Branson v. Wirth , 84 U.S. 32 ( 1873 )

  • 84 U.S. 32 (1872)
    17 Wall. 32


    Supreme Court of United States.

    *35 Mr. Horatio C. Burchard, in support of the ruling below.

    Mr. S.C. Judd, contra.

    *39 Mr. Justice BRADLEY delivered the opinion of the court.

    The court below instructed the jury, that the defendants had not shown outstanding title to the lot in question, either in Giles Egerton, or in any one claiming under him, and that the plaintiff was entitled to recover. To this charge the defendants excepted.

    The court did not state the ground on which the charge to the jury was based; whether on the ground that the original patent of Giles Egerton was in fact given for the southeast quarter-section, and not for the northeast quarter; or on the ground that Egerton and those in privity with him were estopped on that point.

    We will first consider the ground of estoppel, on the supposition that the patent was, or may have been, in fact given for the lot in question, but that the supposed estoppel prevented Egerton, and those in privity with him, from alleging *40 that fact. What, then, was this estoppel? Who was bound by it? and who can set it up?

    The supposed estoppel is founded on the deed given by Egerton to Hart, in July, 1819, for a lot described as the southeast quarter of section 18, and as granted to Egerton by his patent of January 10th, 1818.

    Now if the patent thus referred to was, in fact, for the northeast quarter, there was a mere mistake in the deed which might have been rectified in equity, or, perhaps, by a reference to the patent itself. But standing as it did, without being reformed, what at most was the estoppel which it created? and who could have taken advantage of it at that time? First, Egerton was technically estopped, at law, to deny that his patent covered the southeast quarter, which the deed, in terms, conveyed; secondly, this estoppel related only to the southeast quarter; thirdly, it existed only as between Egerton on the one side, and Hart on the other, and their respective privies. Thus far, it did not bind the government, nor could the government take advantage of it, being a stranger to the estoppel. It did not impair the title of the government, or of its patentee, to the southeast quarter, assumed to be conveyed; nor did it reinvest the government with the title to the northeast quarter. If the original patent was in fact for the northeast quarter, the government could not have reclaimed that quarter against its own patent, whatever deed Egerton may have given to a third party for a different lot. And Egerton's heirs, or his grantees of the northeast quarter, would have stood in his place. And the defendants in this case, coming into possession of that quarter under a tax sale, are to be regarded in the same light (at least that is the plaintiff's claim) as Egerton himself would be if he were in possession of it.

    Such was the position of the parties at the giving of the deed to Hart in 1819. Has anything since occurred to change that position, and to divest the title of the lot in question out of Egerton, or his legal assigns, by estoppel? We think not.

    The assumed title to the southeast quarter conveyed to *41 Hart passed from hand to hand by several mesne conveyances until, in 1827, the then grantee procured the act of Congress, authorizing him to enter another lot in lieu of the southeast quarter, which the act supposes to have been patented to Egerton, but previously patented to James Durney. It is contended that this act and the subsequent entry of another lot in pursuance of it, operated to estop Egerton and his grantees from claiming the northeast quarter.

    But the legal estoppel which affected Egerton and his grantees, was not changed by that act. And in speaking of the grantees of Egerton, we must distinguish between those claiming under the deed to Hart, which assumed to convey the southeast quarter, and those claiming (as the defendants do) as grantees of the northeast quarter. The former class are those who are entitled to claim the benefit of the estoppel; the latter we are supposing to be bound by the estoppel. The act of Congress was procured in 1827 by the grantee under the deed to Hart, eight years after the date of that deed; and it recites that the patent was for the southeast quarter. Now it is well settled that recitals in a private act bind none but those who apply for it.[*] The act in question was made for the benefit of the grantee under Hart's deed. He claimed the southeast quarter, but found that it had been patented to Durney; and he applied for leave to enter another lot. How can his act change or enlarge the estoppel by which Egerton and his grantees of the lot in question were bound before? A person entitled to the benefit of an estoppel may transfer it by transferring the estate, but he cannot change it or enlarge it. Every grantee of the southeast quarter, through Hart, to the end of time, may estop Egerton and his assigns from denying that his patent was for the southeast quarter. But the government is not a grantee of that quarter under or through Hart. The government is still, in law, a stranger to the estoppel.

