This is a bill in equity not only to stay an action in ejectment at law, but to remove a cloud cast upon Conklin's title to the lands in question, created by a deed from Adolph Wehrman to Frederick Wehrman, appellant and defendant in the bill, and to quiet their own title thereto.
1. Defendant's principal contention is that equity has no jurisdiction of the case, for the reason that the contest concerns the legal title only, and that plaintiffs have a plain, adequate, and complete remedy at law. It is undisputed that Carlos S. Greeley, a member of the firm of Greeley, Gale & Co., bought the lands in question at a sheriff's sale which took place on July 31, 1862, and that for about twenty years thereafter, when the lands were sold to Conklin, he paid the taxes upon the land. That the Conklins upon their purchase of the several parcels took immediate possession, and that they have since been in full, open, and adverse possession and occupancy of the same; have made large and valuable improvements thereon by putting some six hundred acres under cultivation, and by erecting substantial buildings and fences, digging wells and otherwise improving the premises, making the same more valuable, and have expended a thousand dollars in such improvements in good faith, and full reliance upon such title being good and valid. That the defendant during such time, and for more than twenty-seven years, had never done any act or taken any step to have the records corrected or to assert any claim on his part to such lands, or to notify purchasers of his interest in the same until he began his action of ejectment.
The general principles of equity jurisprudence, as administered both in this country and in England, permit a bill to quiet title to be filed only by a party in possession against a
This method of adjusting titles by bill in equity proved so convenient, that in many of the States statutes have been passed extending the jurisdiction of a court of equity to all cases where a party in possession, and sometimes out of possession, seeks to clear up his title and remove any cloud caused by an outstanding deed or lien which he claims to be invalid, and the existence of which is a threat against his peaceable occupation of the land, and an obstacle to its sale. The inability of a court of law to afford relief was a strong argument in favor of extending the jurisdiction of a court of equity to this class of cases.
The statute of Iowa, upon which this bill is based, is an example of this legislation, and provides (sec. 3273) that "an
It will be observed that this statute enlarges the jurisdiction of courts of equity in the following particulars:
1. It does not require that plaintiff should have been annoyed or threatened by repeated actions of ejectment.
2. It dispenses with the necessity of his title having been previously established at law.
3. The bill may be filed by a party having an equitable as well as a legal title. Grissom v. Moore, 106 Indiana, 296; Stanley v. Holliday, 30 N.E. Rep. 634; Echols v. Hubbard, 7 South. Rep. 817.
4. In some States it is not even necessary that plaintiff should be in possession of the land at the time of filing the bill.
These statutes have generally been held to be within the constitutional power of the legislature; but the question still remains, to what extent will they be enforced in the Federal courts, and how far are they subservient to the constitutional provision entitling parties to a trial by jury, and to the express provision of Revised Statutes, section 723, inhibiting suits in equity in any case where a plain, complete, and adequate remedy may be had at law. These provisions are obligatory at all times and under all circumstances, and are applicable to every form of action, the laws of the several States to the contrary notwithstanding. Section 723 has never been regarded, however, as anything more than declaratory of the existing law, Boyce v. Grundy, 3 Pet. 210, and as was said in N.Y. Guaranty Co. v. Memphis Water Co., 107 U.S. 205, 210, "was intended to emphasize the rule, and to impress it upon the attention of the courts." It was not intended to restrict the ancient jurisdiction of courts of equity, or to prohibit their exercise of a concurrent jurisdiction with courts of law in cases where such concurrent jurisdiction had been previously upheld.
The question of enforcing these state statutes was first considered
Subsequent cases, however, denied the power of the Federal courts to afford relief under such statutes where the complainant was not in possession of the land, and in Whitehead v. Shattuck, 138 U.S. 146, particularly, it was held that, where the proceeding is simply for the recovery and possession of specific real or personal property, or for the recovery of a money judgment, the action is one at law. "The right which in this case the plaintiff wishes to assert is his title to certain real property; and the remedy which he wishes to obtain is its possession and enjoyment; and in a contest over the title both parties have a constitutional right to call for a jury." The case of Holland v. Challen was distinguished as one where neither party was in possession of the property, and it was further said that in the case of Reynolds v. Crawfordsville Bank the question did not arise as to whether the plaintiff had a remedy at law, but whether a suit to remove the cloud mentioned would lie in a Federal court. The case of United States v. Wilson, 118 U.S. 86, was really to the same effect, though not cited in Whitehead v. Shattuck. See also Frost v. Spitley, 121 U.S. 552. But nothing was said in either of these to disturb the harmony of the previous cases.
The real question, then, to be determined in this case is, whether the plaintiffs have an adequate remedy at law. If they have, then section 723 is controlling, and, notwithstanding a local practice under the code, where no discrimination is made between actions at law and in equity, may authorize such suit, the Federal courts will not entertain the bill, but will remit the parties to their remedy at law. The bill under consideration alleges the plaintiffs to be the "absolute owners" of the premises, and then sets forth certain proceedings by which it is alleged they became such; but it is claimed and substantially admitted in the bill that, by reason of certain
If the only contest in this case were as to whether the legal title to these lands was in the plaintiffs or defendant, it may be that a court of law would be the only proper forum for the settlement of this dispute; but the plaintiffs further claim that, by reason of certain defects in the proceedings by which they acquired title, such title is doubtful at law; but that the long delay of the plaintiff at law in the assertion of his rights, establishes a defence of laches, and his failure to set up his title, and his long acquiescence in the Conklins' possession of the lands, estop him from proceeding either at law or in equity to oust them.
