Sixto v. Sarria,
196 U.S. 175 (1905)

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U.S. Supreme Court

Sixto v. Sarria, 196 U.S. 175 (1905)

Sixto v. Sarria

No. 40

Submitted November 3, 1904

Decided January 3, 1905

196 U.S. 175


Under the law of Porto Rico, while an heir to an intestate may assert his rights against one already designated heir ab intestato any time within five years after the decree of designation, the heir so designated may, within the five-year period, collect debts due to the intestate's estate and, where the payment is made in good faith and under the order of the court into which the money was paid by the debtor, and without notice of existence and claims of other heirs, discharge the debtor from liability, notwithstanding such other heirs subsequently assert their claims and are also designated as joint heirs ab intestato.

Where, however, the debtor has legal notice from the court where the matter is pending that one not originally designated has asserted and is prosecuting a claim to recognition as an heir ab intestato, any payments he makes to the one first designated are at his own peril and liability to account to the other heir after his claim has been established for his proportionate share, and the debtor is not protected by a decree and order of the court directing payment to the assignee of the heir originally designated in a proceeding to which such asserting heir was not a party.

Where the payment to the heir originally designated is made before the debt is due and after the other heir has asserted his claim, and under circumstances indicating collusion, it is for the jury to determine whether the payment was made in good faith and without knowledge of the rights of the asserting heir.

This is a writ of error bringing in review the proceedings of the District Court of the United States for the District of Porto Rico.

The original action was in assumpsit, brought by Adolfo Sixto, an alien and a subject of the King of Spain, against Laureano Sarria, a citizen of Porto Rico. The declaration set forth in substance:

That on November 27, 1892, the defendant was indebted to one Manuel Sixto, since deceased, in the sum of $16,000, Spanish money, with interest from May 15 of the same year, which sum said Sarria had promised to pay in four annual installments,

Page 196 U. S. 176

falling due respectively on the fifteenth day of May of each and every year from 1893 until 1896, inclusive. That the said Manuel Sixto departed this life on November 27, 1892, leaving two children, plaintiff and one Maria Belen Sixto Melendez, as his heirs at law. That, as such heir, the plaintiff was entitled to one-half of the indebtedness of $16,000, Spanish money, with interest at the rate of eight percent from May 15, 1892. The declaration contained the usual averments in assumpsit of promise and default. The defendant filed a plea and amended plea to this declaration, which set up the general issue, and for further plea averred:

"And for a further and second plea to the said declaration, the defendant says that, on the fifteenth day of May, eighteen hundred and ninety-two, the defendant became indebted in the sum of sixteen thousand dollars (16,000) Mexican dollars, money then current in Porto Rico, to one Manuel Sixto, on account of the purchase price of a farm situated in the Island of Vieques, District of Porto Rico, and called 'Monte Santo;' that, on the said fifteenth day of May, eighteen hundred and ninety-two, the defendant made and constituted a mortgage upon the said farm in favor of the said Sixto, as security for the payment of the aforesaid amount of sixteen thousand (16,000) Mexican dollars, together with a certain interest as stipulated in the said instrument of mortgage; that thereafter the said mortgage was duly registered in the registry of property of Humacao, Porto Rico, on the eleventh day of July, eighteen hundred and ninety-two; that the payment of the aforesaid sum of sixteen thousand (16,000) Mexican dollars, as provided for in the said instrument of mortgage, was to be made in the manner following, to-wit: four thousand (4,000) dollars on the fifteenth day of May, eighteen hundred and ninety-three, and four thousand (4,000) dollars on the fifteenth day of May of the years eighteen hundred and ninety-four, eighteen hundred and ninety-five, and eighteen hundred and ninety-six. And the defendant further says that the aforesaid Emanuel Sixto departed this life on the twenty-seventh day of

Page 196 U. S. 177

November, eighteen hundred and ninety-two, before any of the installments aforesaid had fallen due; that the said Sixto died intestate, and soon after his death, to-wit, in the year eighteen hundred and ninety-three, judicial proceedings touching and respecting the settlement and inheritance of the estate of the said Manuel Sixto, deceased, and which said proceedings are known in the law of Porto Rico as 'proceedings ab intestato,' were instituted in the Court of First Instance of Humacao, Porto Rico, the said court being then and there a court of record and of general jurisdiction, and the said court in said proceedings by a decree dated the fifteenth day of June, eighteen hundred and ninety-three, ordered the said defendant to pay into and deposit with the said court all sums of money then due by the said defendant to the said estate of the said Manuel Sixto, deceased, by virtue of the aforesaid mortgage, and the defendant thereupon and in obedience to the said order of the said court did, on the twenty-second day of June, eighteen hundred and ninety-three, consign and deposit with the said court, and did place at the disposal of the same, the sum of four thousand (4,000) pesos of the money then current in Porto Rico, and the further sum of eight hundred twenty-two and fifty-two hundredths (822.52) dollars of the same kind of money, the first sum being the amount of the first installment due May fifteenth, eighteen hundred and ninety-three, and the second sum being the interest due on the aforesaid mortgage credit up to the first of June, eighteen hundred and ninety-three. And the said decree of the said court was duly entered before the commencement of this action, and still is in full force and effect."

