Petro-Hunt LLC v. USA ( 2007 )


Menu:
  •      IN THE UNITED STATES COURT OF APPEALS
                  FOR THE FIFTH CIRCUIT    United States Court of Appeals
                                                    Fifth Circuit
                 ______________________          FILED
                                                            March 6, 2007
                        No. 06-30095
                   ______________________               Charles R. Fulbruge III
                                                                Clerk
    PETRO-HUNT, L.L.C.; HUNT PETROLEUM CORPORATION;
            and KINGFISHER RESOURCES, INC.,
    
                                      Plaintiffs-Appellants,
    
                              versus
    
                  UNITED STATES OF AMERICA,
     ASPECT RESOURCES, L.L.C.; BAYOU PETROLEUM CO.;
          FIRST TEXAS HYDROCARBONS, INC.; OSCAR C.
      FORLAND; GULF COAST OIL & GAS CO.; JUSTISS OIL
         CO. INC.; MB EXPLORATION, L.L.C; NORTHSTAR
    ENERGY, L.L.C.;PALMER PETROLEUM, INC.; HOWELL R.
       SPEAR; JOHN P. STRANG; OCEAN ENERGY RESOURCES
        INC., formerly known as UMC Petroleum Corp.;
       WHELESS T.D.L. EXPLORATION CO., L.L.C.; DEVON
      S.F.S. OPERATING INC., formerly known as Santa
        Fe Snyder Corp.; J. BRADLEY JEFFREYS; ENERGY
                 ARROW EXPLORATION L.L.C.,
    
                                       Defendants-Appellees.
    
    ________________________________________________
    
      Appeal from the United States District Court
          for the Western District of Louisiana
    ________________________________________________
    
    
    
                                                                       1
    Before SMITH, BARKSDALE, and DENNIS, Circuit
    Judges.
    
    PER CURIAM:*
    
          Plaintiffs Petro-Hunt, L.L.C.; Hunt Petroleum
    
    Corp.;         and      Kingfisher        Resources,         Inc.
    
    (collectively, “Petro-Hunt”) brought this suit in
    
    order to quiet title to 95                 Louisiana mineral
    
    servitudes         claimed   by   the    United   States.       The
    
    servitudes are related to 180,000 acres of surface
    
    land acquired by the United States in the late
    
    1930s       for    incorporation        into   the     Kisatchie
    
    National Forest. The case now comes before us on
    
    its       second   appeal.   See   Petro-Hunt,         L.L.C.   v.
    
    United States, 
    365 F.3d 385
     (5th Cir. 2004). Our
    
    prior opinion lays out the extensive factual and
    
    procedural         history   behind     the    case.    On   this
    
    appeal, Petro-Hunt argues that the district court
    
          *
          Pursuant to 5th Cir. R. 47.5, the court has determined
    that this opinion should not be published and is not precedent
    except under the limited circumstances set forth in 5th Cir. R.
    47.5.4.
    
                                                                      2
    erred on remand by denying a motion for trial;
    
    failing that, Petro-Hunt argues that the court’s
    
    prior mandate is clearly erroneous and should be
    
    withdrawn. For the reasons below, we AFFIRM.
    
          The central issue behind the suit is whether
    
    Louisiana Act 315, which passed subsequent to the
    
    acquisition     at   issue    in    this   case,   operates
    
    retroactively to render the mineral servitudes
    
    imprescriptible, such that they may never revert
    
    to the United States through non-use. The lands to
    
    which these servitudes relate were acquired by the
    
    United States at the same time as the 800 acres of
    
    land and the single mineral servitude at issue in
    
    our earlier decision in United States v. Nebo Oil,
    
    
    190 F.2d 1003
       (5th    Cir.   1951).   For   present
    
    purposes, it is enough to note that the earlier
    
    Petro-Hunt appeal determined that the Nebo Oil
    
    decision did not quiet title to anything beyond
    
    
                                                              3
    the 800 acres of land and the single mineral
    
    servitude at issue in that case and that therefore
    
    Nebo Oil did not, through either res judicata or
    
    collateral estoppel, bar the present suit. See
    
    Petro-Hunt, 365 F.3d at 396-97.
    
       Having reached that determination, the panel
    
    then looked to the Supreme Court’s decision in
    
    United States v. Little Lake Misere Land Co., 
    412 U.S. 580
       (1973),   and   this    court’s   subsequent
    
    decision in Central Pines Land Co. v. United
    
    States, 
    274 F.3d 881
     (5th Cir. 2001). Following
    
    that   precedent,      the   first     Petro-Hunt     panel
    
    determined     that    federal       law   governed    the
    
    choice-of-law decision presented by the facts of
    
    this case and that Act 315 could not be used as
    
    the federal rule of decision because it is hostile
    
    to the federal interest at stake. Petro-Hunt, 365
    
    F.3d at 399. Accordingly, the panel found that
    
    
                                                              4
    "the 95 servitudes that were not at issue in Nebo
    
    Oil are subject to the contractual provisions
    
    permitting prescription after ten years’ nonuse”
    
    and remanded the case “so that the district court
    
    can    determine   which   servitudes   have   in   fact
    
    prescribed." Id.
    
