On January 27, 2015, in Sisson v. Stanley, No. 1347 MDA 2013, the Pennsylvania Superior Court affirmed the Court of Common Pleas of Susquehanna County, which granted judgment on the pleadings in favor of defendant heir against plaintiff surface owners.
Plaintiffs Donald R. Sisson and Mary Sisson had been approached by oil and gas operators interested in leasing the oil and gas under their land. The oil and gas operator informed them that their title to the oil and gas was clouded by a prior deed to a predecessor in their chain of title which reserved the oil and gas to Joseph Stanley.
The Sissons filed a quiet title action against Joseph Stanley, and his heirs, successors, and assigns. They also filed a motion and affidavit to obtain permission to give notice to the defendants by publication, rather than by serving them with a copy of the complaint. The affidavit by their attorney attested that he had conducted a search for defendants, and had searched the county recorder of deeds office, local telephone books, and unnamed internet sites. The trial court granted the motion, and the plaintiffs published notice of the pending action in a local newspaper. When no one filed a response to the complaint default judgment was entered on July 12, 2010.
The Superior Court reversed the trial court holding that the affidavit pursuant to which notice by publication was permitted was facially defective.
On November 9, 2010, Rita Stanley Lupold, sister to Joseph Stanley, filed a petition to open the judgment, alleging the trial court lacked jurisdiction to enter the judgment because notice to her was defective. The trial court granted her petition and subsequently entered judgment on the pleadings in her favor, holding that no viable legal theory supported the Sissons’ claim to the oil and gas.
On appeal, the Superior Court held the affidavit from Sisson’s counsel was facially deficient because the Sissons failed to check the records of the register of wills, which would have revealed that Joseph Stanley had twelve siblings. The court dryly remarked that “counsel apparently did not consider that some or all of Joseph M. Stanley’s heirs could have moved since 1953” (the year in which Stanley transferred ownership of the property to the plaintiffs’ predecessor in title subject to a reservation of the oil and gas). The court also cited the Sissons’ failures to check local obituary records and to specify which internet sites were checked.
Additionally, the court rejected the Sissons’ argument that the reservation of “all of the oil and gas” in the 1953 deed did not include gas in the Marcellus Shale.
Judge Donohue filed a dissent, arguing that the evidentiary record on notice was insufficient, and that the consequence of the decision is that “a potential heir or assign may, at any point in the future without limitation, come forward and file a petition to open the judgment.”
This decision re-emphasizes the importance of conducting a diligent search for any missing defendants in quiet title actions, and a careful review of the notices in quiet title actions before relying upon them, especially when the legal basis for the quiet title claim may be suspect.