While parties cannot give jurisdiction, and may sometimes except
to an erroneous ruling in their favor, in this case, held
that, as the court had jurisdiction both of parties and subject
matter, the party invoking a ruling to change a bill for injunction
to one to quiet title cannot ask a reversal on the ground that the
court had no power to grant such a motion.
As this case involved the fixing of a line, when that question
was settled, it was proper to quiet the title of each party as
against the other, and as the findings support a decree in accord
with the character of the proceedings asked for by appellant and
which prevented a multiplicity of suits, such a decree was properly
5 P.R.Fed. 492 affirmed.
The facts, which involve the validity of a decree quieting title
to property in Porto Rico, are stated in the opinion.
Page 235 U. S. 580
MR. JUSTICE LAMAR delivered the opinion of the Court.
On the north shore of the Island of Porto Rico, in the districts
of Arecibo and Manati, there is a slough or swamp known as El Cano
de Tiburones. It is 12 miles long, of varying width, and was
supposed to contain about 7,000 acres, though that was a mere
estimate, since the exterior boundaries had not been established.
Neither had it been authoritatively determined whether it was
public land or private property. This uncertainty of boundary and
title was the occasion of much litigation. Catala v.
4 P,R,Fed. 538.
The Legislative Assembly of Porto Rico treated it as belonging
to the public, and, in December, 1907, leased it to Wenceslao
Borda, Jr., with the right to drain, use, and occupy the swamp as a
sugar plantation. He was put in possession by the Porto Rican
police, acting under the orders of the Commissioner and Assistant
Commissioner of the Interior and other officials. For the purpose
of establishing the boundaries, they also took part in a survey
which fixed a line running for a distance of about two miles
through lands claimed by Mercelis and associates. Borda built a
fence along this line, and thereupon Mercelis and other landowners
at once filed a bill in equity in the District Court of the United
States for Porto Rico claiming that Borda and the Porto Rican
officials had trespassed upon their property, and, with force and
arms, had taken possession of land on which were located valuable
fresh water springs essential to the successful management and
operation of their plantations. They alleged further that the
trespass and marking of the line had already been the occasion of
violent altercations between the respective parties; that the
deprivation of the property, and especially of the fresh water
springs, would occasion irreparable damage. For that reason, and to
avoid a multiplicity of suits, the court was asked to enjoin Borda
and the other defendants
Page 235 U. S. 581
from entering upon complainants' land, running lines, digging
ditches, erecting fences, or committing other trespasses. The
defendants filed an answer in which they denied all of the material
allegations of the bill, and averred that they had only entered
upon land belonging to the government of Porto Rico by virtue of a
lease from it. During the trial, the defendants insisted that there
was no equity in the bill, but the court, following Hernandez
4 P.R.Fed. 400, and Catala v. Grahame,
P.R.Fed. 538, held the remedy at law to be wholly inadequate and
ruled that, in view of the nature of the questions arising under
the Spanish law, the case was of a nature which could not be tried
by a jury. There was a trial lasting many days, in which a
multitude of witnesses were examined. There was an irreconcilable
conflict in their testimony as to the boundaries of the swamp, and
whether it belonged to the public or to private individuals.
"When the proofs were all in, counsel for the plaintiffs moved
for leave to amend the prayer of their bill so as to make it
conform to the proofs, and, in effect, constitute it a bill to
The respondents objected, but the court granted the motion.
The evidence is not in the record, but the court delivered an
opinion (5 P.R.Fed. 492) in which he set out the facts as found by
him. He thereupon made a decree that El Co. no de Tiburones was
public property; that the boundary of the adjacent land extended to
the edge of the swamp, and not to the channel or canal in the
center; that the springs, which were the main cause of the
controversy, were the property of the plaintiffs; that wherever the
line encroached upon high ground, it should be relocated so as to
run a few feet within the edge of the well defined swamp, and
directed that a surveyor should mark and stake the line as
designated in the decree. There was a motion and a supplemental
motion for a rehearing, which were denied, and the case was brought
Page 235 U. S. 582
this Court on a record containing sixteen assignments of error,
in which appellants complain of the findings against them, insist
that the court erred in holding that equity had jurisdiction to
decide the question of title, and in not sending that question to a
court of law to be determined by a jury. They contend that it was
error, in a proceeding involving title to what was claimed to be
public land, to enter a decree in a case to which the Island of
Porto Rico was not a party; that the court erred in establishing
the line and in deciding the question of title adversely to the
appellants, and that, in a proceeding in which the sole relief
prayed was an injunction, he erred in entering a decree in which he
neither granted nor denied the injunction.
The original bill prayed for purely equitable relief by
injunction, and if the case be treated as a suit in equity, which
was to proceed "in the same manner as a circuit court" of the
United States (April 12, 1900, 31 Stat. 84, § 34), then there was,
of course, no right to demand a trial by jury, although, in its
discretion, the court could have taken the verdict of a jury on any
issue of fact upon which he desired their finding. On the other
hand, if it be treated as a proceeding in a statutory court whose
jurisdiction and form of procedure were to be in conformity with
the Porto Rican law (31 Stat. 84, § 33), there was nothing to
prevent the adoption and enforcement of rules by which relief could
be afforded through the intervention of a jury or by the court
itself. Ely v. New Mexico R. Co., 129 U.
, 129 U. S. 293
18 Wall. 654.
It is, however, not necessary to separately consider each of the
sixteen assignments of error, since they relate to rulings none of
which is erroneous if the court, acting on the appellant's motion
to amend, was justified in treating the proceeding as in the nature
of a bill to quiet title. For, in that event, there was not only no
right to a trial by jury, but it was not error, as against the
parties to the record, to
Page 235 U. S. 583
make a decree appropriate to such a bill instead of denying or
granting the prayer of the original bill for injunction.
The appellants insist, however, that, even with their consent,
the court could not, without a cross-bill, make a decree quieting
the title. In this view of the case, they rely upon the assignment
of error that
"the court erred in suggesting and allowing the plaintiffs to
amend their bill to conform to the proof after the trial of the
issues, and the prayer of their bill in such a way as to change the
nature and character of the bill from a bill for an injunction to a
bill as to quiet title."
The defendants did not appeal, and the appellants cannot be
heard to complain of the court's action in granting their own
motion. Parties cannot give jurisdiction, and may sometimes except
to an erroneous ruling of the court in their favor.
Capron v. Van
2 Cranch 126; United
States v. Huckabee,
16 Wall. 433; Mansfield
&c. Ry. v. Swan, 111 U. S.
But in this case, the court had jurisdiction of the subject
matter and of the parties before it, and therefore the appellants
cannot ask for a reversal because of a ruling which, if not
actually invoked, was voluntarily acted upon by them when they
assented that the bill should be converted into a proceeding to
quiet title. Cowley v. Northern Pacific R. Co.,
159 U. S. 569
Perego v. Dodge, 163 U. S. 160
United States v. Memphis, 97 U. S.
; Connell v. Smiley, 156 U.
; Bethell v.
13 Wall. 2. The case involved the fixing
of a line. When that question was settled, it was proper to quiet
the title of each party as against the other up to the line thus
established. The findings support the decree, which not only
operated to prevent the multiplicity of suits referred to in the
original bill, but was in accord with the character of the
proceedings, which the appellants themselves asked the court to
make. The decree is