It is scarcely necessary to say that complainants cannot avail themselves as a matter of law of the laches of the plaintiff in the ejectment suit. Though a good defence in equity, laches is no defence at law. If the plaintiff at law has brought his action within the period fixed by the statute of limitations, no court can deprive him of his right to proceed. If the statute limits him to twenty years, and he brings his action after the lapse of nineteen years and eleven months, he is as much entitled as matter of law to maintain it, as though he had brought it the day after his cause of action accrued, though such delay may properly be considered by the jury in connection
Undoubtedly the facts set forth in this bill are such as tend to show an equitable estoppel on the part of Wehrman, and this court did hold in a very carefully considered opinion in Dickerson v. Colgrove, 100 U.S. 578, that an estoppel in pais was an available defence to an action at law. This case was cited and applied in Baker v. Humphrey, 101 U.S. 494; in Kirk v. Hamilton, 102 U.S. 68; and in Drexel v. Berney, 122 U.S. 241; although, in the last case, the bill was supported upon the ground that a resort to a court of equity in the particular case was necessary in order to make the estoppel available. As was said by Mr. Justice Matthews: "All that can properly be said is, that in order to justify a resort to a court of equity, it is necessary to show some ground of equity other than the estoppel itself, whereby the party entitled to the benefit of it is prevented from making it available in a court of law." To the same effect is Gable v. Wetherholt, 116 Illinois, 313.
But even if it be assumed that the facts relied upon as constituting an equitable estoppel in this case might be laid before
While, in view of our decisions in Insurance Company v. Bailey, 13 Wall. 616, and Buzard v. Houston, 119 U.S. 347, there may be a doubt whether this remedy is available in personal actions, the law is well settled that where title to real property is concerned, equity has a concurrent jurisdiction,
When analyzed, the bill under consideration is really in the nature of a judgment creditor's bill filed by the plaintiffs, who claim that they have acquired, by successive assignments from the original creditors, a lien upon certain lands which the debtor has conveyed in fraud of the original creditors. There are also, it is true, the additional reasons that the plaintiffs have long been in possession of the land; that the records of the case, through which the original purchaser at the execution sale claimed to have acquired the legal title to the lands, have been lost, and that their title, though perfectly good in equity, may be technically insufficient at law. In such case they have a right to call upon a court of equity for relief against such defects. Simmons Creek Coal Co. v. Doran, 142 U.S. 417, 449; Stone v. Anderson, 6 Foster, (26 N.H.,) 506; Conroy v. Woods, 13 California, 626; Robert v. Hodges, 16 N.J. Eq. (1 C.E. Green) 299.
2. Upon the merits, the case presents no difficulty whatever. We do not find it necessary to examine in detail the several defects, which are claimed to invalidate the proceedings under which Greeley finally became the purchaser of the land in question, since we are all of the opinion that the plaintiffs are entitled to a decree, whether these proceedings vested a legal title in Greeley or not. Greeley, Gale & Co. had a legal claim against Adolph Wehrman upon a judgment lawfully obtained against him in Wisconsin. Upon the basis of this judgment they brought suit against him in Iowa, sued out a writ of attachment, and levied it upon the lands in question.
While the clerk does not seem to have used any great diligence in procuring a seal, his laches in that particular cannot be made the subject of inquiry here. The fact that no engraved seal had been procured is a sufficient excuse for the purpose of the case. The sheriff, by virtue of this writ, made a levy upon the lands in question, endorsed such levy upon the writ, and caused personal notice to be served upon the defendant Wehrman in the State of Wisconsin, January 25, 1861.
It is also true that the petition for the attachment described the judgment sued upon as having been rendered on May 12,
Whether the subsequent proceeding by bill to set aside the deed from Adolph to Frederick Wehrman was invalid or not, it is unnecessary to inquire. The attachment and subsequent long continued possession thereunder vested an interest in the present plaintiffs which was amply sufficient as a basis for this bill. If, as is claimed, the decree in the chancery court was void because no personal service was obtained upon defendant Wehrman within the State of Iowa, there is greater reason why jurisdiction of the present bill should not be declined, since the object of this bill is practically the same as the other, viz., to obtain the benefit of the attachment proceedings. If personal service were obtained in the State of Wisconsin, we see no objection to the decree as rendered, since the Code of Iowa, sections 2831 and 2835, permit personal service or service by publication upon defendants out of the jurisdiction "in an action for the sale of real property under
The salient and decisive facts of this case are that Greeley, Gale & Co. obtained, or at least attempted to obtain, a lien upon this land by virtue of their attachment; that personal service of such proceeding was made upon Adolph Wehrman in the State of Wisconsin, January 25, 1861; that they went through the form of obtaining a judgment against these lands, and selling them upon execution; that Greeley purchased these lands upon such sale, paid taxes thereon, acquired tax titles thereto, and subsequently sold the same, and that plaintiffs in this suit became the purchasers; that they immediately took possession of the same; and that they and their grantors have been in open, notorious, and undisturbed possession for twenty-seven years; have built a house and other buildings, and made other improvements thereon; that Frederick Wehrman, the defendant herein, took title to these lands December 17, 1859, the very day that suit was originally begun against Adolph; that the deed was made to him under circumstances tending strongly to show that it was intended as a fraud upon the creditors of Adolph Wehrman; that he took no steps to assert his title or right of possession to these lands, but practically abandoned the same until, by the increase of population and the settlement of the country, they had become of material value. Whether he had actual notice of the chancery suit or not, it is highly improbable that if he had been a bona fide purchaser of these lands, lying in another State, for which he had paid, or agreed to pay, $3000, (almost double their actual value,) he would have taken no steps for nearly thirty years to assert his right thereto. Particularly is this so in view of the fact that he was only an ordinary day laborer at the time he took the deed, having only a few farming implements and a meagre supply of household goods, and, as one of the witnesses expressed it, could not have borrowed without security one-tenth of the sum he was purported to have paid for the property.
The decree of the court is therefore