Ryan v. United States
136 U.S. 68 (1890)

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U.S. Supreme Court

Ryan v. United States, 136 U.S. 68 (1890)

Ryan v. United States

No. 1307

Submitted April 21, 1890

Decided May 19, 1890

136 U.S. 68

Syllabus

The facts stated by the Court constituted a valid contract, mutually binding on the parties, for the sale to the United States of a tract of land in Michigan for purposes of fortification and garrison, as specified in the Act of July 8, 1886, 24 Stat. 128, c. 747.

In the absence of the Secretary of War, the authority with which he was invested by that act could be exercised by the officer who, under the law, became for the time Acting Secretary of War.

Under the Michigan statute of frauds, it is not essential that the description in a memorandum for the sale of real estate should have such particulars and tokens of identification as to render a resort to extrinsic evidence needless when the writing comes to be applied to the subject matter, but it must be sufficient to comprehend the property which is the subject of the contract, so that, with the aid of extrinsic evidence, without being contradicted or added to, it can be connected with and applied to the tract intended to the exclusion of other parcels.

A complete contract, binding under the statute of frauds, may be gathered from letters, writings and telegrams between the parties relating to its subject matter, and so connected with each other that they may fairly be said to constitute one paper relating to the contract.

Page 136 U. S. 69

If an offer is made by an owner of real estate in writing to sell it on specified terms, and the offer is accepted as made, without conditions, without varying its terms, and in a reasonable time, and the acceptance is communicated to the other party in writing within such time and before the withdrawal of the offer, a contract arises from which neither party can withdraw at pleasure.

When, under a contract to sell real estate, the vendor delivers to the vendee a deed of conveyance for the purpose of examination, its recitals, if the memorandum of sale is not fatally defective under the statute of frauds, are competent for the purpose of showing the precise locality of the parcel referred to in the memorandum.

When one assumes by his deed to convey a title to real estate, and by any form of assurance obligates himself to protect that grantee in the enjoyment of that which the deed purports to give him, he will not be suffered afterwards to acquire and assert an adverse title, and turn his grantee over to a suit upon the covenant for redress.

In an action of ejectment involving merely the legal title, the plaintiff is entitled to recover upon showing a good title as between him and the defendant.

EJECTMENT. The case, as stated by the court, was as follows

This action of ejectment was brought to recover certain lands in the Village of Sault Sainte Marie, Chippewa County, Michigan, of which the United States claims to be the owner in fee, and the possession of which is alleged to be wrongfully withheld from the government by the defendant, Thomas Ryan. They are described in a deed from Ryan and wife to the United States, of date December 18, 1886, and recorded in the proper local office on the 25th of May, 1887. At the conclusion of the evidence, the jury, under the direction of the court, returned a verdict for the government, and a judgment was entered against the defendant. The present writ of error brings that judgment here for review. The principal question to be determined is whether the title to the premises in dispute ever passed from the defendant to the government. It is claimed that the negotiations in reference to the sale of these premises never resulted in a binding contract between the United States and the defendant; that the deed of December 18, 1886, although signed and acknowledged by the defendant and his wife, was delivered to the officers of the government, pending such negotiations, only for examination,

Page 136 U. S. 70

and was not placed upon record with the assent, express or implied, of the grantors; that the proposal made in Ryan's name for the sale of the property was withdrawn by him before it was accepted and before the above deed was filed for record, and that therefore no title passed to the United States. Each of these propositions is controverted by the government.

The facts upon which these several propositions depend are very numerous, and are to be gathered principally from letters and telegrams between the parties and their agents. They are, substantially, as follows:

By the third section of an Act of Congress approved July 8, 1886, 24 Stat. 128, c. 747, the Secretary of War was authorized to sell the military reservation known as "Fort Brady," in the Village of Sault Sainte Marie, in the State of Michigan, except certain portions thereof. By the fourth section, he was authorized to purchase grounds, in or near the same village, suitable and sufficient for fortification and or garrison purposes, and to construct thereon the necessary buildings, with appurtenances, sufficient for a four company military post to be known as "Fort Brady," in accordance with estimates to be prepared by the War Department, and the sum of $120,000 was appropriated to enable the Secretary to comply with the provisions of the act. That section contained the proviso "that the title to lands authorized to be purchased under the fourth section of this act shall be approved by the Attorney General." It was declared by the sixth section that section 3 should not take effect until the purchase of the new site provided for in section 4 should have been effected.