"And the defendant further says, as to the third installment above mentioned, that, by judgment of the Supreme Court of Porto Rico, then known as the 'audiencia territorial,' dated the eighteenth day of February, eighteen hundred and ninety-six, rendered and entered in certain foreclosure proceedings had before the said court on appeal from the court of first instance of Humacao; in which proceedings the

Page 196 U. S. 178

defendant and one Antonio Roig y Torruellas were plaintiffs, and which said proceedings the said Roig, as owner of the third and fourth installments of the mortgage before mentioned, sought to foreclose the same to the extent of the third installment aforesaid, together with certain interest, the defendant was found to be indebted to the said plaintiff Roig in the amount of the third installment aforesaid, together with the corresponding interest, and was ordered to pay the amount of said indebtedness so found due by the said judgment to the said Roig within the period of thirty days thereof, and the said judgment further provided for execution to issue upon the noncompliance with the terms thereof by the defendant. Said judgment was duly entered before the commencement of this suit, and is still in force and effect. And the said defendant thereupon, and in compliance with the said judgment of the said court, thereafter paid unto the said plaintiff Roig the amounts ordered to be paid by the said judgment, to-wit, the amount of the third installment of the aforesaid mortgage, together with the corresponding interest. And all of this the defendant is ready to verify."

The additional or amended plea sets forth:

"And the defendant, as to the second installment aforesaid, says that he has paid the same, together with the corresponding interest, on the fourth day of April, 1894, to one Belen Sixto, who was then the record owner of said mortgage credit, and who had previously been declared heir ab intestato of said Manuel Sixto, deceased, by the order and decree of the proper court, to-wit, the Court of the First Instance of Humacao, respectively on the twenty-first and twenty-third of the month of November, 1893."

"And, as to the third and fourth installments, the defendant says that, on the eleventh day of September, 1894, the aforesaid Belen Sixto, for a valuable consideration, ceded and transferred the said two installments to one Antonio Roig y Torruella; that thereupon the said transfer was duly recorded, and the said two installments appeared upon the record to

Page 196 U. S. 179

be the property of the said Roig, and thereupon, to-wit, on or about the sixteenth day of May, 1896, the defendant paid the said Roig the amount of said two installments, together with all interest due."

The bill of exceptions brings into the case the testimony and the rulings and charge of the court. The facts developed are: Manuel Sixto sold a farm to the defendant Sarria for $16,000 Mexican money, payable in four equal installments, with interest. A mortgage was taken upon the property to secure the payment of the purchase price. Manuel Sixto y Andino died November 27, 1892, leaving no issue except two natural children, a daughter by the name of Maria Belen Sixto y Melendez (hereinafter called Maria Belen), who lived in Vieques, and the plaintiff in error, a son, who lived in the Island of St. Thomas. After the death of Manuel Sixto, the daughter, Maria Belen, filed her petition in the Court of First Instance of Humanacao, Porto Rico, alleging that she was the only heir of Manuel Sixto, deceased, and praying the court to declare her heir ab intestato according to the provisions of sections 980 and following of the Code of Porto Rico then in force. Upon June 22, 1893, the defendant in error, Sarria, paid into court, where the petition of Maria Belen was then pending, the first installment due, with interest. On November 21, 1893, Maria Belen, by decree of the court, was adjudged heir ab intestato of Manuel Sixto, without prejudice to the rights of third parties. On the twenty-fifth of the same month, the assets received by the administrator of Manuel Sixto, who had been appointed during the proceeding, and the money paid into court by defendant in error by order of the court, were made over to Maria Belen as sole heir ab intestato. On November 24, 1893, the plaintiff in error, Adolfo Sixto, presented to the same Court of the First Instance his petition to be declared the heir of Manuel Sixto, deceased (jointly entitled with Maria Belen), invoking the exercise by the court of "voluntary jurisdiction" under the section of the code whereby Maria Belen had been adjudged heir. To

Page 196 U. S. 180

this petition Maria Belen answered, alleging that she had been duly declared the only heir of Manuel Sixto, and that the plaintiff in error could only contest her right by a "contentious suit" (expediente contendioso).

