Morris v. Ross

Decision Date14 June 1954
Docket NumberNo. 5674,5674
Citation1954 NMSC 63,58 N.M. 379,271 P.2d 823
PartiesMORRIS v. ROSS et al.
CourtNew Mexico Supreme Court

Harry L. Bigbee and Donnan Stephenson, Santa Fe, for appellants J. S. Covert and Ruth K. Covert.

Reese, McCormick, Lusk & Paine, Carlsbad, for appellee.

HENSLEY, District Judge.

Appellee, Henry H. Morris, as plaintiff filed his complaint in the District Court of Eddy County, New Mexico, seeking to quiet title to lands situate in the SW 1/4 of Section 23 and in the NW 1/4 of Section 26 in Township 19 South, Range 25 East, being described more particularly by metes and bounds. The defendants in the trial court requiring mention herein were Carl E. Ross, John C. Plott, Sally Plott, and the appellants, J. S. Covert and his wife, Ruth K. Covert. The defendants John C. Plott and Sally Plott made no appearance in the trial court, nor did they file any pleadings therein. The defendant Carl E. Ross filed an answer in the form of a general denial and thereafter did not appear in person, nor by an attorney. He does not appeal from the judgment adverse to him. The defendants J. S. Covert and Ruth K. Covert answered the complaint denying the plaintiff's title and admitting that they made claims adverse to the plaintiff. Further, the defendants J. S. Covert and Ruth K. Covert filed a cross-complaint alleging ownership of certain mineral interests, however, no testimony was offered by the defendants and at the conclusion of the plaintiff's case the cross complainants voluntarily moved to dismiss their cross complaint without prejudice. From a judgment quieting title in the plaintiff, Henry H. Morris, the defendants J. S. Covert and Ruth K. Covert prosecute this appeal. It is to be noted that the appellants sought no affirmative relief, but were only defending against the complaint seeking to quiet appellee's title.

The facts as found by the trial court may be summarized as follows: That on July 8, 1908, the plaintiff below, appellee herein, acquired the lands in controversy by warranty deed from the then owners of record. That on January 26, 1946, a Tax Sale Certificate was issued evidencing the sale of the lands to the State of New Mexico for taxes for the year 1944. That the Tax Sale Certificate was assigned to Bruce K. Matlock. That John C. Plott, in whose name the property had been assessed in 1944, executed a quitclaim deed to J. S. Covert on March 2, 1946, and described therein the lands in this controversy. That on February 28, 1947, appellant, J. S. Covert, obtained a Certificate of Redemption of the Tax Sale Certificate, and on July 9, 1948, J. S. Covert and Ruth K. Covert executed a quitclaim deed describing the surface only of these lands in favor of the defendant Carl E. Ross.

The record further discloses the following undisputed facts: The appellee lived on the land between thirty and sixty days during the year 1910 and thereafter left New Mexico. He neither rendered the land for taxes nor paid the taxes due thereon from 1910 to 1950, both inclusive. It is likely that this part of the record caused the trial court to make the specific finding of fact that the plaintiff had abandoned the property for approximately forty years. From the foregoing the trial court concluded that the plaintiff-appellee was entitled to have his title to the lands established against the claims of the defendants.

The appellants rely upon twenty-eight assignments of error in their quest for relief and have grouped all of them under four points. The first proposition advanced by the appellants is that the appellee was guilty of laches. Treatment of this question was thoroughly covered by this court in Patterson v. Hewitt, 11 N.M. 1, 66 P. 552, 556, 55 L.R.A. 658 and by the authorities therein cited. There we said, '* * * it will be found that each case must be determined upon its own circumstances; that the courts have frequently held that no ironclad rule can be laid down applicable to all cases, but that the circumstances of each case must determine the application of the law of laches as the equities are shown by the evidence. The reported cases show that, while the lapse of time is one of the elements to be considered in applying laches to stale claims, it is only one, and that it is not ordinarily the controlling or most important one to be considered by the court in applying laches as a defense in equity.' The elements which in combination must be proved by the one setting up the defense of laches are briefly stated in 19 Am.Jur. (Equity) Sec. 498:

