decided: May 16, 1892.
APPEAL FROM THE CIRCUIT COURT OF THE UNITED STATES FOR THE DISTRICT OF NEBRASKA.
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MR. JUSTICE BROWN, after stating the case as above, delivered the opinion of the court.
There are really but two questions involved in this case: (1) whether Patrick located this scrip and took these lands under the blank power of attorney and deed, as trustee for Sophia Felix; and (2) whether the plaintiffs are estopped by their own laches and those of Sophia Felix from insisting that Patrick shall be decreed to hold the lands for their benefit.
The facts of the case, briefly stated, are as follows: Sophia Felix, a half-breed Indian, was entitled under an act of Congress of July 17, 1854, 10 Stat. 304, c. 83, to certain scrip which might be located upon any unoccupied land subject to preemption or private sale, but it was expressly provided in the act that no transfer or conveyance of such scrip should be valid. In pursuance of this act, scrip was issued to her in 1857, to the amount of 480 acres. The scrip itself no being assignable, some person (who it was does not appear) obtained possession of such scrip to the amount of 120 acres from the said Sophia and her husband, (she having in the meantime married,) and also procured from them a power of attorney and quitclaim deed, bearing date March 31, 1860, and executed in blank. Nearly two years thereafter, and in November, 1861, these were turned over (by whom it does not appear) to Patrick, who located the scrip upon the lands in question, of which he had already been in possession for some time, and to which he had endeavored, though unsuccessfully, to acquire title by preemption, caused the name of William Ruth to be inserted as attorney in the power, and his own name as grantee in the quitclaim deed, after filling in the description of this property; and on July 25, 1863, procured from Ruth under his power of attorney a warranty deed to himself of the same property. The description of
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the land in the quitclaim deed seems to have been defective, and in the meantime, viz.: July 3, 1863, a patent had issued to Sophia Felix. Patrick has been in possession of these lands ever since. A large part of the tract has been platted and recorded as an addition to the city of Omaha, and is divided into blocks and lots, intersected by streets, and a large part of the lands have been sold to purchasers, whose only notice of the infirmity in their title appears to have been the fact that the power of attorney and quitclaim deed were dated nearly two years prior to the scrip location.
1. The device of a blank power of attorney and quitclaim deed was doubtless resorted to for the purpose of evading the provision of the act of Congress that no transfer or conveyance of the scrip issued under such act should be valid. This rendered it necessary that the scrip should be located in the name and for the benefit of the person to whom it was issued, but from the moment the scrip was located and the title in the land vested in Sophia Felix, it became subject to her disposition precisely as any other land would be. In order, therefore, for the purchaser of this scrip from Sophia Felix to make the same available, it became necessary to secure a power of attorney or a deed of the land, and as the scrip had not then been located, and the person who should locate it was unknown, the name of the grantee and the description of the land must necessarily be left blank. Had the notary, who took the acknowledgment, observed these blanks, he would doubtless have declined to act until they were filled out, particularly in view of the fact that the grantors were Indians, and the scheme a palpable device to evade the law against the assignment of the scrip. It is pertinent in this connection to note the fact that the secretary of State, whose certificate was made in June, 1861, certified merely to the official character of the notary, while the clerk of the District Court of the county, whose certificate was made August 20, 1863, after the scrip was located, and the blanks in the instrument filled out, certifies that the same were executed and acknowledged according to the laws of the State of Minnesota. As the bill alleges that Patrick
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obtained possession of these instruments while still in blank, he is clearly chargeable with notice that they were intended as a device to evade the law against the assignment of scrip.
Having, then, no right to locate the scrip for his own benefit, he must be deemed to have located it for Sophia Felix, and as her representative. It was declared by this court as early as 1810, in the case of Massie v. Watts, 6 Cranch, 148, that if an agent located land for himself which he ought to locate for his principal, he is in equity a trustee for his principal. In that case the defendant Massie had contracted with one O'Neal to locate and survey for him a mi treams, palitary warrant for 4000 acres in his name. Massie located the warrant with the proper surveyor, and, being himself a surveyor, fraudulently made a survey purporting to be a survey of the entry, but variant from the same, so that the land actually surveyed was not the land entered with the surveyor. This was done for the fraudulent purpose of giving way to a claim of the defendant's which he surveyed on the land entered for the plaintiff, whereby the plaintiff lost the land, and defendant obtained the legal title. This court held that Massie held such land as trustee for O'Neal. "But Massie," said Chief Justice Marshall, (p. 169,) "the agent of O'Neal, has entered and surveyed a portion of that land for himself, and obtained a patent for it in his own name. According to the clearest and best established principles of equity, the agent who so acts becomes a trustee for his principal. He cannot hold the land under an entry for himself otherwise than as trustee for his principal." This case was subsequently cited with approval in Irvine v. Marshall, 20 How. 558. So in Brush v. Ware, 15 Pet. 93, where an executor obtained a certificate for 4000 acres of land, and afterwards sold and assigned the same, when it appeared under the will that he had no right to sell the land, it was held that the purchaser to whom the patent was subsequently issued, took with notice of the prior title of the heirs, and was bound to make the conveyance asked from him. To the same effect are Stark v. Starrs, 6 Wall. 402, 419; Meader v. Norton, 11 Wall. 442, 458. And in Widdicombe v. Childers, 124
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U.S. 400, 405, it was held that a person who had obtained a patent to lands which the patentee knew he had no right to claim, took the legal title subject to the superior equities of the rightful owner. In delivering the opinion, Chief Justice Waite said: "The holder of a legal title in bad faith must always yield to a superior equity. As against the United States his title may be good, but not as against one who had acquired a prior right from the United States in force when his purchase was made under which his patent issued. The patent vested him with the legal title, but it did not determine the equitable relations between him and third persons." See also Morris v. Joseph, 1 West Va. 256.