          On remand, Petro-Hunt filed a motion for trial
    
    on the question of whether Act 315 was "hostile to
    
    the government" and therefore could not be applied
    
    to the facts of this case - in other words,
    
    whether the 95 servitudes in this case are subject
    
    to the rule of prescription. The district court
    
    denied the motion for trial, citing the mandate in
    
    the first appeal for the proposition that the
    
    "only issue to be determined is which of the ‘95
    
    servitudes that were not at issue in Nebo Oil’
    
    have in fact prescribed for nonuse." The parties
    
    then stipulated that five of the servitudes -
    
    
                                                           5
    constituting approximately 109,844.5 acres - still
    
    exist through use and that the remainder had
    
    prescribed.     The   district     court    entered     final
    
    judgment   based      on   this   stipulation,      granting
    
    Petro-Hunt's     earlier      alternative      motion      for
    
    summary judgment. The judgment declared the five
    
    extant servitudes to be in "full force and effect"
    
    and declared any leases on lands burdened by those
    
    servitudes to be "null and void." On appeal,
    
    Petro-Hunt      argues     that    the     district     court
    
    overstepped its bounds by denying the motion for
    
    trial; failing that, Petro-Hunt argues that the
    
    court’s prior mandate is clearly erroneous and
    
    should be withdrawn. We find no merit in either
    
    assertion.
    
       Petro-Hunt’s first argument is that the prior
    
    panel’s statement regarding the applicability of
    
    Little   Lake    Misere    and    Central   Pines     to   the
    
    
                                                                 6
    present case constituted dicta, since only the
    
    questions of res judicata and collateral estoppel
    
    were raised before either the district court or
    
    the circuit panel during the first appeal. This
    
    court, however, has decided issues "on which the
    
    lower court has had no occasion to rule," in
    
    situations when "the issue before [the court] is
    
    a purely legal one." Cont’l Sav. Ass'n v. U.S.
    
    Fid. & Guar. Co., 
    752 F.2d 1239
    , 1244 n.4 (5th
    
    Cir. 1985). Such rulings are "most efficient to
    
    dispose of [an] issue promptly, thus truncating
    
    the subsequent development of [a] case." Id. Where
    
    deciding   the    issue     "require[s]     no     further
    
    factfinding by the district court and . . . ha[s]
    
    been   briefed   by   the   parties   in   trial   briefs
    
    included in the record," such action by the court
    
    "promotes the finality of litigation, consistent
    
    with the goal that "the federal system aims at a
    
    
                                                             7
    single judgment and a single appeal." Harris v.
    
    Sentry Title Co., 
    806 F.2d 1278
    , 1280 n.1 (5th
    
    Cir. 1987) (per curiam) (citing 1B JAMES WM. MOORE ET
    
    AL.,   MOORE'S FEDERAL PRACTICE ¶ 0.404[10] (1984)).
    
           [T]his Court often addresses issues for
           the guidance of the parties and the
           district court on remand. It cannot be
           said that such considered statements
           should be dismissed as dictum simply
           because the Court was not absolutely
           required to raise and address such an
           issue. Such statements constitute the
           "professed deliberate determinations of
           the [court]" and, when done in this
           fashion, may not be summarily dismissed as
           dictum. See BLACK'S LAW DICTIONARY 409 (5th
           ed. 1979).
    
    Harris, 806 F.2d at 1280 n.1.
    
           We find that the earlier panel offered just
    
    such a deliberate, considered statement in ruling
    
    on the choice-of-law issue. The district court
    
    could not, therefore, have properly disregarded
    
    the     panel’s   explicit   directions   regarding    the
    
    scope of the remand and acted properly in limiting
    
    
                                                             8
    its review in accordance with those instructions.
    
    See Briggs v. Penn. R.R. Co., 
    334 U.S. 304
     (1948);
    
    Harris, 806 F.2d at 1280 n.1.
    
       With regard to Petro-Hunt’s second argument -
    
    that the prior mandate of this court is clearly
    
    erroneous and should be withdrawn - we begin by
    
    noting the well-established rule that one panel
    
    within this circuit may not overrule the opinion
    
    of another. Ryals v. Estelle, 
    661 F.2d 904
     (5th
    
    Cir. 1981); United States v. Henry, 
    727 F.2d 1373
    
    (5th Cir. 1984). Furthermore, the law-of-the-case
    
    doctrine forbids us from re-examining issues of
    
    law or fact decided in a prior appeal. See United
    
    States v. Becerra, 
    155 F.3d 740
    , 752 (5th Cir.
    
    1998).   There   are   three   exceptions   to   this
    
    doctrine: we may re-examine an earlier decision
    
    only when (1) substantially different evidence is
    
    presented; (2) there is a change in controlling
    
    
                                                        9
    legal authority; or (3) “the decision was clearly
    
    erroneous and would work a manifest injustice.”
    
    Id.; see also White v. Murtha, 
    377 F.2d 428
     (5th
    
    Cir. 1967). “Mere doubts or disagreement about the
    
    wisdom of a prior disagreement . . . will not
    
    suffice.” Hopwood v. State of Texas, 
    236 F.3d 256
    ,
    
    272 (5th Cir. 2000). Petro-Hunt relies on the
    
    third of these narrow exceptions, but in support
    
    only reasserts the arguments raised before this
    
    court   during     the   first   appeal.   We   are   not
    
    persuaded that the prior panel decision results in
    
    such    manifest    injustice    as   to   warrant    the
    
    exception, and we therefore decline to apply the
    
    exception and revisit the earlier decision.
    
       The district court properly limited the scope
    
    of its remand in accordance with the earlier panel
    
    instructions, and Petro-Hunt has not shown that
    
    the earlier decision on appeal is so clearly
    
    
                                                           10
    erroneous as to work a manifest injustice. We
    
    therefore AFFIRM the district court’s ruling.
    
    
    
    
                                                    11