The Commonwealth Court of Pennsylvania recently issued a significant decision in the matter of Chesapeake Appalachia, LLC v. Ginger Golden, in her capacity as Wayne County Recorder of Deeds. The decision represents the first comprehensive statement of what the court perceives is the function of Recorders of Deeds in Pennsylvania. Chesapeake filed a complaint seeking declaratory, injunctive and other relief compelling the Wayne County Recorder of Deeds to accept certain documents relating to oil and gas leases in Wayne County for recording. Wayne County, like many counties in the northern tier of Pennsylvania, has been subject to significant oil and gas development in recent years and there has been corresponding pressure on the Recorder to manage the increased recording volume in the land record system.
The primary issue before the Commonwealth Court was whether the Recorder’s policy of rejecting multiple lease or “blanket assignments” when presented for recording was proper. The Recorder claimed that she was unable to index assignments to the lessors of each lease in accordance with Pennsylvania law because they were presented as blanket assignments. Chesapeake argued that a Recorder cannot unilaterally set policy against recording certain documents. The trial court ruled in favor of Chesapeake and ordered the Recorder to record all documents as presented, provided that they are properly acknowledged and the necessary fee has been paid. On appeal, the Recorder challenged the decision claiming that it was within her discretion to reject certain documents for recording when she has concern about the accuracy and integrity of the records. The Commonwealth Court flatly rejected this argument holding that based on existing Pennsylvania statutes, a Recorder’s duties to record are primarily ministerial and not subject to discretion.
The decision in Chesapeake Appalachia raises some interesting practical questions for those using the land record system and Recorders too. Certainly there is merit to the position that a Recorder cannot simply reject a document presented for recording because it doesn’t meet certain unilaterally imposed criteria. On the other hand, our Recorders perform important screening functions which protect the integrity of the land record system from fraud or abuse and they should be able to evaluate and reject suspect documents. Time will tell how harshly the decision in Chesapeake Appalachia ties the hands of Recorders. Hopefully the proper balance will be struck so that the land record system functions as intended: the public will be served by knowing that documents cannot be arbitrarily rejected from recording and Recorders will still have the discretion necessary to protect the system that they oversee.