By direction of the Secretary, and in execution of the above act, a board of officers of the army was constituted, to meet at Fort Brady, Michigan, on the 7th of September, 1886, or as soon thereafter as was practicable, for the purpose, among others, of selecting for purchase suitable and sufficient grounds as indicated in the fourth section of the above act of Congress. The board was directed to report by telegraph to the Adjutant General, with its recommendation for the approval of the Secretary

Page 136 U. S. 71

of War, as soon as a new site was selected. Shortly before the day fixed for its convening, Ryan and his attorney, Mr. Cady, met in Detroit, and during their interview in that city some conversation was had between them in relation to the meeting of this board and the purposes for which it was to be convened. It appears that for a number of years prior to that date this property had been mentioned in military circles and among citizens as a possible site for a fort.

On the 7th of September, 1886, Cady telegraphed from Sault Sainte Marie to Ryan at Detroit, Michigan: "Telegraph price to me of southwest quarter of southwest quarter of section 6, and southeast quarter of southeast quarter of section 1, for Fort Brady. Answer immediately." To this telegram Ryan responded on the same day, under his own signature: "Twelve thousand dollars." On the next day, Ryan, by Cady, telegraphed to the board convened by the Secretary of War:

"I am instructed by Mr. Ryan to offer the S.W. 1/4 of S.W. 1/4 of sec. 6, and the S.E. 1/4 of the S.E. 1/4 of sec. 1, both in town 47 N., of ranges 1 E. and W., containing eighty (80) acres, more or less, if sold together, for the sum of twelve thousand dollars ($12,000). Although not authorized yet, I assume that Mr. Ryan would sell any portion of said lands at a price in ratio to the above, i.e., $150 per acre."

To this telegram was appended a postscript: "P.S. The above offer is subject to the opening of Easterday Avenue along the south line." Under date of September 9, 1886, the president of the board of officers telegraphed to the Adjutant General at Washington:

"The board recommends for purchase the two adjoining forty-acre tracts on the hill, half mile due south of west end of canal, divided through the center of length by meridian of Sault Sainte Marie, aggregating about seventy-five acres; price, twelve thousand dollars."

General Drum, acting Secretary of War, under date of September 11, 1886, made the following endorsement on this telegram:

"Under ordinary circumstances, action in this case would have been deferred until the return of the Secretary of War or the Lieutenant General. In view, however, of the importance of the selection of this site, and of the fact that inaction here would delay further action by the

Page 136 U. S. 72

board, which is now in Michigan awaiting reply, the recommendation of the board as contained in the within telegram is approved. The board will be advised by telegraph of such approval."

On the same day, General Kelton, Acting Adjutant General, telegraphed to Lieutenant Colonel Abbot, president of the board:

"Dispatches nine (9) and eleven (11) instant received. The Secretary of War approves the recommendation of board for purchase of two (2) tracts designated at the price of twelve thousand dollars ($12,000). Acknowledge receipt. No further instructions."

This telegram was received, for, on the 11th of September, 1886, Lieutenant Colonel Abbot, the president of the board of officers, wrote from Fort Brady to Ryan at Sault Sainte Marie:

"You are hereby notified that the Acting Secretary of War has approved the recommendation of the board of officers now in session at this post that your proposal, dated September 8, 1886, be accepted, viz., for the sale of certain tracts of land described in your proposal as follows: 'The S.W. 1/4 of the S.W. 1/4 of sec. 6, and the S.E. 1/4 of the S.E. 1/4 of sec. 1, subject to the opening of Easterday Avenue along the south line, for twelve thousand dollars.'"

This letter was first delivered to Mr. Cady, and was by him delivered to Ryan within three or four days after it came to his hands. The receipt of it by Ryan is not disputed.

On the 30th of September, 1886, the acting Secretary of War wrote to Colonel Poe, one of the board:

"The recommendation of the board, approved by the department, selects a tract of about 75 acres of land at Sault Sainte Marie, owned by Thomas Ryan, as the new site for Fort Brady at the proposed price of $12,000. Papers on file show Mr. Ryan's address to be Michigan Exchange Hotel, Detroit. Please take the proper steps, without delay, to collect and forward to this department the necessary deeds and other title papers for the conveyance of this land to the United States, for examination by the Attorney General as required by law. General orders 47, H'dq'rs of Army, A.G.O., of 1881, publishes regulations of the Department of Justice concerning such title papers, a copy of which will be forwarded to you by mail."

