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Defense Win: Kirkland Attorneys Swat Down $100M Claim

Partners Ragan Naresh, Anna RotmanKenneth Young and Grace Brier and associates Orla O’Callaghan, Dustin Womack, Cassidy Viser and Ben Schroeder were recognized for their recent win for client EQT Corp. in a federal jury trial alleging mineral trespassing. Partners Dan Donovan and Alexandra Russell and associate James Robinson were also highlighted for the representation of codefendant Gulfport Energy Corp.  

A Kirkland & Ellis team from Houston helped secure a major defense verdict in an Ohio federal court for energy companies based in Oklahoma and Pennsylvania.

In a two-week jury trial, large Ohio landowners claimed Pittsburgh-based EQT Corp. and Oklahoma City-based Gulfport Energy Corp. trespassed their property by drilling wells and converting natural gas without permission.

The landowners sought more than $100 million in the case at trial.

There are also a series of similar mineral trespass claims in state and federal court, and prior to this trial plaintiffs sought class certification in a related case where Kirkland was able to get a ruling denying class certification, according to court records.

According to the defendants’ trial brief, Gulfport and EQT claimed the landowners entered into oil and gas leases that permitted drilling and production from their property.

An eight-person jury heard testimony from 15 witnesses, including EQT chief executive officer Toby Rice, Gulfport Energy senior vice president Lester Zitkus, plaintiff landowners, geologists and petroleum engineers.

The trial and related cases involve the Utica Shale boom that began in the early 2010s and still produces today.

According to the plaintiffs’ trial brief, the primary issue was the legal interpretation of the oil and gas lease as to the lessee’s right to drill into and produce oil and gas from the Point Pleasant Formation, which the plaintiffs alleged was adjacent to, but distinct from the Utica Shale.

“The central dispute, which the jury will decide at trial, is whether the language ‘formation commonly known as the … Utica Shale’ in the subject leases includes the Point Pleasant Formation,” the plaintiffs’ brief stated.

Plaintiffs were represented by Craig J. Wilson of C.J. Wilson Law, and legal teams with Shuman, McCuskey & Slicer and Thornburg Bean & Glick.

Plaintiff attorneys Wilson and Elizabeth Glick did not respond to requests for comment.

The defendants’ trial brief, drafted by John Kevin West and John C. Ferrell of Steptoe & Johnson in Columbus, Ohio, asserted in rebuttal the plaintiffs were well aware of the Point Pleasant Formation when the original lease was signed, yet never made an issue of it during those extensive negotiations.

Later, when the lease was revised, the plaintiffs kept the lease form’s disputed reservation language, the defense brief states.

The defense brief went on to remind the court the plaintiffs’ case has been falling apart since the beginning. At summary judgment, the court dismissed “the greater part” of plaintiffs’ breach of contract claim, and plaintiffs subsequently dismissed the rest of that claim.

The court also dismissed many of plaintiffs’ trespass claims as applied to specific plots because they failed to support the physical invasion element; and the court granted summary judgment in part in favor of defendants on the Rule of Capture, which is a rule of non-liability for being the first party to capture a natural resource.

“Further, even before summary judgment, Plaintiffs settled their claims against Gulfport Energy during Gulfport’s bankruptcy proceedings. During Gulfport’s bankruptcy, Plaintiffs filed proofs of claim asserting the same trespass, conversion and unjust enrichment claims they assert against Gulfport in this case,” the defense brief said.

That settlement, the defense continued, barred plaintiffs from asserting any claims to events prior to May 17, 2021.

The jury never got past the first section of the six-page verdict and damages form. On the first question of whether plaintiffs reserved their rights to the Point Pleasant Formation, the jury said no.

The EQT team was led by Kirkland’s Ragan Naresh of Wash., D.C. and Anna Rotman of the Houston office. The EQT team also included Houston-based Kirkland attorneys Kenneth Young, Orla O’Callaghan, Dustin Womack, Cassidy Viser, Ben Schroeder and Grace Brier.

The Gulfport Energy team was by led Kirkland attorney Dan Donovan and included partner Alexandra Russell and associate James Robinson, all from Wash., D.C.

West and Ferrell represented both defendants.