Page images

Opinion of the Court.

On June 28, 1887, action was brought by the heirs of Samuel P. Hudson in the Circuit Court of Calhoun County to recover the lands which had been sold in the probate proceedings. In that suit the parties were the same, the lands were the same, the issues were the same, and the proof was the same as in the case now before us. Judgment was given in the Circuit Court in favor of the plaintiffs. This judgment, on appeal to the Supreme Court of Alabama, was reversed, on the ground that whatever rights the plaintiffs might have originally possessed were barred by prescription. Woodstoch Iron Co. v. Fullenwider, 87 Alabama, 584, 587.

Section 2714 of the Code of Alabama provides : “Two judgments in favor of the defendant in an action of ejectment, or in an action in the nature of an action of ejectment, between the same parties, in which the same title is put in issue, is a bar to any action for the recovery of the land, or any part thereof, between the same parties or their privies, founded on the same title.” Availing themselves of this provision of the Alabama law, the plaintiffs thereupon brought these suits in the Circuit Court of the United States for the Northern District of Alabama. As before stated, the parties, plaintiff and defendant, are the same, the issues are the same, and the proof is the san.e as in the case finally decided by the Supreme Court of the State. Under instructions from the court there was a verdict for the defendants. The instructions will be found reported in 43 Fed. Rep. 648. The facts were admitted below, and therefore the issues presented are altogether questions of law, and were all reserved by bill of exception taken during the trial below.

[ocr errors]

Mr. J. A. W. Smith for plaintiffs in error.

Mr. J. J. Willett and Mr. John B. Knox for defendants in error. Mr. John M. McKleroy was on their brief.

MR. JUSTICE WHite, after stating the case, delivered the opinion of the court.

The plaintiffs rest their case upon an attack upon the pro

Opinion of the Court.

[ocr errors]

bate proceedings, which they assert to be absolutely void, 1st, because the proof as to the necessity of the sale was not “ taken by deposition, as in chancery cases ;” and, 2d, because there was no order of the court authorizing the administrator to make a deed of the property to the purchaser. The first contention is based upon the language of the decree of sale, which is as follows: " And thereupon said administrator introduces witnesses to sustain the same, and after hearing all the testimony in the case, the court is of opinion,” etc.; and it is urged that this statement, “the administrator introduces witnesses,” necessarily imports that depositions were not “taken as in chancery cases,” according to the requirement of the Alabama statute.

We are also told that the depositions which were ordered to be taken by the Probate Judge for the purpose of the inquiry, and which when taken were filed by him and constituted part of the probate record, cannot be considered, because the opinion makes no reference to them, and, therefore, we must presume that they do not exist; and the contention as to the deed is that it furnishes no evidence of title, because there was no specific order of the court to make it, although the sale was reported to the court and by it confirmed, and although the deed, when made, was returned to the probate court, certified by the judge, and by him duly put of record.

These very technical contentions are in conflict with the elementary rules by which the sanctity of probate proceedings are upheld, and are based on the terms of an Alabama statute, to which, we are told, a construction has been given by the courts of that State, which, however narrow and technical, is binding upon us.

The following provisions are found in the Alabama Code :

“2612 (3223). Civil suits must be commenced, after the cause of action has accrued, within the periods prescribed in this chapter, and not afterwards."

“2614 (3225). Within ten years. 1. ..

2. Actions for the recovery of lands, tenements, hereditaments, or the possession thereof, except as heroin otherwise provided."

Opinion of the Court.

2624 (3236). If any one entitled to bring the actions enumerated in this chapter, or make an entry on land, or de fence founded on the title to real property, be, at the time such right accrues, within the age of twenty-one years, or a married woman, or insane, or imprisoned on a criminal charge for any term less than for life, he or she shall have three years after the termination of such disability to bring suit, or make entry or defence; but no disability shall extend the period of limitation so as to allow such action to be commenced, or entry or defence made, after the lapse of twenty years from the time the cause of action or right accrued; nor shall this exception extend to a married woman in respect to her separate estate.”

We excerpt the following from the opinion of the Supreme Court of Alabama, in the case of Woodstock Iron Co. v. Fullenwider :

“The defendants, who are appellants in this court, contend, on the contrary, that all irregularities of sale and defects of title, under the admitted facts of the case, are cured by the presumptions arising from the lapse of twenty years, under the broad doctrine of prescription, now so thoroughly established in this State.

