Bob Downing

A Portage County drilling company has sued two Akron attorneys and two Akron law firms for defamation, tortuous interference and conspiracy.

Named in the lawsuit filed by Beck Energy Corp. of Ravenna are attorneys Richard V. Zurz Jr. and Mark A. Ropchock and their firm, Slater and Zurz LLP. Also named defendants are the firm Roetzel and Andress LPA.

The suit, filed Thursday in Summit County Common Pleas Court, also named attorney James W. Peters and the Peters Law Office Co. LPA in Woodsfield in Monroe County in southeast Ohio.

It also named up to five John or Jane Does.

The suit seeks a temporary restraining order and permanent injunction against the defendants and seeks damages in excess of $25,000 plus punitive damages and attorneys’ fees.

At the center of the legal battle are 30-year-old leases that landowners in Ohio’s Monroe County and Beck Energy signed to develop vertical-only wells into the shallow Clinton sandstone for natural gas. The landowners received $50 an acre. Most of the wells were never drilled, but the leases remained in place. That kept the landowners from signing new — and potentially more lucrative — leases as shale-gas exploration grew.

The legal battle has drawn widespread attention across eastern Ohio.

According to the suit, since 2010 the defendants have contacted landowners in Monroe County and through “unsolicited correspondence” have encouraged landowners to terminate agreements with Beck Energy and negotiate new leases with other companies, “with the defendants’ assistance and for which defendants would receive a substantial share in the financial outcome of the new negotiations.”

The suit charges that those actions took place even though the defendants were aware of existing contracts from 1983 between the landowners and Beck Energy.

The three law firms “joined forces” to interfere in the existing Beck Energy contracts, the suit alleges.

According to the suit, filed by Canton attorney Craig Conley, the defendants told the landowners that the new agreements would produce bigger lease signing bonuses and bigger royalty payments.

The correspondence with landowners said the defendants’ fees would be a percentage share of the increased signing bonus and higher royalty fees, the suit says.

According to the suit, the defendants allegedly told the landowners that Beck Energy was “not capable of exploring for oil and gas in the Marcellus and Utica shale formations.”

Beck Energy says in the suit it “continues to have the capability to further explore the Marcellus or Utica shale formations.”

According to the suit, six landowners represented by the defendants filed a class-action lawsuit in 2011 in Monroe County Common Pleas Court to terminate lease agreements with Beck Energy.

Judge Ed Lane vacated Beck Energy’s leases on 21,000 acres. The judge ruled that the company had breached the contract by failing to develop wells in a timely fashion.

Beck Energy then sold the deep mineral rights on about 13,200 acres of that land to XTO Energy, an ExxonMobil subsidiary.

The Monroe County decision has been appealed to the 7th District Court of Appeals in Youngstown.

The new suit was assigned to Summit County Common Pleas Judge Lynne S. Callahan.

Messages were left with the attorneys and law firms named in the new suit. None responded.

Bob Downing can be reached at 330-996-3745 or bdowning@thebeaconjournal.com.