Sonda v. West Virginia Oil & Gas Conservation Commission, No. 22-2271 (4th Cir. 2024)Annotate this Case
In the case before the United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit, plaintiffs Scott Sonda and Brian Corwin, both mineral rights owners in West Virginia, challenged Senate Bill 694, which amended the State's oil and gas conservation law to permit the unitization of interests in horizontal well drilling units, even for nonconsenting mineral rights owners. The plaintiffs claimed that this law constituted a taking of their property and deprived them of property without due process, in violation of the Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments of the U.S. Constitution. The West Virginia Oil and Gas Conservation Commission filed a motion to dismiss, asserting that the plaintiffs lacked standing, that the Commission was immune under the Eleventh Amendment, and that the complaint failed to state a claim upon which relief could be granted.
However, the district court abstained from ruling on the federal constitutional claims, citing the Pullman abstention doctrine, and ordered the proceeding stayed pending the outcome of a state court action that the plaintiffs may file. The Commission appealed the district court's abstention order.
The Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals reversed the district court's order and remanded for further proceedings, noting that the district court had erred by applying the Pullman abstention doctrine without first ensuring it had jurisdiction. The court directed the district court to first address the Commission's argument challenging the plaintiffs' Article III standing. The court did not express an opinion about the merits of the standing issue or any others before the district court.