Under

Page 136 U. S. 73

date of October 4, 1886, Mr. Cady wrote to the Adjutant General of the Army at Washington:

"On the 11th ulto., Mr. Thomas Ryan, of Sault Sainte Marie, Michigan was notified by Henry L. Abbot, Lieutenant Colonel of Engineers, president of board, that his offer of certain lands as a site for Fort Brady had been accepted. I have the honor of acting for Mr. Ryan in preparing his title for the Attorney General. Will you please furnish me with a copy of the printed directions for preparing abstracts for the use of the government? Any communication relative to the matter should be addressed to W. B. Cady, Sault Sainte Marie, Michigan."

Two days thereafter, October 6, 1886, Colonel Poe wrote to Ryan:

"I have received from the War Department the following letter of instructions, viz.: [Letter above of September 30, 1886]. I have therefore to request that you will proceed as rapidly as possible with the preparation of the requisite papers, and, to aid you in this, I enclose herewith a copy of General Orders No. 47, Headquarters of the Army, Adjutant General's Office, May 13, 1881, above referred to. Please acknowledge receipt of this communication and inform me as to how soon you can begin the preparation of the papers in question."

The general order referred to in this letter was one issued from the Headquarters of the Army, by direction of the Secretary of War, and embodying certain regulations established by the Department of Justice for the guidance of those drawing conveyances, making abstracts or collecting evidences of title to land in cases in which it is the duty of the Attorney General to pass upon the validity of such title. Among other requirements was one to the effect that a deed to the United States should be acknowledged according to the laws of the state where the land lies, and one (XX) directing that, before any papers relating to title were sent to the Department of Justice for examination, they should be submitted to the proper District Attorney of the United States.

Under date of October 13, 1886, Mr. Cady thus acknowledged the receipt of Colonel Poe's letter of the 6th inst. to Thomas Ryan, saying:

"I am acting for Mr. Ryan in preparing his title for the inspection of the Attorney General. I expect to

Page 136 U. S. 74

be able to send on the necessary papers in from six to eight weeks."

Some time having passed without anything being heard either from Mr. Ryan or from his attorney, Cady, Colonel Poe, under date of December 10, 1886, wrote to the latter urging him to forward "the title papers to the Ryan property purchased by the United States for a new site for Fort Brady." To this letter Mr. Cady replied, under date of December 11, 1886, stating that he had met with unexpected delay in obtaining certain papers, and saying:

"If I understand directions, I am to first send papers to G. Chase Godwin, U.S. District Attorney for this district. Do you wish them first sent to you? Also, should the deed from Ryan to the government be recorded before forwarding? Will you honor me by answering the above questions at once? I expect to start for Detroit on the 20th inst.; and if you wish to see the papers, I will bring them down for your examination, and send to Mr. Godwin from Detroit."

The next letter, in the order of their dates, which appeared in evidence, was one under date of December 22, 1886, from Colonel Poe to Mr. Godwin, United States District Attorney at Grand Rapids. In that letter, the writer said:

"In accordance with paragraph XX of the circular of the Attorney General of the United States dated October 27, 1875, W. B. Cady, Esq., attorney for Mr. Thomas Ryan, of Sault Sainte Marie, Michigan, visits you for the purpose of submitting the title papers to a tract of land which the government desires to purchase for a new site for Fort Brady. The War Department is anxious to complete the transaction as soon as possible, and your early action would greatly facilitate matters."

This letter was delivered to Mr. Godwin by Mr. Cady, the latter having with him abstracts, certified copy of deeds, maps, etc., relating to the title to the property. On the same day as the letter last referred to, Cady & Cady wrote to the Adjutant General at Washington, enclosing the papers "relating to Thomas Ryan's sale to the government," including a "deed of Thomas Ryan et ux. to U.S. to carry out above sale," and "authority of Thomas Ryan and E. K. Roberts, cashier, relating to your draft," etc. Under date of January 3, 1887,

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Mr. Cady addressed a letter to the District Attorney in which he said:

"I enclose deed, etc., in the Ryan sale. This makes papers complete. I would respectfully call your attention to the following: 1st. I enclose two deeds of lands in question, one in exact conformity to Mr. Ryan's bid, the other reserving a strip of land 33 feet wide off east side for street purposes; 2d., that the dower right, if any, of Mrs. Warner, is cut off by the state tax deeds held by Mr. Ryan. Most respectfully asking you to consider the paper at as early a date as possible, and to communicate to me the results, I submit the papers to your inspection. In conversation with General Poe today, he seemed quite certain that the papers would be sent to him after your examination of them, and that he should send them to the War Department, you sending your report to the Attorney General. Would you kindly inform me what course you have decided to follow in the matter?"

