United States v. Leiter Minerals

Decision Date22 June 1954
Docket NumberCiv. No. 4379.
Citation127 F. Supp. 439
PartiesUNITED STATES of America, Plaintiff, v. The LEITER MINERALS, Inc., et al., Defendants.
CourtU.S. District Court — Eastern District of Louisiana

George R. Blue, U. S. Atty., M. Hepburn Many, Asst. U. S. Atty., New Orleans, La., for plaintiff.

S. W. Plauche, Jr., Lake Charles, La., for The Leiter Minerals, Inc.

Milling, Saal, Saunders, Benson & Woodward, Charles D. Marshall, New Orleans, La., for The California Co.

WRIGHT, District Judge.

This matter is before the court on motion of the United States for a preliminary injunction against the defendant, Leiter Minerals, Inc., restraining it, pending further proceedings herein, from prosecuting a title suit in the Twenty-Fifth Judicial District Court for the Parish of Plaquemines, Louisiana, against certain mineral lessees of the United States. In that suit Leiter Minerals is claiming ownership of the mineral rights beneath land sold by its predecessor in title to the United States.

On December 21, 1938, the United States acquired from Thomas Leiter a tract of land comprising more than 8,000 acres in Plaquemines Parish, Louisiana. The deed reserved the mineral rights in the land to the vendor with the stipulation that, with certain exceptions not pertinent here, these rights would expire on April 1, 1945. The defendant, Leiter Minerals, Inc., is a Louisiana corporation which claims to have succeeded Thomas Leiter in title to the reserved mineral interest in the land in suit. Neither Thomas Leiter, Leiter Minerals, Inc., nor any other person acting through or under them has ever conducted any mineral operations of any kind pursuant to the reservation of the mineral rights in the deed to the United States.

On March 1, 1949, the United States executed four oil, gas, and mineral leases covering different portions of the property to Frank J. and Allen L. Lobrano who have conveyed operating rights under the leases to the California Company, a California corporation, which has drilled and completed eighty producing wells on the property. The United States has heretofore received royalty therefrom in excess of $3,500,000. Any interruption in the operation of these wells would, in the event the United States is successful in these proceedings, cause it irreparable damage. Since the date of its acquisition, the United States has also maintained and administered the lands acquired from Thomas Leiter as part of a wild life refuge, thus retaining physical possession of the surface of the land as well as physical possession of the mineral rights by virtue of the mineral operations conducted by its lessees.

The Leiter Minerals, Inc. has filed and is currently prosecuting an action in the Twenty-Fifth Judicial District Court for the State of Louisiana, Parish of Plaquemines, against the California Company and Allen L. Lobrano in their capacity of lessees under the mineral leases executed by the United States, praying that it, Leiter Minerals, be recognized as "the fee simple, true and lawful owner of all of the oil, gas and minerals, and oil, gas and mineral rights in, on and under the land" acquired by the United States by deed from Thomas Leiter. The United States is not a party to the action before the state court.

The United States has instituted the present litigation before this court against Leiter Minerals, Inc., praying that its title and rights to the minerals beneath the property be quieted, that the various clouds upon the title of the United States in the form of mineral leases executed by the defendant be cancelled, and that an injunction be issued restraining the Leiter Minerals from further asserting or claiming any interest in the said minerals or mineral rights, as well as from the further prosecuting the suit filed by it in the Twenty-Fifth Judicial District Court for the Parish of Plaquemines against the mineral lessees of the United States. The United States also asks for a temporary injunction restraining the prosecution of the action in the Twenty-Fifth Judicial District Court, pending a final determination of the issues here in suit. This opinion covers only the application for a temporary injunction.

The United States contends that the suit brought by Leiter Minerals in the Twenty-Fifth Judicial Court of the Parish of Plaquemines against its lessees is a suit against the sovereign which has not consented to be sued, that, in the present posture of the case, this court has exclusive jurisdiction to determine the ownership of the minerals and mineral rights in question and, therefore, an injunction should be issued by this court staying the state court proceeding against its mineral lessees. The defendant, Leiter Minerals, contends that its action before the Twenty-Fifth Judicial District Court, since it seeks to determine ownership of mineral rights, is in rem or quasi in rem, and, since the state court by virtue of that suit has acquired jurisdiction over the res, it alone has the right to determine the ownership of the minerals and mineral rights in question. Accordingly, it has filed herein a motion to dismiss or stay these proceedings pending the outcome of the proceedings in the state court.