The substance of these authorities is that, whenever a person obtains the legal title to land by any artifice or concealment, or by making use of facilities intended for the benefit of another, a court of equity will impress upon the lands so held by him a trust in favor of the party who is justly entitled to them, and will order the trust executed by decreeing their conveyance to the party in whose favor the trust was created. It is of no consequence in this connection that Sophia Felix was ignorant of the defendant's acts, or of the trust thereby created, since she was at liberty, upon discovering it, to affirm the trust and enforce its execution. Bank of Metropolis v. Guttschlick, 14 Pet. 19, 31; Moses v. Murgatroyd, 1 Johns. Ch. 119; Cumberland v. Codrington, 3 Johns. Ch. 229, 261; Neilson v. Blight, 1 Johns. Cas. 205; Weston v. Barker, 12 Johns. 276.
It needs no argument to show that no additional right was acquired by Patrick under the acts of July 25, 1868, and February 2, 1869, confirming the title to the lands to the parties holding by deed from the patentee. Such act might estop the government itself from taking proceedings to cancel the patent already issued, or to oust Patrick, but to hold it operative as affecting the rights of third parties would be virtually recognizing judicial power in the legislature. In no possible view of legislative authority, can it be assumed that an act of Congress can declare that lands to which one party is by law entitled, shall belong to another.
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In addition to this, however, Patrick was not a man "holding by deed from the patentee" within the meaning of the law. The power of attorney and quitclaim deed, being in blank when they passed from the possession of Sophia Felix, were inoperative to convey her title to any particular land. Nor, under the allegations of this bill, can it be claimed that she ever authorized these blanks to be filled, since it is averred that the instruments were procured fraudulently and without consideration, and neither the person to whom she delivered them, nor Patrick himself, could be considered her agent for filling out the blanks. Such agency, if it exists at all, must be exercised before the deed is delivered. In order to pass the legal title to lands something more is necessary than the signature of the grantor to a blank instrument. There must be an intent to convey, and the delivery of a deed for the purpose of vesting a present title in the grantee, and a deed delivered without the consent of the grantor is of no more effect to pass title than if it were a forgery. Hibblewhite v. McMorine, 6 M. & W. 200; Davidson v. Cooper, 11 M. & W. 778, 793; Burns v. Lynde, 6 Allen, 305; Everts v. Agnes, 4 Wisconsin, 343; S.C. 6 Wisconsin, 453; Tisher v. Beckwith, 30 Wisconsin, 55; Hadlock v. Hadlock, 22 Illinois, 384; Stanley v. Valentine, 79 Illinois, 544; Henry v. Carson, 96 Indiana, 412; Fitzgerald v. Goff, 99 Indiana, 28. At best, the deed, being a quitclaim, conveyed only the interest of the grantor at the date of its delivery, which was nothing. Nichols v. Nichols, 3 Chandler (Wis.) 189; Lamb v. Davenport, 1 Sawyer, 604, 638.
2. The most important question in this case, however, the question upon which its result must ultimately depend, is that of laches. While, upon the facts stated, Patrick took these lands as trustee for Sophia Felix, he did not take them under an express trust to hold them for her benefit, (in which case lapse of time would be immaterial,) but under an implied or constructive trust -- a trust created by operation of law, and arising from the illegal practices resorted to in obtaining the power of attorney and deed. Patrick did not take possession under any acknowledged obligation to her, but he located
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them for his own use and benefit; his possession from the very beginning was adverse to hers. Under such circumstances, the law raises an obligation upon the part of the cestui que trust to make use of reasonable diligence in discovering and unearthing the fraud, and in applying to the courts for legal redress. In this case 28 years elapsed from the time the scrip was procured of Sophia Felix, and nearly 27 years from the time it went into the possession of Patrick, before the bill was filed. It admits of no doubt that if Sophia Felix and these plaintiffs had been ordinary white citizens, under no legal disabilities, such as those arising from infancy, lunacy or coverture, this lapse of time would be fatal to a recovery; at least unless it were conclusively shown that knowledge of the fraud was not obtained, and could not by reasonable diligence have been discovered, within a reasonable time after it was perpetrated.