“The plaintiffs certainly had no right to sue in ejectment for these lands before the death of the widow, who was tenant for life, her possession, so far at least as concerns the legal title in the reversion, not being adverse or hostile to the heirs, during the continuance of such particular estate.

[blocks in formation]

“In considering this question, we shall regard the contention of the appellees as well taken, so far as to assume that the sale of the administrator conferred no legal title to the reversion on the widow as purchaser under the prolate proceedings in March, 1866.

“Regarding the proceedings in the probate court as void at law for the reasons stated, what, we may inquire, were the equitable rights, if any, acquired under it by the purchaser ? This question has been fully settled by our past decisions. Where land of a decedent is sold by the probate court for the

Opinion of the Court.

payment of debts, or for distribution, and the proceeding is void for want of jurisdiction, or otherwise, and the purchasemoney, being paid to the administrator, is applied by him to the payment of the debts of the decedent's estate, or is distributed to the heirs; while the sale is so far void as to convey nó title at law, the purchaser nevertheless acquires an equitable title to the lands, which will be recognized in a court of equity. And he may resort to a court of equity to compel the heirs or devisees to elect a ratification or rescission of the contract of purchase. It is deemed unconscionable that the heirs or devisees should reap the fruits of the purchaser's payment of money, appropriated to the discharge of debts, which were a charge on the lands, and at the same time recover the lands. They are estopped to deny the validity of the sale, and at the same time enjoy the benefits derived from the appropriation of the purchase-money. And this principle applies to minors as well as adults. Bland v. Bowie, 53 Alabama, 152; Bell v. Craig, 52 Alabama, 215; Robertson v. Brailford, 73 Alabama, 116. See also Ganey v. Sikes, 76 Alabama, 421.”

The court then proceeded to hold that, whilst the heirs of IIudson had no legal right to bring an action of ejectment pending the life estate, in view of the probate sale of the reversionary interest and the recorded title thereto, and of the payment of the price into the ostate and its distribution among the creditors of the estate, th heirs had an equitable right to bring an action to remove the cloud on the title which the probate proceedings created ; and inasmuch as they had failed to do so during twenty years, their right of action was barred under the doctrine of prescription. We again quote:

'Here, then, was the capacity to sue in a court of equity, so as to sweep away a cloud on the title of the plaintiffs, and, by an offer to do equity, to have the equitable title of the defendants, acquired at the void sale, divested out of them by decree of a court of chancery. A failure to exercise this right for over twenty years is such laches as authorizes the inference that the right to do so is barred in any one of the

Opinion of the Court.

modes in which that result may be effected. If the only existing right of action on the plaintiffs' part were at law – if his only laches, or slumbering on his rights, consisted in his failure to sue at law — then, as we have often said, 'the only fact open to inquiry, in such cases, would be the character of defendants' possession, either in its original acquisition, or in its continued use, as being, on the one hand, permissive and in subordination, or, on the other, hostile and adverse.' Long v. Parmer, 81 Alabama, 384; and cases cited on p. 388. But the laches here imputed to the plaintiffs is the fact of having allowed the probate court proceedings to remain unassailed for over twenty years — proceedings under which, though void at law, a good equitable title to the reversion had been acquired, accompanied with possession and claim of ownership, on the part of the purchaser and her sub-vendees, during the whole of this long period.”

The conclusion of the Alabama court is assailed here on the ground that it is unsound in law. Whilst, of course, as the statutes of the State of Alabama allow two actions in ejectment, the decree of the Supreme Court of Alabama does not constitute “ the thing adjudged” in the case before us, we think the rule under which we follow state statutes of limitation and the construction of such statutes by the state courts compels us to treat the doctrine here announced as conclusive of the present case, so far as this court is concerned. The whole subject was very fully reviewed by this court in the case of Bauserman v. Blunt, 147 U. S. 647. There, through Mr. Justice Gray, we said :

“By a provision inserted in the first judiciary act of the United States and continued in force ever since, Congress has enacted that the laws of the several States, except where the Constitution, treaties or statutes of the United States otherwise require or provide, shall be regarded as rules of decision in trials at common law, in the courts of the United States, in cases where they apply.' Act of September 24, 1789, c. 20, $ 34, 1 Stat. 92; Rev. Stat. $ 721. No laws of the several States have been more steadfastly or more often recognized by this court, from the beginning, as rules of decision in the

« PreviousContinue »