Among the papers enclosed with this letter was a deed, duly executed and acknowledged by Ryan and wife for the premises in dispute. It contained a covenant that the grantors were seised of the premises in fee simple, and would warrant and defend the same against all lawful claims whatsoever. That deed excepted a strip off the south side of the southeast quarter of the southeast quarter of section one, in township 47 north, thirty-three feet in width, reserved for Easterday Avenue, and also a strip off the south side of the southwest quarter of the southwest quarter of section six in same township, of like width, reserved for the same avenue, and a strip of like width, off the east side of the latter forty acres, for street purposes. During the latter part of January or first of February, Cady received a letter from the District Attorney asking for further information in regard to what was called the "Warner Dower," and in respect to a mortgage held by the Citizens' Bank of Detroit.

Under date of March 18, 1887, all the papers were forwarded by the District Attorney to the Attorney General. In that letter, the former expressed the opinion that the title to the lands was sufficient. On the next day, March 19, 1887, the District Attorney wrote to Cady:

"Yours of the 16th inst.

Page 136 U. S. 76

received. The abstract and accompanying papers in the matter of the title to the Fort Brady reservation proposed site have been forwarded to General Poe, together with my opinion regarding the same. I have recommended and advised that the title is good and complete."

The papers referred to in this letter were immediately forwarded by General Poe to the Secretary of War. The latter, under date of March 28, 1887, referred them, together with the deed of conveyance by Ryan and wife to the United States, to the Attorney General with the request that the War Department be advised as to the validity of the title to the lands in question, and whether the above deed was sufficient to vest the title in the United States.

While these papers were in the hands of the Attorney General, Brennan & Donnelly, attorneys for Ryan, wrote to the Secretary of War:

"Mr. Thomas Ryan, of Sault Sainte Marie, in this state, with whom your department had some negotiations some months ago for the purchase of the S.W. 1/4 of the S.W. 1/4 of section 6, the S.E. 1/4 of the S.E. 1/4 of section 1, in said town, as a site for Fort Brady, has instructed us to say that he has arranged for a different disposition of the property, and further negotiations are unnecessary. Will you please return to him all papers submitted to the government concerning said property?"

This document was referred by the Secretary to the Lieutenant General of the Army, who was informed that the title papers had been forwarded to the Attorney General, and that a copy of the document had been sent to the latter. Under date of April 9, 1887, the Attorney General returned the papers to the Secretary of War. They were sent again to the Attorney General on the 16th of April, 1887, the latter being advised by the Secretary of War that their return was not desired, and that the opinion of the Attorney General was desired as to the validity of the title to these lands, as to the sufficiency of the deed to vest the title in the United States, and as to whether there was a sufficient agreement in writing to bind Ryan notwithstanding his attempted withdrawal from the agreement. On the 18th of May, 1887, the Attorney General

Page 136 U. S. 77

returned the papers to the Secretary of War, with a written opinion to the effect that the deed was sufficient to pass title to the United States, provided nothing had transpired since its execution to affect the title. He advised the Secretary of War that information on that point should be obtained before completing the purchase price, by having search made for liens, encumbrances, etc., down to that date. The Attorney General on the next day transmitted the deed of Ryan and wife to the District Attorney, instructing him to continue the search for lines, encumbrances, etc., subsequent to the date of the deed, and saying:

"Should the title be found to be unaffected thereby, and to remain unchanged, you are instructed to have the deed recorded, after which payment of the purchase money will be made in the usual way through the War Department. Please attend to this promptly, and report your doings under these instructions as early as practicable."

On the 28th of May, 1887, the District Attorney wrote to the Attorney General, acknowledging the receipt of the latter's letter of the 19th and saying:

"I found upon investigation that he had got a deed from one Anne E. Warner, who made claim of dower but which claim had no force, I thought; but I found that on the 4th of April, Thomas Ryan and wife deeded to the Village of Sault Sainte Marie a strip of land 40 feet wide off the east side of the southwest quarter of the southwest quarter of section 6, and 40 feet off the west side of the southeast quarter of the southeast quarter of section one, making together a strip 80 feet wide, for street purposes. I hereto attach a slip, with the land marked out, showing you what has been done to affect the title to the land. Notwithstanding all this, I recorded the deed running to the United States. Perhaps I should explain further. Since this land was contracted to the government, a very remarkable business boom has struck Sault, Sainte Marie, and Mr. Ryan claims that the land deeded to the government is worth fifty or sixty thousand dollars. He has made a claim that the government was dealing with the expectation of purchasing it, and assuming that it had not been accepted as yet, but was under