In reply to this defence of laches, plaintiffs rely mainly upon the fact that Sophia Felix and her heirs were at the time, and continued to be until 1887, tribal Indians, members of the Sioux nation, residing upon their reservation in the State of Minnesota, and incapable of suing in any of the courts of the United States. We are by no means insensible to the force of this suggestion. Whatever may have been the injustice visited upon this unfortunate race of people by their white neighbors, this court has repeatedly held them to be the wards of the nation, entitled to a special protection in its courts, and as persons "in a state of pupilage." Congress, too, has recognized their dependent condition, and their hopeless inability to withstand the wiles or cope with the power of the superior race, by imposing restrictions upon their power to alienate lands assigned to them in severalty, either by making their scrip non-assignable, as in this case, or by requiring the assent of the President to their execution of deeds as in the case of Pickering v. Lomax, ante, 310, decided at this term. We fully coincide with what was said by Mr. Justice Davis in the case of the Kansas Indians, 5 Wall. 737, 758, that "the conduct of Indians is not to be measured by the same standard which we apply to the conduct of other people." But their very analogy
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to persons under guardianship suggests a limitation to their pupilage, since the utmost term of disability of an infant is but 21 years, and it is very rare that the relations of guardian and ward under any circumstances, even those of lunacy, are maintained for a longer period than this. It is practically admitted in this case that, in 1887, when their relations with their tribe were severed by accepting allotments of land in severalty under the treaty of April 29, 1878, they became citizens of the United States; that they were then chargeable with the same diligence as white people in the discovery of this fraud; and, as their bill was filed in 1888, it is claimed that they fulfilled all the requirements of law in this particular. While, as alleged in the bill, their discovery of this fraud may have been contemporaneous with their becoming citizens of the United States there is no palpable connection between the one fact and the other, and we think the bill is defective in failing to show how the fraud came to be discovered, and why it was not discovered before. A simple letter to the Land Department at any time after this scrip was located would have enabled them to identify the land, and the name of the person who had located it; and it is difficult to see why, if they had ever suspected the misuse of this scrip, they had not made inquiries long before they did, or why their emancipation in 1887 should have suddenly awakened their diligence in this particular. There is, it is true, an averment that Patrick never informed the said Sophia or her husband that he had located such scrip, but on the contrary, fraudulently concealed the same, and exercised every precaution to prevent such proceedings coming to the knowledge of the party. But no acts of his in this connection are averred in the bill, and we are left to infer that his concealment was that of mere silence, which is not enough. Wood v. Carpenter, 101 U.S. 135, 143; Boyd v. Boyd, 27 Indiana, 429; Wynne v. Cornelison, 52 Indiana, 312. Indeed, his concealment is to a certain extent negatived by the fact that he put the power of attorney and deed upon record, in the proper county, shortly after their execution. It was held by this court in Badger v. Badger, 2 Wall. 94, in speaking of the excuses for laches,
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that "the party who makes such appeal should set forth in his bill, specifically, what were the impediments to the earlier prosecution of his claim; how he came to be so long ignorant of his rights, and the means used by the respondent to fraudulently keep him in ignorance; and how, and when, he first came to a knowledge of the matters alleged in his bill; otherwise the chancellor may justly refuse to consider his case, upon his own showing, without inquiring whether there is a demurrer or formal plea of the statute of limitations contained in the answer." Sophia Felix and her husband must have known that she had parted with the scrip, yet she lived until 1865, and her husband until 1882, without apparently making any attempt to discover what had become of it. Nor did their heirs apparently make any effort to discover it until 1887, when their intelligence seems to have suddenly sprung into activity upon their becoming citizens of the United States. It is scarcely necessary to say in this connection that, while until this time they were not citizens of the United States, capable of suing as such in the Federal courts, the courts of Nebraska were open to them as they are to all persons irrespective of race or color. Swartzel v. Rogers, 3 Kansas, 374; Blue Jacket v. Johnson County, 3 Kansas, 299; Wiley v. Keokuk, Kansas, 94. It was said by this court in Wood v. Carpenter, 101 U.S. 135, 140, that in this class of cases the plaintiff is held to stringent rules of pleadings and evidence, and especially must there be distinct averments as to the time when the fraud, mistake, concealment or misrepresentation was discovered, and what the discovery was, so that the court may clearly see whether by ordinary diligence the discovery might not have been before made. See also Stearns v. Page, 7 How. 819, 829; Wollensak v. Reiher, 115 U.S. 96; Godden v. Kimmell, 99 U.S. 201, 211. The mere fact that in 1887 these plaintiffs took their lands in severalty and became citizens, does not adequately explain how they so quickly became cognizant of this fraud, or why they had remained so long in ignorance of it.
