236 U.S. 635 (1915), 135, Wilson Cypress Company v. Del Pozo y Marcos

Docket Nº:No. 135
Citation:236 U.S. 635, 35 S.Ct. 446, 59 L.Ed. 758
Party Name:Wilson Cypress Company v. Del Pozo y Marcos
Case Date:March 15, 1915
Court:United States Supreme Court

Page 635

236 U.S. 635 (1915)

35 S.Ct. 446, 59 L.Ed. 758

Wilson Cypress Company

v.

Del Pozo y Marcos

No. 135

United States Supreme Court

March 15, 1915

Argued January 19, 1915

APPEAL FROM THE CIRCUIT COURT OF APPEALS

FOR THE FIFTH CIRCUIT

Syllabus

Although the jurisdiction of the federal court may have been invoked solely on account of diverse citizenship, if the object of the suit is to quiet title to a grant of the former sovereign, depending for its completeness on a treaty and on laws of the United States and acts of federal officers thereunder, this Court has jurisdiction to review the judgment of the circuit court of appeals.

Although the amount of land patented to the grantee of a former sovereign may have exceeded the amount confirmed by the act of

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Congress and have been predicated upon a survey and limitation to the amount confirmed, the patentee has a taxable interest in the land that can be reached for proper taxation by the state.

Where the lower courts erroneously sustained complainant's contention that the lands involved were not taxable because never segregated from the public domain, and therefore did not pass upon the other contentions also urged by complainant as sufficient to sustain the title and which involved questions of local law and the weighing of conflicting evidence, this Court will not, on finding that the lower courts erred on the question of taxability, finally pass on the other questions, but will reverse the decree and remand the case to the lower court for further proceedings in accordance with the opinion.

202 F. 742 reversed.

Suit to quiet title, brought in the Circuit Court for the Southern District of Florida by appellees, whom we shall call throughout complainants and the appellant defendant.

The bill alleges that the complainants are the heirs at law of Miguel Marcos, a lieutenant in the Spanish Army; that he was granted by the lawful authorities of the King of Spain on the 18th of October, 1815, 5,500 acres of land in the then province of East Florida, on two banks of a creek which empties into the St. John's River about two miles north of Long Lake; that the grant was confirmed to his widow, Teresa Rodriguez, in her own right and for and on behalf of her children by the United States to the extent of a league square; that the grant was an inchoate right to said tract, under the laws of Spain called a first title or permit to occupy the land, and, after occupancy and proof thereof, to secure a complete or Royal title; but, before such title issued, Spain ceded East Florida to the United States, who, by the eighth article of the treaty between the United States and Spain, occupied the position of Spain with regard to this and like grants of land, and were pledged to confirm title thereto; that the lands were neither surveyed nor segregated from the public domain during the sovereignty of Spain; that the same were wild and uncultivated, were never in the actual occupancy

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of the grantee or of his widow and children, and the title thereto at the time of the cession of the Floridas passed to the United States, subject to the equitable claim of the complainants.

The succession of complainants to the original grant is traced by the bill, and it is alleged that soon after the cession of the Floridas to the United States, Teresa Rodriguez applied to the Board of Land Commissioners appointed to examine and report on claims to lands in East Florida for the confirmation of the grant, and it was reported by the board to Congress as a valid grant, and its confirmation recommended. That thereafter Congress, by an act approved May 23d 1828, 4 Stat. 284, c. 70, confirmed it to the extent of a league square, to be located within the limits of the original claim and bounded by sectional lines, and to be in quantities of not less than one section. That, under the sixth section of the act of Congress, confirmation of the grant was required to be accepted as a final settlement of the claim, or the claim to be brought before the judge of the Superior Court for the District of East Florida within one year from the passage of the act; that the latter proceeding was not had, and that, by the act of Congress, the title to the land was confirmed to the extent of one league, to be located within the bounds of the original grant.