    It is supposed that Egerton and his assigns are estopped by the fact that the government was induced to give to Egerton's *42 grantee another lot in consequence of the declaration contained in his deed to Hart. This may be ground for an equitable estoppel, not a legal one, and therefore not available in an action of ejectment where the title is in issue. If one person is induced to do an act prejudicial to himself in consequence of the acts or declarations of another, on which he had a right to rely, equity will enjoin the latter from asserting his legal rights against the tenor of such acts or declarations. But, then, the person charged has an opportunity of explaining, and equity will decree according to the justice of the entire case.[*] Had the government, after granting another lot to Egerton's grantee, in pursuance of the act of Congress, filed a bill against Egerton to prevent him from asserting title to the lot in question, perhaps it would have been a good defence for him to have shown that the discrepancy in his deed was a mere mistake, and that the agents of the government had no right to rely on it, because their own records would have shown that the patent was in fact given for the northeast quarter. But however this may be, the only estoppel arising out of the transaction referred to, which the government could set up, was an equitable and not a legal one.

    Even if it were otherwise, and if the government could, in any aspect of the case, claim the benefit of the legal estoppel, it would be prevented from doing so by its own patent granted to Egerton. That would present the case of estoppel against estoppel, which Lord Coke says setteth the matter at large.[†] No one can set up an estoppel against his own grant. Whoever else, therefore, might set up the estoppel against Egerton's title to the lot in question, the government could not do so. Its own patent would stand in the way. And whatever the government could not do, its subsequent grantees could not do.

    It is suggested that Egerton's grantee, who procured the act of Congress and a patent for another lot, represented Egerton, and by his acts bound Egerton in the same manner *43 as himself. But this may well be questioned. He could bind himself by his own acts; but he could only bind Egerton to the extent of Egerton's deed, and the effect of that has been fully considered. Egerton never asked the government for another patent, nor did he authorize his grantee to do so. The transaction which took place between that grantee and the government was, as to Egerton and his grantees of the lot in question, res inter alios acta.

    The conclusion to which we have come on this part of the case is, that there was no estoppel shown by the evidence which would prevent the defendants from showing the truth of the case, as to which quarter-section was actually granted to Giles Egerton by his patent of January 10th, 1818.

    This is, therefore, the next question to be considered. Had the patent itself been exhibited on the trial, it would have ended all controversy on the subject. But it was not exhibited, and it did not appear what had become of it. An exemplified copy, however, of the record of it, as it remains in the archives of the General Land Office, was produced. This showed that the patent was for the northeast quarter of section 18, being the lot in controversy. It was also shown from the same records, that this lot had been duly entered in favor of Egerton, under his military land warrant, on the day of the date of the patent. It was further shown, that the southeast quarter of section 18 had three days before been patented to another person, Durney. This cumulative evidence seems irrefragable to the effect that the patent was in fact given for the lot in controversy.

    Against this evidence, we have only, first, the description in the deed from Egerton to Hart, where the word "southeast" is used instead of "northeast;" secondly, the memorandum in the margin of the record, and thirdly, the recital in the act of Congress. As to the first, it is a kind of variance which so frequently occurs by mistake of the scrivener (as every surveyor and land lawyer knows), that it is scarcely worthy of a moment's consideration, when opposed to the record of the patent. As to the second — the memorandum made in the margin of the record — it is not known when it *44 was made, except that it must have been after the 19th of May, 1826, the date of the letter referred to in the memorandum itself, which was eight years after the date of the patent; nor is it known who made it, nor on what evidence it was made. Such a memorandum, being no part of the record itself, cannot be received to contradict the record. It would be a very dangerous precedent to allow it to have that effect. It is not the record of any act of the department, nor of any document entitled to registry in its archives. It is nothing but a memorandum of a third person, and hearsay evidence at best.

    As to the recital of the statute, whilst the recitals of public acts are regarded as evidence of the facts recited, it is otherwise, as we have seen, in reference to private acts. They are not evidence except against the parties who procure them.[*] The statute in question is a mere private act, and cannot be received as evidence, except as against the person who procured it, who was not Egerton, but his remote assignee under the Hart deed. It can only be used as evidence against the person on whom it acts as an estoppel.

    We conclude, therefore, that the charge of the court below was erroneous, and that the judgment must be REVERSED, with directions to award a



    [*] Elmondorff v. Carmichael, 3 Littell, 472, 480 2 Cowen & Hill's Notes, 251.

    [*] 2 Smith's Leading Cases, 702, 748, ed. 1866.

    [†] Coke Littleton, 352 b; 2 Smith's Leading Cases, 658 [584].

    [*] 2 Phillips on Evidence, 106, 6th Am. ed.