Balkam v. Woodstock Iron Co.
154 U.S. 177 (1894)

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U.S. Supreme Court

Balkam v. Woodstock Iron Co., 154 U.S. 177 (1894)

Balkam v. Woodstock Iron Company

No. 329

Argued March 28-29, 1894

Decided May 26, 1894

154 U.S. 177


An action of ejectment was brought in a state court of Alabama in which the parties were the same, the lands sought to be recovered were the same, the issues were the same, and the proof was the same as in this action. That case was taken to the supreme court of the state, and it was there held that, whilst the plaintiffs and those whom they represented had no legal right to bring an action of ejectment pending a life estate in the premises, yet, in view of a probate sale of the reversionary interest and the recorded title thereto, and of the payment of the purchase price into the estate and its distribution among the creditors of the estate, the heirs had an equitable right to commence a suit to remove the cloud on the title which the probate proceedings created, and inasmuch as they had failed to do so during twenty years, their right of action was barred under the doctrine of prescription. The statutes of Alabama provide that two judgments in favor of the defendant in an action of ejectment, or in an action in the nature of an action of ejectment, between the same parties, in which the same title is put in issue, are a bar to any action for the recovery of the land or any part thereof between the same parties or their privies founded on the same title. The plaintiffs, availing themselves of this statute, brought this suit. Held that although the judgment of this Court might be, if the question were before it for original consideration, that the bar of the statute would only begin to run upon the death of the holder of the life estate, yet that the court of last resort of the state having passed upon the

Page 154 U. S. 178

questions when the bar of the statute of prescription began to be operative, and when the parties were obliged to bring their action, whether legal or equitable, those questions were purely within the province of that court, and this Court was bound to apply and enforce its conclusions.

The plaintiffs in error, as heirs of Samuel P. Hudson, brought two suits of ejectment for the recovery of certain lands. By agreement, the suits were consolidated and tried as one. After judgment on verdict in favor of the defendants, the case was brought here by writ of error.

Samuel P. Hudson, a resident of Calhoun County in the State of Alabama, died intestate in August, 1863. At the time of his death, he was seised of certain parcels of land in Calhoun County. He left a widow, Kezia A. Hudson, and several children, some of whom were minors. James F. Grant was appointed administrator of his estate by the probate court.

The widow petitioned the court for allotment of dower, and after due proceedings in accordance with the laws of Alabama, her right of dower in the land in controversy was duly recognized and decreed.

In January, 1866, the administrator petitioned the court to order the sale of the real estate, saving the rights of dower of the widow, in order to pay debts, alleging the insufficiency of the personalty.

To this petition the widow and heirs were made defendants, and a guardian ad litem was appointed to represent the minors. A day was set for the hearing. All parties, including the minors' guardian, were duly notified, and a commission was issued for the examination of certain witnesses. The caption of the interrogatories to be addressed to these witnesses recited that the answers, when taken,

"were to be used in evidence before said court on the hearing of and in behalf of the application made by James F. Grant, administrator of said estate, to sell land belonging to said estate."

The witnesses named appeared before the commissioners appointed by the probate court, and testified as to their knowledge of the land and of the heirs and distributees, and swore that, to the best of their information and belief, the

Page 154 U. S. 179

personal property of the estate was insufficient to pay the debts. The caption to the answers of each of the witnesses recites that they were sworn and examined by virtue of a commission issued out of the Probate Court of Calhoun County, Alabama, "in the matter of the estate of Samuel P. Hudson, deceased, the application of James F. Grant to sell land." The certificate of the commissioners attests "the examination of the witnesses in the above-stated matter of Samuel P. Hudson, deceased, on the application of J. F. Grant, administrator, to sell land." The answers of the witnesses under the commission were returned to the probate court and were filed by the judge thereof on the 10th of February, 1866. On the 15th of February, 1866, the day set for the hearing of the petition, the following order was entered:

"Probate Court for Calhoun County, Alabama"

"February 15th, A.D. 1866"

"This being the day set by a former order of this Court, the 9th day of January, A.D. 1866, to hear and determine upon the petition of James F. Grant, administrator of the estate of Samuel P. Hudson, deceased, for the sale of the following described lands belonging to said estate, for the purpose of paying the debts of the said estate, to-wit: [Here follows a description of the real estate.]"

"* * * *"

"And comes the said Grant and prays that his said petition and application for the sale of the above-described land be heard and determined at this term of the court, and it appearing to the satisfaction of the court that notice of the filing of said petition and of the day set for the hearing of the same had been given according to law, thereupon the court proceeds to hear and determine upon the facts of the said petition, and comes into court L. W. Cannon, as the guardian of the minor heirs of said decedent, and denies each and all of the allegations of said petition, and thereupon said administrator introduces witnesses to sustain the same, and, after hearing all the testimony in the case, the court is of opinion

Page 154 U. S. 180

that the allegations of said petition are fully sustained by the evidence in the case. It is therefore ordered and decreed by the court that the above-described lands, as belonging to said estate, be, and the same are hereby, directed to be sold for the payment of the debts of said estate, subject, however, to the widow's dower interest in said lands. It is further ordered that said lands be sold on a credit of one and two years, with interest from the date of sale. It is further ordered that said administrator, after advertising the sale of said lands in the Jacksonville Republican for three weeks, giving the time, place, and terms of sale, proceed to sell the said lands known as the 'Steam Mill Tract,' at Blue Mountain, and the Nunnelly place and town lots, before the courthouse door, in the Town of Jacksonville, Ala."

"* * * *"

"It is ordered that said land be sold at public auction to the highest bidder, and that said administrator secure the purchase money for said lands by taking notes with two good solvent sureties."

