Humble Oil & Refining Co. v. Sun Oil Co.

Decision Date20 September 1951
Docket NumberNo. 13312.,13312.
Citation191 F.2d 705
PartiesHUMBLE OIL & REFINING CO. et al. v. SUN OIL CO. et al.
CourtU.S. Court of Appeals — Fifth Circuit



Robert H. Kelley, Nelson Jones, Charles E. Shaver and R. E. Seagler, all of Houston, Tex., Jacob S. Floyd, Alice, Tex., Gordon Boone, Allen V. Davis, Corpus Christi, Tex., for appellant.

Carlton R. Winn, Dallas, Tex., Jesse P. Luton, Jr., Asst. Atty. Gen. of Texas, Price Daniel, Atty. Gen. of Texas, J. W. Timmins, and Martin A. Row, Dallas, Tex., for appellee.

Before HOLMES, McCORD, and RUSSELL, Circuit Judges.

HOLMES, Circuit Judge.

One argument in support of the petition for rehearing is based on the contention that the defendants below were entitled to a jury trial as a matter of federal constitutional right. We say based on the contention, because such a trial was granted and evidence presented for many weeks before the court and a jury. At the conclusion of the evidence, the trial court determined that there were no issues of fact to go to the jury. The question arose below upon a motion to strike findings of fact. The appellants contend that this is not a suit in equity but an action at law to determine the title and recover possession of land. The effect of the findings complained of, it is said, is to impose upon defendants an undue burden in the appellate court. We met this issue in our opinion by deciding that jurisdiction over this controversy is inherent in equity, and that the parties were not entitled to a jury trial as a matter of right.

The plaintiff alleged in its complaint that, at the time of suit, it was in the actual possession of all of said land. The defendants denied that plaintiff was in possession of "each of said tracts," but admitted that plaintiff had a camp located on said land and had done some surveying thereon. Later, the answer denied that the plaintiff was actually in possession of any of said land except the small area surrounding said camp. The defendants did not allege that they were in possession of any of the controverted area, but only that it was accreted land, above mean high tide, on which they had mineral leases. Neither side alleged that the defendants were in possession of the land; and, therefore, Whitehead v. Shattuck, 138 U.S. 146, 11 S.Ct. 276, 34 L.Ed. 873, relied on by appellants, does not apply.

The controlling decision on this point, it seems to us, is Holland v. Challen, 110 U. S. 15, 3 S.Ct. 495, 28 L.Ed. 52, which was a bill in equity to quiet title. There, a Nebraska statute dispensed with the general rule of courts of equity that, in order to maintain a bill to quiet title, it was necessary that the complainant should be in possession of the land, or that his title thereto should have been established by a legal action. The Supreme Court held that it is always competent for the legislative power to remove limitations imposed upon the exercise of jurisdiction inherent in courts of equity; that while it is true that state statutes cannot enlarge or contract the jurisdiction of courts of the United States, yet an enlargement of equitable rights may be administered by the federal equity courts as well as by the state courts; that jurisdiction to relieve the holders of real property from vexatious claims, casting a cloud upon their title, and thus disturbing them in its peaceable use, is inherent in a court of equity; and that, though conditions to its exercise have at different times been prescribed by that court, both in England and in this country, they may at any time be changed or dispensed with by the legislature without impairing the general authority of courts of equity. Citing Pomeroy's Equity Jurisprudence and the Broderick's Will case, 21 Wall. 503, 520, 22 L.Ed. 599, the court observed that the equitable rights of parties had simply been enlarged by the statute, not changed in character; and that, so long as the equitable rights remained, an enlargement of equitable rights effected by a state statute might be administered by the federal courts as well as by the courts of the state, because "much equitable jurisdiction consists of better and more effective remedies for attaining the rights of the parties." Then, to explain its approval of the wisdom of such legislation, the court said, 110 U.S. at pages 24 and 25, 3 S.Ct. at page 501: "No adequate relief to the owners of real property against the adverse claims of parties not in possession can be given by a court of law. If the holders of such claims do not seek to enforce them, the party in possession, or entitled to the possession, — the actual owner of the fee, — is helpless in the matter, unless he can resort to a court of equity.