At the outset it may be well to examine the jurisdiction of this court as to this proceeding. It is properly brought, by the United States as plaintiff, under 28 U.S.C. § 1345. It seeks equitable relief in the form of an action to quiet title and to remove clouds on the title of the United States. A federal court has jurisdiction to grant such relief. Mississippi Mills v. Cohn, 150 U.S. 202, 14 S.Ct. 75, 37 L.Ed. 1052; Ridings v. Johnson, 128 U.S. 212, 9 S. Ct. 72, 32 L.Ed. 401; Humble Oil & Refining Co. v. Sun Oil Co., 5 Cir., 191 F.2d 705; Stricker Land & Timber Co. v. Hogue, D.C., 61 F.Supp. 825; Manhattan Land & Fruit Co. v. Buras, D.C., 43 F.Supp. 361. The application for an injunction against the state proceeding, however, presents a more difficult problem. 28 U.S.C. § 2283 provides that a federal court may not grant an injunction to stay proceedings in a state court except as expressly authorized by an act of Congress, or, where necessary, in aid of its jurisdiction. Even where a federal court may enjoin a state court proceeding, such equitable relief should be granted only when the federal court, "in its sound discretion exercised with the `scrupulous regard for the rightful independence of state governments which should at all times actuate the federal courts,'1 is convinced that the asserted federal right cannot be preserved except by granting the `extraordinary relief of an injunction in the federal courts.'2 Considering that `few public interests have a higher claim upon the discretion of a federal chancellor than the avoidance of needless friction with state policies,'3 the usual rule of comity must govern the exercise of equitable jurisdiction by the District Court in this case."4 Undoubtedly, one of the highest duties of a federal court sitting in equity is to avoid unseemly conflict of authority between state and federal courts. It is with these principles in mind that this court undertakes a consideration of the application for an injunction against the proceedings in the state court.

In Beers for use of Platenius v. Arkansas, 20 How. 527, 529, 15 L.Ed. 991, Mr. Chief Justice Taney said, "It is an established principle of jurisprudence in all civilized nations that the sovereign cannot be sued in its own courts, or in any other, without its consent and permission; but it may, if it thinks proper, waive this privilege and permit itself to be made a defendant in a suit by individuals, or by another state." This permission can be granted only by the Congress itself. United States v. Shaw, 309 U.S. 495, 60 S.Ct. 659, 84 L.Ed. 888; United States v. U. S. Fidelity & Guaranty Co., 309 U.S. 506, 60 S.Ct. 653, 84 L.Ed. 894; State of Minnesota v. United States, 305 U.S. 382, 59 S.Ct. 292, 83 L.Ed. 235. No officer of the United States has power to confer on any court jurisdiction of a suit against the United States and, even where the United States has intervened in a litigation pending before any court, no affirmative judgment can be rendered against the United States. Stanley v. Schwalby, 162 U.S. 255, 270, 16 S.Ct. 754, 40 L.Ed. 960; Carr v. United States, 98 U.S. 433, 438, 25 L.Ed. 209; United States v. Shaw, supra; United States v. U. S. Fidelity & Guaranty Co., supra. In other words, by intervening in an action the United States does not, and cannot, waive its right not to be sued without its consent for the reason that only Congress itself can give that consent.

Officers or agents of the United States may be sued, however, for possession of property held by them in behalf of the United States. Land v. Dollar, 330 U.S. 731, 67 S.Ct. 1009, 91 L.Ed. 1209; United States v. Lee, 106 U.S. 196, 1 S.Ct. 240, 27 L.Ed. 171. Such an action is not one against the United States and, of course, would not be res judicata as against the United States. United States v. Lee, supra; Land v. Dollar, supra. Where a suit is brought in a state or federal court against officers or agents of the United States claiming property held by those officers for the United States, the United States may bring its own action in a state or federal court asking the court to adjudicate its claim to title to the property involved in the former suit and is entitled to an injunction staying further proceedings therein. United States v. Lee, supra; Land v. Dollar, supra; Land v. Dollar, 341 U.S. 737, 71 S.Ct. 987, 95 L.Ed. 1331; United States v. Dollar, 9 Cir., 196 F.2d 551, 9 Cir., 193 F.2d 114, 9 Cir., 190 F.2d 547, D.C. Calif., 100 F.Supp. 881, D.C.Calif., 97 F.Supp. 50; Brown v. Wright, 4 Cir., 137 F.2d 484; United States v. McIntosh, 4 Cir., 57 F.2d 573; United States v. Babcock, 7 Cir., 6 F.2d 160; United States v. Inaba, 9 Cir., 291 F. 416; United States v. Taylor's Oak Ridge Corp., D.C.Tenn., 89 F.Supp. 28; ...

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    ...to permit completion of active drilling operations. 6 Leiter Minerals, Inc. v. United States, 224 F.2d 381 (CA5 1955), aff'g, 127 F.Supp. 439 (ED La.1954). 7 The 1957 remand was in effect a remand with instructions to abstain. It contemplated state court elucidation of various uncertainties......
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