But, conceding that the plaintiffs were incapable, so long as they maintained their tribal relations, of being affected with
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laches, and that these relations were not dissolved until 1887, when they were first apprised of their right to this land, it does not necessarily follow that they are entitled to the relief demanded by this bill. The real question is, whether equity demands that a party, who, 28 years ago, was unlawfully deprived of a certificate of muniment of title of the value of $150, shall now be put in the possession of property admitted to be worth over a million. The disproportion is so great that the conscience is startled, and the inquiry is at once suggested, whether it can be possible that the defendant has been guilty of fraud so gross as to involve consequences so disastrous. In a court of equity, at least, the punishment should not be disproportionate to the offence, and the very magnitude of the consequences in this case demands of us that we should consider carefully the nature of the wrong done by the defendant in acquiring the title to these lands. He is not charged in the bill with having been a party to the means employed in obtaining the scrip from Sophia Felix, or with being in collusion with the unknown person who procured it from her. More than that, the allegations of this bill do not satisfy us that she did not receive full value for the scrip. It is true, there are general averments that the power of attorney and quitclaim deed were obtained "by wicked devices and fraudulent means;" that she never parted with her title to or interest in the scrip, and was the absolute owner thereof; that the blank instruments were not intended to be used for the purpose of conveying this property; and that no consideration was ever received for the scrip. But in view of the fact that she and her husband are long since dead, and the party who procured it from her is unknown, it is very improbable that the plaintiffs could prove these facts, or the nature of the original transaction. It is evident that she intended to part with the scrip to some one, and the recital of a nominal consideration in a quitclaim deed is entitled to very little weight as evidence of the actual consideration.
However this may be, taking all the allegations of this bill together, it is very evident that Patrick bought these
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muniments of title as hundreds of others bought them -- in violation of the letter and policy of the law, but without actually intending to defraud Sophia Felix or any other person. The law pronounces the transaction a fraud upon her, but it lacks the element of wickedness necessary to constitute moral turpitude.If there had been a deliberate attempt on his part by knavish practices to beguile or wheedle her out of these lands, we should have been strongly inclined to afford the plaintiffs relief at any time during the life of either of the parties; but, as the case stands at present, justice requires only what the law, in the absence of the statutory limitation would demand -- the repayment of the value of the scrip with legal interest thereon.
Much reliance is placed upon a certain letter written by the defendant's agent and father to one Otis, bearing date September 21, 1863, authorizing him to procure the signature of Sophia and her husband to certain papers, for which he was to pay $100, and it was in imated that this should be done without giving the partietsany particular information. This letter is of little value, except as indicating that defendant desired to strengthen his title by purchasing whatever claim Sophia and her husband might have had to it, if it could be done at a slight expense. It is sufficient answer to it to say that nothing ever appears to have been done under it, or by virtue of it, and it affords too feeble an indication of previous fraud to be entitled to any weight in that connection.
There are other considerations which require to be noticed in this connection. By the foresight and sagacity of this defendant this scrip was located upon lands within the limits of one of the most thriving and rapidly growing cities of the West. That which was wild land thirty years ago is now intersected by streets, subdivided into blocks and lots, and largely occupied by persons who have bought upon the strength of Patrick's title, and have erected buildings of a permanent character upon their purchases. The bill charges all these with notice of the defect in Patrick's title, and prays that the conveyances to them be declared null and void, and
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that plaintiffs be admitted into possession of their lands, and that Patrick account for rents, profits and issues, so far as he has received them. If the views put forward in their brief be correct, that these instruments were of no greater effect than if they had been forgeries, it is difficult to see how these transfers can be supported, and it needs no argument to show that the consequences of setting them aside would be disastrous.Certainly, if they were not entitled to the lands themselves, they would be entitled to recover of Patrick what he had received for them. Waiving this question, however, it is scarcely within the bounds of possibility to suppose that Sophia Felix, if she had located this scrip, would have realized a tithe of the sum her heirs now demand of this defendant.The decree prayed for in this case, if granted, would offer a distinct encouragement to the purchase of similar claims, which doubtless exist in abundance through the Western Territories, (Felix herself having received scrip to the amount of 480 acres, only 120 of which are accounted for,) and would result in the unsettlement of large numbers of titles upon which the owners have rested in assured security for nearly a generation.
In view of all the facts of this case we think the decree of the court below dismissing the bill was correct, and it is therefore
MR. JUSTICE FIELD dissented.
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