"* * * *"

"A. Woods, Judge of Probate"

At the sale thus ordered, the widow, Kezia A. Hudson, purchased the reversionary interest in the lands in controversy for $450. The administrator duly reported the sale to the probate court, stating in his report that he had adjudicated to Kezia A. Hudson the "remainder after the demands of the dower interest in the land," which had been set apart as Mrs. Hudson's dower. This report was sworn to by the administrator, and on May 15, 1866, an order was passed approving the same and ordering it to be filed. Afterwards the administrator made a formal deed to the widow, which reads as follows:

"Whereas, I, James F. Grant, administrator of all and singular the goods and chattels, rights, and credits of the estate of Samuel P. Hudson, deceased, did as said administrator apply, and obtain an order from the Probate Court of Calhoun County, State of Alabama, for an order to sell the

Page 154 U. S. 181

real estate of which the said Samuel P. Hudson died seised and possessed, subject, however, to the widow of said deceased's right of dower, and whereas said widow did apply to said court of probate to have dower allowed to her out of said lands, and, prior to the time said sale was brought, there was set off and allowed to Mrs. Kezia A. Hudson, widow of said deceased, the following lands, to-wit:"

"[Here follows a description of the lands.]"

"* * * *"

"Now know ye that, for and in consideration of the foregoing premises and the payment of the said sum of four hundred and fifty dollars, to me in hand paid by the said Kezia A. Hudson, the receipt of which is hereby acknowledged, I, as such administrator, have this day bargained and sold, and do by these presents bargain, sell, and convey unto the said Kezia A. Hudson, her heirs and assigns forever, all the remaining interest or right which there is of the said lands; to have and to hold to the said Kezia A. Hudson, her heirs and assigns forever; but I am in no event personally liable upon the covenants of this deed. In witness whereof I have hereunto set my hand and affixed my seal this 9th day of April, A.D. 1866."

"J. F. Grant [Seal]"

"Administrator of Samuel P. Hudson, Deceased"

Upon which deed are the following endorsements, to-wit:

"State of Alabama"

"Calhoun County"

"I, Alexander Woods, Judge of Probate in and for said county, hereby certify that J. F. Grant, administrator of the estate of S. P. Hudson, deceased, who is known to me, acknowledged before me on this day that, being informed of the contents of the conveyance, he executed the same voluntarily as such administrator on the day the same bears date. Given under my hand this 9th day of April, A.D. 1866."

"A. Woods, Judge of Probate"

Page 154 U. S. 182

"Filed in office April 9th, 1866, and recorded April 16th, 1866, and that the deed had on it fifty cents revenue stamps, this 16th day of April, A.D. 1866. A. Woods, Judge of Probate."

"State of Alabama"

"Calhoun County"

"I, E. F. Crook, Judge of the Court of Probate and ex officio clerk of said court, in and for said county and state, do hereby certify that the foregoing three pages, inclusive, contain a true and correct transcript of deed of J. F. Grant, administrator of estate of S. P. Hudson, deceased, to Kezia A. Hudson, as fully and as completely as appears of record in my office. Given under my hand at office, in the Town of Jacksonville, Alabama, on this 15th day of August, A.D. 1888."

"E. F. Crook"

"Judge of Probate and ex officio Clerk of said"

"Court, Calhoun County, Ala."

On May 9, 1866, the administrator prayed the court that the estate of his intestate might be declared insolvent, and, after due hearing and notice to all parties in interest, the prayer was granted.

Mrs. Hudson, the purchaser of the reversionary interest, lived at the time of the sale, with her children, on the lands bought by her. Subsequently she conveyed them to the firm of Sherman & Boynton, who in turn conveyed them to H. L. Jeffers, and he again to the Woodstock Iron Company, one of the defendants in error, which latter sold a portion of the lands to the Anniston Land & Improvement Company, and that corporation conveyed it to the Anniston City Land Company, and, as was admitted, all the purchasers went into possession at the time of their respective conveyances, and held the lands openly and unequivocally as owners thereof. The property, since the sale, has become very valuable, a portion of it being within the municipal limits of the Town of Anniston, and the other portion adjacent thereto. Mrs. Hudson died June 26, 1879.

Page 154 U. S. 183

On June 28, 1887, action was brought by the heirs of Samuel P. Hudson in the Circuit Court of Calhoun County to recover the lands which had been sold in the probate proceedings. In that suit, the parties were the same, the lands were the same, the issues were the same, and the proof was the same as in the case now before us. Judgment was given in the circuit court in favor of the plaintiffs. This judgment, on appeal to the Supreme Court of Alabama, was reversed on the ground that whatever rights the plaintiffs might have originally possessed were barred by prescription. Woodstock Iron Co. v. Fullenwider, 87 Ala. 587.

Section 2714 of the Code of Alabama provides:

"Two judgments in favor of the defendant in an action of ejectment, or in an action in the nature of an action of ejectment, between the same parties, in which the same title is put in issue, is a bar to any action for the recovery of the land, or any part thereof, between the same parties or their privies, founded on the same title."

Availing themselves of this provision of the Alabama law, the plaintiffs thereupon brought these suits in the Circuit Court of the United States for the Northern District of Alabama. As before stated, the parties, plaintiff and defendant, are the same, the issues are the same, and the proof is the same as in the case finally decided by the supreme court of the state. Under instructions from the court, there was a verdict for the defendants. The instructions will be found reported in 43 F. 648. The facts were admitted below, and therefore the issues presented are altogether questions of law, and were all reserved by bill of exception taken during the trial below.

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