The court sustained this contention, and Sixto appealed, but later abandoned the appeal, and on April 4, 1894, began a suit in the form of a contentious proceeding, making Maria Belen a party defendant and praying the court to declare him (Adolfo Sixto) an equal heir with her in the estate of Manuel Sixto, and asking the court to issue an order to the registrar of property, requiring him to make a cautionary entry in the register concerning the property affected by this suit, and also requiring the defendant in error to retain at the disposition of the court, the sums still owing to the estate of Manuel Sixto. On June 2, 1894, a notice was accordingly issued to Sarria, and one to the registrar. The one to Sarria was issued on June 5, 1894, and the one to the registrar on June 4, 1894. The defendant, Maria Belen, being notified of these orders, on June 26, 1894, answered the plaintiff's petition, and in her answer prayed that the interlocutory order of June 2, 1894, be vacated and the notices cancelled. On August 30, 1894, the prayer of defendant's answer was granted by the court, and orders issued accordingly to the registrar and to Sarria, and notice was given to the solicitor of the plaintiff. On September 1, 1894, the order reached the registrar, and the order of cancellation was made on the books on September 3, 1894. On September 3, 1894, the plaintiff filed a petition for an appeal from the court's order of August 30, 1894, praying that it be allowed "in both effects" -- that is (Code, § 383), with the effect of a review and stay of proceedings -- but the judge granted the same with one effect only -- that is, for a review of the judgment. In the appellate court, on November 17, 1894, that court held that the allowance of both effects had been wrongfully denied, and ordered that the appeal be considered as having been taken for both effects. On December 22, 1894, the appellate court granted a further

Page 196 U. S. 181

order that Sarria, the defendant in error, be notified of his obligation under the decree of June 2, 1894, which order was accordingly issued. On November 29, 1895, the appellate court (audiencia) rendered its decision on the merits of the appeal, and reversed the order of August 30, 1894, and reaffirmed the order of June 2, 1894, in its validity and regularity. The court used the following language:

"That which was ordered in the decree appealed from, regarding Mr. Laureano Sarria, is hereby set aside, leaving in force the requisition ordered and directed to said Sarria on June 2 by the judge of first instance until the resolution of the pending appeal."

This decision was certified to the court below in January, 1896, and in March following, the solicitor of the plaintiff requested the court to notify Sarria and the registrar that the order of June 2, 1894, was still in force, which was accordingly done, and the defendant in error made reply thereto as follows:

"Having received notice that the installment of the mortgage had been transferred to Mr. Antonio Roig, who has recorded said transfer in the registry of property, and supposing that he will proceed to collect the same judicially as he did the previous installment, he is unable to accept the notification, and he will appear before the audiencia in the premises."

The registrar refused to comply with the order for these reasons:

"First, because, subsequent to the illegal cancellation of the cautionary notice, the property as well as the encumbrance had been transferred on the registry; and, second, because the mortgage law contained no provision regarding the form of carrying into effect such an order."

Thereafter, the plaintiff asked the court for a further order to the registrar, but this was denied.

The case proceeded to proof and argument, and on December 15, 1896, a final decision was rendered, adverse to the plaintiff, from which decree he took an appeal, which was allowed "in both effects." The appeal was also allowed from

Page 196 U. S. 182

the order denying a further order to the registrar. On February 2, 1897, the appellate court consolidated the appeals and ordered the suspension of further proceedings until final decision.

In the meantime, on April 26, 1896, by an order of the Court of the First Instance, Sarria was allowed to withdraw his deposit of the third installment. The order recited that one Roig had become the purchaser from Maria Belen of the third and fourth installments, and had recovered judgment in the audiencia against Sarria for the third installment, and found that Maria Belen had the right to transfer these installments, and ordered a copy of the decree to be placed in the records by the actuary.

Thus the matter remained until after the conclusion of the war with Spain, resulting in a change of sovereignty of Porto Rico.

By the military government, an order was issued abolishing the territorial audiencia, the appellate court aforesaid, creating in its place the District Court of San Juan. On September 29, 1899, that court rendered its final decision upon both appeals, reversing the action of the court below and deciding the plaintiff to be legally proved the heir of Manuel Sixto. The trial in the United States district court in the present suit resulted in a verdict and judgment for the defendant.

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