, there was no strip mining in Sullivan County and the method hadn’t even started until 1904 with the construction of the Panama Canal. Strip mining didn’t come to Sullivan County until around the 1920s. That’s why the judge ruled that “all the coals” only refers to underground mining, a common practice in effect at the time the deed was executed.
The 7th Circuit agreed the deed was ambiguous and that it didn’t include strip mining. The Circuit Court also disagreed with Peabody’s argument that the deed gave it the option to buy the land for $30 an acre.
“The deed we have said permits the purchase of the surface only as may be necessary for mining operations underground. The grant of that option is the grant of an appurtenant right that Peabody can exercise at any time,” wrote Judge Richard Posner. “If the right were not appurtenant to Peabody’s (limited) mining right – if it were a right to build a ferris wheel on the defendants’ land – then it would be subject to the rule against perpetuities. But it is not a right to strip the surface.”
Peabody wants to get the land for the original $30 an acre, but with $50 million worth of coal under the land, it will have to pay the defendants a good deal more, the Circuit Court concluded.
“Because strip mining is a more valuable use of the defendants’ land than farming and home occupying, our decision will not prevent the land from being put to its most valuable use, which is indeed for strip mining,” wrote Judge Richard Posner. “It will simply affect the terms on which Peabody acquires the right to strip mine the land.”
The judges also denied William Boyd Alexander’s cross appeal because he is seeking to defend the judgment on alternative grounds to the District judge’s decision.