Page 136 U. S. 78

consideration by the government, while I supposed you had accepted his offer to sell the land for $12,000. This being the situation, I took the responsibility of recording the deed, notwithstanding that eighty feet had been deeded away, thinking that it would be the safest way to secure the government, as the property is unquestionably worth more than $12,000, although the conveyance of the street should be valid. There is no doubt that the village officers knew of such contract when made, and no doubt exists in my mind but the village officers prefer that the government should own this property. The facts seem to be that Thomas Ryan had other lands adjoining this, or in the vicinity, which he had sold for fabulous prices, and he has no doubt promised to other parties the opening of this street, and in pursuance of this fact has made this deed. As this now stands, the title of the land is in the government, except only that Ryan has conveyed away this 80-foot strip. I shall be pleased to take any steps that may be directed in this matter."

Under date of June 9, 1887, the Attorney General transmitted to the Secretary of War the letter of the District Attorney, in which he said:

"It appears that since the date of that deed, and before the same was recorded, namely, on the 4th of April, 1887, the said Ryan and wife deeded a small part of the premises to the village of Sault Sainte Marie for the purpose of a street. Notwithstanding this, the United States attorney thought it advisable to put the deed to the United States on record. By the law of Michigan, an unrecorded deed is"

"void as against any subsequent purchaser in good faith, and for a valuable consideration, of the same real estate, or any portion thereof, whose conveyance shall be first duly recorded."

"If the conveyance to the village has been first duly recorded, and is otherwise within the provision of law just adverted to, its title to so much of the premises as is granted thereby would doubtless be superior to a title derived under the deed to the United States. However, should the use of that part of the premises for the purpose of a street be unobjectionable, the failure to derive the title thereto under such deed may be unimportant. "

Page 136 U. S. 79

The Lieutenant General of the Army recommended that the ground be not purchased unless the 80-foot right of way referred to be given up by the village. This recommendation was approved, and the papers were referred to the Chief of Engineers, Colonel Poe, to ascertain whether the village would relinquish the strip 80 feet wide. The Secretary and the Lieutenant General decided

"to await further action of the Village Council of Sault Sainte Marie, that the rights of the United States should be maintained, and that payment must be withheld until the roadway is relinquished to the government, thus making the title of the United States good to the whole tract conveyed by the deed of Thomas Ryan to the United States."

The result desired in this particular was attained, for by deed of May 22, 1888, the village, which had then become a city, relinquished to the United States all the rights that it had obtained from Ryan and wife under their deed to it of April 4, 1887.

It was admitted at the trial that previous to the action of the village council authorizing said deed, namely, May 22, 1888, Major Adams, on behalf of the United States, made a tender to Ryan of the sum of $12,000. Before this tender, Adams had an understanding with the local authorities that the village would make the relinquishment, which they shortly thereafter did.

It appeared in evidence that Ryan was not the holder of the legal title at the beginning of the negotiations between him and the government. On the 6th of June, 1883, he and his wife conveyed to James R. Ryan by deed, which was recorded, without any reservation therein for streets. By deed of June 16, 1883, recorded June 19, 1883, James R. Ryan and wife, for the consideration of one dollar "and other considerations," conveyed by quitclaim deed ten acres of these lands to Remegius Chartier, S.J., and his successors and assigns,

"to be forever the property of the Fathers of the Society of Jesus for the purpose of education and other works, in accordance with their constitution, with the power to sell and dispose of the same to accomplish the same ends in case circumstances should require it, together with all and singular

Page 136 U. S. 80

the hereditaments and appurtenances thereunto belonging, or in any wise appertaining, to have and to hold the said parcel of land hereinbefore described, to the said party of the second part, and to his successors, heirs, and assigns, to the sole and only proper use, benefit, and behoof of the said party of the second part, successors, heirs, and assigns, forever."

Chartier, for the consideration of one dollar, by deed of November 26, 1886, recorded November 29, 1886, reconveyed said parcel to James R. Ryan. The latter, by deed of December 6, 1886, recorded December 13, 1886, conveyed to Thomas Ryan the same premises which the latter and wife had conveyed by their deed of June 6, 1883.

Other facts are set out in the bill of exceptions, but the above are all that are necessary to be stated.

Page 136 U. S. 81

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