Central Land Co. v. Laidley
159 U.S. 103 (1895)

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U.S. Supreme Court

Central Land Co. v. Laidley, 159 U.S. 103 (1895)

Central Land Company v. Laidley

No. 239

Argued March 29, April l, 1895

Decided June 3, 1895

159 U.S. 103

Syllabus

This Court has no jurisdiction of a writ of error to a state court, on the ground that the obligation of a contract has been impaired, when the validity of the statute under which the contract was made is admitted and the only question is of its construction by that court.

When the parties have been fully heard in the regular course of judicial proceedings, an erroneous decision of a state court does not deprive the unsuccessful party of his property without due process of law within the Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution of the United States.

Page 159 U. S. 104

This was an action of ejectment, brought in April, 1882, in the Circuit Court of Cabell County in the State of West Virginia by John B. Laidley against the Central Land Company of West Virginia to recover a tract of land in that state. The material facts were as follows:

Both parties claimed title under Sarah H. G. Pennybacker. On February 25, 1870, she, being the owner of the tract and the wife of John M. Pennybacker, executed, with her husband, a deed purporting to convey the land to C. P. Huntington. That deed was duly recorded, together with certificates of the recorder that, on the same day, the husband came before him and acknowledged it to be his voluntary act and deed for the uses and purposes therein mentioned, and that the wife came before him,

"and being examined by me privily and apart from her husband, and having the deed aforesaid fully explained to her, she, the said Sarah H. G. Pennybacker, acknowledged that she had willingly signed, sealed, and delivered the same, and wished not to retract it."

On October 16, 1871, Huntington conveyed his title to the Central Land Company. On January 26, 1882, Mrs. Pennybacker, having become a widow, executed and acknowledged, in due form of law, a deed of the same land to Laidley. These deeds were duly recorded.

At the first trial of this action in December, 1884, Laidley requested the court to instruct the jury that the deed of Mr. and Mrs. Pennybacker conveyed his interest in the land, but that, if she was his wife at the time of its execution and acknowledgment, it was not valid so far as it purported to be her deed, and did not convey any interest she might have in the land, and could not operate by way of estoppel against her or her grantees. The court declined to give this instruction, and a verdict was returned for the Central Land Company, and judgment rendered thereon. Laidley took the case by writ of error to the Supreme Court of Appeals of West Virginia, which in November, 1887, held that the instruction requested by Laidley should have been given, and that the wife's acknowledgment was defective because it did not show that she had met all the requirements of the Code of West

Page 159 U. S. 105

Virginia of 1868, c. 73, section 4 (copied in the margin *), which the court held to be that she should acknowledge the deed to be her act, should declare that she had willingly executed it, and should declare that she did not wish to retract it. The court accordingly reversed the judgment and ordered the verdict to be set aside, and a new trial had in the Circuit Court of Cabell County. 30 W.Va. 505.

In March, 1888, the Central Land Company filed in the county court a bill in equity against Laidley, alleging that Huntington, through his agent, Laidley's father, purchased from Mr. and Mrs. Pennybacker the whole title in the land, and paid the price of $11,000, which was then its full value, and took possession of it under the deed of February 25, 1870, and held it until his conveyance to the Central Land Company, which had since been in possession thereof; that Laidley procured the deed of January 26, 1882, from Mrs. Pennybacker fraudulently, and with notice of all these facts, and for the price of only $500, although the land had greatly increased in value; that the Supreme Court of Appeals, in the action of ejectment, had decided that the certificate of acknowledgment was defective in law, and consequently the deed did not convey her title to Huntington, and therefore reversed the judgment of the court below and remanded the case for a new trial. The bill charged that under and by virtue of that decision of the Supreme Court of Appeals, the legal title was in Laidley, but that he held it in trust for the Central Land Company, and prayed for a declaration and execution of the trust, and for an injunction against the action at law, and for further relief. That bill was dismissed upon a hearing, and the decree of dismissal was, on appeal, affirmed by the Supreme Court of Appeals in February, 1889. 32 W.Va. 134.

Page 159 U. S. 106

In September, 1890, this action of ejectment was tried again in the Circuit Court of Cabell County. The Central Land Company requested the court to instruct the jury that if they found from the evidence that Huntington purchased, paid for, and took possession of the land, and afterwards, and before this action was brought, conveyed it to the Central Land Company, which took and since held possession thereof, then, by section 8 of article 11 of the Constitution of the State of West Virginia, adopted by the people thereof in 1863, and by section 4 of chapter 73 of the Code of West Virginia of 1868, which section 4 was taken from the Code of Virginia of 1860 and was in force in the territory included in the State of West Virginia at the time of the adoption of its Constitution, and by the settled construction, and interpretation which, before the formation of the State of West Virginia, had been given to this section by the Supreme Court of Appeals of Virginia in the cases of Hairston v. Randolphs, 12 Leigh 445, Siter v. McClanachan, 2 Grattan 280, and Grove v. Zumbro, 14 Grattan 401, the deed of February 25, 1870, from Mr. and Mrs. Pennybacker to Huntington, acknowledged as aforesaid, was sufficient to pass to him all the right, title, and interest of both the husband and the wife in the land, and the jury should find a verdict for the defendant. The court declined so to instruct the jury, and at Laidley's request, instructed them that if at the time of the execution of the deed of February 25, 1870, Mrs. Pennybacker was a married woman, that deed was absolutely void as to her, and passed no title of hers, legal or equitable, to Huntington, and by her deed of January 26, 1882, Laidley became vested with all her title and interest in the land.

The Central Land Company excepted to the refusal to instruct and to the instruction given and, after verdict and judgment for Laidley, presented to the Supreme Court of Appeals a petition for a writ of error, which was refused

"because the court is of opinion that the judgment complained of is plainly right, and, the petitioner desiring to present to the Supreme Court of the United States a petition for a writ of error from this judgment, leave is hereby given to the petitioner to withdraw the petition and transcript of record aforesaid for that purpose. "

Page 159 U. S. 107

The Central Land Company thereupon sued out this writ of error, and assigned the following errors:

"1st. That the purchase of the said land of the said Pennybackers, and the said deed conveying the same, became an executed contract, which no action of the judiciary of the State of West Virginia had any right, authority, or power to impair or invalidate by changing the settled construction of said section 4 of chapter 73 of the Code of West Virginia of 1868."

"2d. That under and by virtue of Section 10, Article I, of Constitution of the United States, no state is permitted to pass any law impairing the obligation of contracts; that the statutory construction of the laws of West Virginia, as it existed when the contract was made, governed the rights of parties, and rights vested under such existing constructions of the then laws cannot be divested, under said clause of the Constitution of the United States, by a subsequent decision of the state courts holding contracts invalid that were valid when made. Such decisions of the state courts are contrary to the Constitution of the United States."

"3d. Because there appears on the record of said cause a federal question in this, that the courts of West Virginia, in construing the said statute relating to deeds and acknowledgments thereof so as to invalidate the said deed to C. P. Huntington, under which your petitioner claims, changed, without legislative action, the settled and established construction which existed at the time of the execution and delivery of said deed, which is contrary to the Constitution of the United States, and that there is a federal question raised by said record, in this, that the said decision of the Circuit Court of Cabell County, which undertakes to deprive your petitioner of his property, is without due process of law, retroactive in its effect, and unconstitutional."

Laidley moved to dismiss the writ of error for want of jurisdiction, and the motion to dismiss was argued with the merits of the case.

Page 159 U. S. 109

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