Smithers v. Smith,
204 U.S. 632 (1907)

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U.S. Supreme Court

Smithers v. Smith, 204 U.S. 632 (1907)

Smithers v. Smith

No. 138

Submitted December 21, 1906

Decided February 25, 1907

204 U.S. 632


When the circuit court dismisses a case under the provisions of § 1 of the Act of March 3, 1875, 18 Stat. 470, as amended by § 1 of the Act of August 13, 1888, 25 Stat. 434, because not substantially involving the requisite amount in controversy to confer jurisdiction, the order of the court, in this case without a jury, is subject to review in this Court in respect to the rulings of law and findings of fact upon the evidence.

Whatever plaintiff's motive in bringing his suit in the federal court, rather than in the state court may be, he has the right to act upon it.

Page 204 U. S. 633

Where a plaintiff in good faith asserts a claim against several defendants that, acting together, they have taken land from him of over $2,000 in value and inflicted upon him damages of over $2,000, and requisite diverse citizenship exists, the Circuit Court has jurisdiction and the case does not fall within the dismissal provision of § 1 of the Act of March 3, 1875, because it appears to the trial judge that each of the defendants claims that the part of plaintiffs' land which he has taken and the damages recoverable against him would amount in value to less than $2,000. A determination by the judge that the defendants did not act jointly is not a determination of a jurisdictional fact but, of an essential element of the merits.

The plaintiff in error, a citizen of New York, brought in the Circuit Court for the Northern District of Texas a petition to try the title to 1,280 acres of land, against ten defendants, citizens either of Texas, Kentucky, or Illinois. Six of the defendants were warrantors of the plaintiff's title, and questions arising as to them are not material here. The petition alleged that, upon January 15, 1902,

"the defendants Reagan, Smith, Greer, and Deven unlawfully entered upon said premises and dispossessed plaintiff thereof, and have since that date unlawfully withheld from the plaintiff the possession thereof, to his damage $2,000.00;"

that the plaintiff's title was derived by mesne conveyances from two patents of adjoining lots of land, known respectively as survey 27 and survey 91; that, prior to plaintiff's acquisition of title, the two surveys were circumscribed by a fence two miles long and one mile wide, making a single tract of land of those dimensions; that the value of the land was $5,000, and that the defendants have destroyed fences and other improvements and thereby damaged the plaintiff in the sum of $2,000, and prayed possession of the land, and damages.

The answer of Reagan alleged that he was the owner of part of the land described in the petition by a title separate and independent from the other defendants; that his land is enclosed by a fence and in his possession; that he disclaims title to the remainder of the land claimed; that the allegation in the petition that he entered

Page 204 U. S. 634

upon any other than his own land was untrue, "and made with the intent to confer upon this Court jurisdiction over him;" that the value of the land which he entered, is in possession of, and claims is less than $800, and asked that the suit abate as to him.

Treating the foregoing answer as a plea in abatement, Reagan, without waiving it, further answered, disclaiming as to part of the land claimed in the petition and pleading the general issue as to the remainder.

The answer of Greer was substantially the same, except that the value of the land upon which he entered and was possessed of was alleged to be less than $600. Greer further answered, alleging the pendency in the courts of the state of an action

"to try title to recover of S. A. Greer, a defendant in the case at bar, one T. Smith and others, the title and possession of the land described in the petition in the case at bar,"

and praying that the cause await the determination of the cause in the state court. The answer of Smith contained the same allegation with regard to the pendency of the action in the state court as that of Greer, disclaimed as to part of the land described in the petition, and pleaded the general issue as to the remainder. Deven filed no answer.

More than a year after the last of the foregoing pleadings were filed, the plaintiff filed what was entitled "First amended original petition." In it, Lee, also a resident of Texas, was named as an additional defendant. The amendment seems to be substantially like the original petition, except that it alleged that "the defendants Reagan, Smith, Greer, Lee, and Deven together unlawfully entered upon said premises and dispossessed plaintiff thereof," and that "all of said defendants have jointly taken possession of plaintiff's said land;" that the plaintiff has acquired title to land by the statute of limitations, and that the action is one to fix and determine the boundaries, which are uncertain, and that "the entire land is the subject matter of this controversy as between the plaintiff and each and all of said defendants."

Subsequently Lee answered, alleging that he was the owner of part of the land described in plaintiff's petition by a title

Page 204 U. S. 635

separate and independent from that of the other defendants, and with respect to that he pleads the general issue, and disclaims as to the remainder. The answer also alleged that the matter in controversy did not exceed the sum of $2,000, and that

"the claim of plaintiff as set forth in his petition as to the value of said land, improvements, rents, and damages, exceeding $2,000, has been fraudulently alleged with the intent and purpose to confer jurisdiction upon this honorable court, when in truth and in fact no such jurisdiction existed, because the matter in controversy is of less than $2,000 in value."

Subsequently Smith amended his answer and alleged that he was the owner and in possession of 443 acres of the land described in plaintiff's petition, which was of the value of $1,500, and disclaimed as to the remainder. He also alleged that the valuation placed by the plaintiff on the land, and the plaintiff's allegation that "he and S. A. Greer jointly took possession of said lands," was

"fraudulently claimed and alleged for the intent and purpose of conferring jurisdiction upon this honorable court, when in truth and in fact no such jurisdiction existed, because the whole matter in controversy is and was of less value than $2,000."

He further alleged that the controversy had been adjudicated in the state court. The pleas to the jurisdiction were, on motion of the defendants, tried by the judge, jury being waived, who found that

"the pleas of each of the said defendants Reagan, Lee, Smith, and Greer is fully proved and sustained, and that this Court has no jurisdiction over the subject matter in dispute,"

and dismissed the action for want of jurisdiction. A writ of error was allowed "solely upon the question of jurisdiction," the judge, certifying that no other question was tried, transmitted the record containing a bill of exceptions to this Court.

The bill of exceptions shows that it was agreed that the plaintiff owned the two surveys, 91 and 27, containing 1,280 acres, of a value much exceeding $2,000; that Lee owned section 32, Reagan section 31, Smith section 28, and Greer

Page 204 U. S. 636

section 90, all of which were adjoining sections and surrounded three sides of the plaintiff's land. The dispute concerned the situation of the boundaries. As the defendants claimed the boundaries, they owned 1,014 acres of what the plaintiff claimed to be his land, which, when he acquired it, was enclosed by a fence in one parcel of 1,280 acres. Of the 1,014 acres taken from the land claimed by plaintiff, Lee claimed 96, Reagan 288, Smith 443, and Greer 187. The evidence, which is reported in full in the bill of exceptions, shows the following facts: in 1892, before any of the defendants appeared claiming title, the 1,280 acres claimed by the plaintiff was enclosed as one parcel by a substantial fence, and was known as the Pendleton pasture. Subsequently the plaintiff acquired title to the enclosed land. Smith pulled down part and Reagan another part of the Pendleton pasture fence, and Smith and Greer each pastured their cattle throughout the Pendleton pasture.

Page 204 U. S. 639

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