'Facts Establishing Responsibility.--A suit is held to be barred on the ground of laches or stale demand where and only where the following facts are disclosed: (1) Conduct on the part of the defendant, or of one under whom he claims, giving rise to the situation of which complaint is made and for which the complainant seeks a remedy, as, for example, an invasion by the defendant of the complainant's right, such as the right to the possession of property: (2) delay in asserting the complainant's rights, the complainant having had knowledge or notice of the defendant's conduct and having been afforded an opportunity to institute a suit; (3) lack of knowledge or notice on the part of the defendant that the complainant would assert the right on which he bases his suit; and (4) injury or prejudice to the defendant in the event relief is accorded to the complainant or the suit is not held to be barred.'

See also Mosley v. Magnolia Petroleum Co., 45 N.M. 230, 114 P.2d 740.

It is to be noted in this case that the injury or prejudice to the appellants when they attempted to raise the bar of laches must have occurred subsequent to their having acquired an interest, whether void or voidable, in the property. That date is March 26, 1946, five years and three months prior to the time appellee filed this action. In this case, it is to be remembered that the limitation statute, or adverse possession statute, being Section 27-121 of the New Mexico Statutes Annotated, 1941 Compilation, requires a ten year period to elapse. Here the appellants seek to shorten the period by approximately reducing it in half. In Hammond v. Hopkins, 143 U.S. 224, 273, 12 S.Ct. 418, 435, 36 L.Ed. 134, the court quoted and approved the following language from an opinion in that case by Mr. Justice Merrick: '* * * Where there has been no change of circumstances between the parties, and no change with reference to the condition and value of the property, a court of chancery will run very nearly, if not quite, up to the measure of the statute of limitations, as applied in analogous cases in a court of law.'

The appellants stress the finding of the trial court that the appellee had abandoned the land for more than forty years, and urge this court to apply the rule of laches. In 5 Thompson on Real Property (Perm. Ed.) Sec. 2567, it is said:

'What property subject to abandonment.--* * * Once title vests it stays vested until it passes by grant, descent, adverse possession, or some operation of law such as escheat or forfeiture. The equitable doctrine of laches or abandonment applies only to easements or licenses and has no application to an actual estate in the land itself which can only be lost or barred by operation of the statute of limitations. The title, though not lost by abandonment, would be...

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  • Hartford Cas. Ins. Co. v. Trinity Universal Ins. Co. of Kan.
    • United States
    • U.S. District Court — District of New Mexico
    • July 28, 2015
    ...rights.” Cain v. Cain, 91 N.M. 423, 575 P.2d 607, 609 (1978) (citing Cave v. Cave, 81 N.M. 797, 474 P.2d 480 (1970) ; Morris v. Ross, 58 N.M. 379, 271 P.2d 823 (1954) ). “The elements of laches are ‘(1) full knowledge of the facts; (2) unconscionable or unreasonable delay in the assertion o......
  • Gonzales v. Surgidev Corp.
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    • June 13, 1995
    ...abused the discovery process, we recognize equitable defenses may preclude a party's right to raise a claim. See Morris v. Ross, 58 N.M. 379, 381, 271 P.2d 823, 824 (1954). However, because Appellant has not raised an equitable defense, we need not address this Because the award of sanction......
  • C & H Const. & Paving Co., Inc. v. Citizens Bank
    • United States
    • Court of Appeals of New Mexico
    • June 19, 1979
    ...fact existed concerning these elements. The court in Cave v. Cave, 81 N.M. 797, 474 P.2d 480 (1970), quoting from Morris v. Ross,58 N.M. 379, 271 P.2d 823 (1954), listed the elements which must be shown to establish "(1) Conduct on the part of the defendant, * * * giving rise to the situati......
  • Garcia v. Presbyterian Hospital Center
    • United States
    • Court of Appeals of New Mexico
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    ...In discussing the theory of laches in Cave v. Cave, 81 N.M. 797, 802, 474 P.2d 480, 485 (1970), the court quoted from Morris v. Ross, 58 N.M. 379, 271 P.2d 823 (1954), as requiring four elements to establish (1) Conduct on the part of the defendant, * * * giving rise to the situation of whi......
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