That it was held by the judicial and executive branches of the government that a league square was 4,438.68 acres. That, by the laws then in force in the Territory of Florida, it was the duty of the Surveyor General of the territory to make the survey of the lands confirmed to complainants' ancestor, and make certificate thereof, and file the same in the Land Office of the United States in said territory. That among the acts of Congress extending to said territory was the Act of March 3, 1807, by the terms of which it was made unlawful to take possession of, survey, or cause to be surveyed or settle upon, any lands ceded or secured to the United States by any treaty with a foreign

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nation or any land claim to which had not been recognized and confirmed by the United States, under a penalty of forfeiture of the right, title, and claim to such lands. That the ancestors of complainants were residing in Cuba on the twenty-third of May, 1828, and they and their descendants have since that date resided there, and none of them has resided or been in the United States since the passage of the Act of May 23, 1828, confirming the grant to the extent of a league square. That the United States never surveyed and segregated the lands as confirmed, as held by the Land Department of the United States, and the confirmees had no power to cause such survey to be made. That the lands embraced in the grant were surveyed as public lands by the United States in 1847, and such survey was approved May 15, 1848. A certified copy of the official plat of survey is attached to the bill, and it is alleged that the lands were held by the Land Department of the United States to be public lands, and were so treated from 1831 to February 12, 1894, upon which date the grant described in the bill was, by the Land Department of the United States, declared to be a valid, confirmed private grant to Teresa Rodriguez, and ordered to be patented, and thereafter it was so patented to her, her heirs, assigns, and legal representatives, and the lands described as Section 37, Township 19, South of Range 28, and Section 41, Township [35 S.Ct. 448] 19, South of Range 29, according to the plat of the public surveys made by the United States, and for the aggregate of 5,486.46 acres. That until such recognition of the title of complainants and those under whom they claim from and after May 23, 1828, complainants were excluded from the possession of the lands, and the United States had both the legal title and possession and right of possession of them, and any occupancy of them by any other than the United States was a mere trespass; that, before February 12, 1894, complainants and those under whom they take title were not able to take possession of

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the lands because the United States claimed the entire grant as public lands.

The bill then sets out the asserted title of the defendant to have been derived from a sale to one John Starke on July 5, 1852, by the sheriff and ex-officio tax collector of Orange County, Florida, based upon a pretended execution for certain unpaid taxes alleged to have been assessed "upon the lands supposed to belong to Teresa Rodriguez," and the said sheriff attempted to deed to said Starke "all the right, title, and interest of Teresa Rodriguez and others" in and to said tracts of land. That the said sale and deed are absolutely null and void because (1) it was alleged to be an assessment upon the single tract containing 5,480 acres, and to be payable for the years 1845 to 1851, both inclusive, during which time the legal title and possession were in the United States; that the lands were expressly exempt from taxation by the statute of the State of Florida during those years, which declared that the act for the assessment and collection of taxes should not be construed to embrace lands belonging to the United States; (2) that the amount of taxes assessed was in excess of what could have been lawfully levied; (3) that proper notice of the sale was not given, (4) nor was the land sold in the parcels required; (5) that the deed was not properly executed, it having no subscribing witness and its record being wholly unauthorized.

Like invalidity is asserted against the tax and sale of the land for the years 1867, 1868, and 1869, assessed to John Starke, and conveyed by the sheriff to one William Mills. In addition, it is alleged that no statute in Florida authorized a tax collector to make a tax deed upon a sale for the nonpayment of taxes, such being the duty of the county clerk of the county wherein lay the lands. That the assessment and tax sale and deed to William Mills were made in execution of a conspiracy by him and Robert

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  1. Patten and one George C. Powell to deprive complainants of their title; that Mills never took possession of the lands, but attempted to convey them to Powell, that Powell entered only upon Section 9 (a part of Section 37, above named) of said Township 19, Range 28, and made some improvements to complainants unknown, and cut some timber thereon. That he exercised no other acts of ownership, and those were continued but for a short time, and "were not uninterrupted by continued occupancy for seven years," and were subsequently abandoned by him; that the possession was not sufficient, either in character or duration, to enable him to claim the benefit of the statute of limitations against any action brought by complainants; that complainants were precluded from...

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