"It does not follow that by allowing in the federal courts a suit for relief under the statute of Nebraska, controversies properly cognizable in a court of law will be drawn into a court of equity. There can be no controversy at law respecting the title to or right of possession of real property when neither of the parties is in possession. An action at law, whether in the ancient form of ejectment or in the form now commonly used, will lie only against a party in possession. Should suit be brought in the federal court, under the Nebraska statute, against a party in possession, there would be force in the objection that a legal controversy was withdrawn from a court of law; but that is not this case, nor is it of such cases we are speaking. Undoubtedly, as a foundation for the relief sought, the plaintiff must show that he has a legal title to the premises, and generally that title will be exhibited by conveyances or instruments of record, the construction and effect of which will properly rest with the court. Such, also, will generally be the case with the adverse estates or interests claimed by others. This was the character of the proofs establishing the title of the complainant in Clark v. Smith, supra 13 Pet. 195, 10 L.Ed. 123. But should proofs of a different character be produced, the controversy would still be one upon which a court of law could not act. It is not an objection to the jurisdiction of equity that legal questions are presented for consideration which might also arise in a court of law. If the controversy be one in which a court of equity only can afford the relief prayed for, its jurisdiction is unaffected by the character of the questions involved."

In appellants' brief, in support of their petition for a rehearing, it is said: "Under Texas law Sun could maintain a trespass to try title suit without prior establishment of title and could obtain in that suit all the relief which could be granted by a court of equity; but the suit would be (as is the present suit) an action at law. There is no Texas statute which relieves Sun of the burden of prior establishment of title in an equity suit." Evidently, the appellants contend that, under Article 7364 of the Revised Civil Statutes of Texas, enacted in 1840, this suit cannot be regarded as anything but a legal action of trespass to try title. Said article provides that all fictitious proceedings in the action of ejectment are abolished, and that the method of trying titles to lands, tenements, or other real property, shall be by action of trespass to try title. The Texas Supreme Court holds that the purpose of this statute is to provide a remedy of vesting and divesting the title to real estate in all cases where the right, title, interest, or possession, of land may be involved, and that the remedy was intended to be sufficiently broad and effective to embrace all character of litigation that affected the title to real estate.

The appellants contend that Texas has not enacted any statute allowing bills to remove clouds to be maintained without prior establishment of legal title in ejectment, but they cite Texas cases and quote from decisions of the Supreme Court of that state to sustain the proposition that the action of trespass to try title serves the purpose not only of an action of ejectment but of determining all question of title as fully and completely as it could be by a suit to quiet title. Hence, the court said, seldom if ever, under the Texas practice could a suit to quiet title become necessary. The reason for this, we think, is that the Texas statutory action of trespass to try title is a blended legal and equitable remedy. It serves the purposes of both an action of ejectment and of a bill quia timet. Both legal and equitable rights and remedies are afforded not only in the same court but in a single action.

While Texas has not specifically relieved plaintiffs in an equity suit of the burden of prior establishment of title, it has created the right in land owners not in possession to institute legal proceedings (against persons not in possession) to obtain repose against repeated litigation by removing existing causes of controversies as to titles without prior establishment thereof; and, therefore, the right embraces cases where a bill quia timet to remove a cloud upon title would lie. 110 U.S. 18, 3 S. St. 495, 28 L.Ed. 52. Therefore, what Texas has done so sweepingly embraces what Nebraska did specifically in the statute under review in Holland v. Challen, supra. The Texas statute, like Nebraska's, authorizes suit in this class of cases, without reference to any previous judicial determination of the validity of the plaintiff's title and without reference to his possession. Under the Texas statute, any person claiming title to real estate, whether in or out of possession, may maintain an action of trespass to try title against one who claims an adverse estate or interest in it, for the purpose of determining such estate and quieting the title. Thus the equitable rights of parties in Texas claiming the legal title to real property are simply enlarged by said article 7364, albeit the enlargement of said equitable rights is effected in the form of a remedial...

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