Abraham & Son v. Casey/Opinion of the Court
United States Supreme Court
ABRAHAM & SON v. CASEY
Argued: November 2, 1900. --- Decided: December 3, 1900
The Federal questions raised by the assignment of errors are that the court below refused to give due faith and credit to the decree of the circuit court of the United States for the western district of Louisiana, and to the decree of this court in the case of Lacassagne v. Chapuis, 144 U.S. 119, 36 L. ed. 368, 12 Sup. Ct. Rep. 659.
To determine whether these contentions are well founded, the exact ground upon which the court below predicated its conclusion must be ascertained. The court decided that the decree of the circuit court of the United States for the western district of Louisiana was not res judicata against Lacassagne, because he was not a party to that cause, and as to him, therefore, it was res inter alios acta. It further held that the lis pendens arising from that cause did not estop Lacassagne, since the title which he held originated prior to the inception of the suit, and was wholly independent of the issues which it involved.
These general propositions which the court announced were deduced from the following conclusions, viz.: 1. Under the Louisiana law Jean B. Cavailhez, as head and master of the community existing between husband and wife, had the undoubted right to dispose of the community property without the consent of his wife, and therefore the deed made by him to Remick was binding upon the community irrespective of whether Mrs. Cav e, the plaintiff in the equity cause, was or was not his lawful wife. 2. That as to the charge of fraud made conjointly against Cavailhez, his reputed wife Earnestine Diaz, his daughter Marcelline, and the purchaser Remick, such alleged fraud was wholly inefficacious, even if established as to them, to affect Maxwell, who had acquired his mortgage whilst the property stood on the public records in the name of Remick by a conveyance from Cavailhez, who had the power to make the title. 3. That the right acquired by Maxwell under his mortgage was, by the Louisiana law, a quasi alienation of the property in his favor, taking its origin, it is true, from the date of the mortgage given by Mrs. Remick, but relating back to the recorded title from Cavailhez, which was in every respect, as to Maxwell, unaffected by the issues in the equity suit. 4. That the right thus acquired by Maxwell was an independent one, springing from the undoubted power of Cavailhez to sell and from the state of the public records, on the faith of which Maxwell had the right to rely when he accepted his mortgage. 5. That the laws of Louisiana forbidding a transfer of property pendente lite did not operate to prevent Maxwell from foreclosing his mortgage pending the equity suit, because, although the foreclosure proceedings were filed after such cause was commenced, the right in virtue of which they were initiated arose long anterior to the beginning of the equity suit, and was paramount to and independent of all the controversies which were therein presented for decision.
These conclusions of the state court depended alone upon an interpretation of the local law of the state, governing the sale, the record of title to real estate, and the nature under the local law of the rights of a mortgagee creditor. 48 La. Ann. 1160, 20 So. 672; 51 La. Ann. 840, 25 So. 441. It is the duty of this court to follow the rule announced on such subjects by the highest court of a state. Clarke v. Clarke, 178 U.S. 186-190, 44 L. ed. 1028, 1030, 20 Sup. Ct. Rep. 873, and authorities there cited.
Accepting the rule of property under the Louisiana law to be as announced by the supreme court of that state, it is manifest that the proceedings in the equity cause were not res judicata, and that the lis pendens created by that suit did not prevent the exercise by Maxwell of his right to foreclose his mortgage, and therefore the title which he acquired in the foreclosure proceedings was not impaired by the pendency of the suit. But it is argued although this be undoubted, it is not applicable because of the decree of this court in the case of Lacassagne v. Chapuis. In that cause, however, the decree below which dismissed the bill was so modified as to cause it to be 'without prejudice to an action at law.' And the court below has expressly decided that the proceeding taken by Lacassagne in the state court, and which is now under review, was the proper method by which he could, according to the Louisiana law, test his legal rights asserted to arise from the Maxwell foreclosure proceedings, and the purchase made thereunder. It is, however, argued that in the opinion in Lacassagne v. Chapuis this court upheld a construction of the Louisiana law which is in conflict with that law as construed by the supreme court of Louisiana in its opinions in this case, and therefore, it is asserted, this court should apply its previous conclusions as to the law of Louisiana instead of now conforming to the view of the Louisiana law subsequently laid down by the supreme court of the state. This court, it is said, by virtue of the appeal in the Lacassagne case, was first vested with jurisdiction to consider the Louisiana statute as to lis pendens, and therefore, at least, as to the parties to this record, should hold the Louisiana law to be in accord with its previous decision, although by doing so the interpretation of the state law by the supreme court of the state be wholly disregarded. But we need not pause to point out the unsoundness of this argument as applied to the question now here, since the premise which the proposition assumes is without foundation. The case of Lacassagne v. Chapuis came to this court on two demurrers, the one predicated on a want of jurisdiction because both parties were aliens, and the other on an asserted want of equity in the bill. The jurisdictional question as to alienage was disposed of on the ground that the bill was ancillary to the original suit. Whether the other matters alleged were within the cognizance of a court of equity was fully considered, and it was held that the claim of title in Lacassagne furnished no ground for equity jurisdiction. The court observed: 'As the plaintiff was evicted and the plantation was put into the possession of the widow Cav e, a court of equity cannot give the plaintiff any relief until he has established his title by an action at law.' True it is that subsequently, in considering whether the mortgage right of Lacassagne created a cause cognizable in equity, the opinion intimated views of the Louisiana law not in accord with the law of that state, as announced by the supreme court of Louisiana as hitherto stated. But the passages referred to were merely reasoning conducive to the demonstration that the rights asserted in the bill were cognizable at law only, and therefore not the subject of equitable jurisdiction. That the court did not intend to, and did not, decide what were the legal rights of Lacassagne is at once demonstrated by the fact that the decree below, which dismissed the bill, was amended so as to cause it to be without prejudice to an action at law, and as thus modified was affirmed. To treat the passages in the opinion, which are relied on as having the conclusive import now in argument attributed to them, would of necessity give rise to the following deduction: The opinion on the one hand dismissed the question of legal title from consideration because it was not within the province of a court of equity to decide who held the legal title, nevertheless the question of such title was finally disposed of in the cause.
But the premise contended for pushes to a more flagrant contradiction, since it cannot be accepted without admitting that, although the decree was 'without prejudice to an action at law,' the right to such action was in substance foreclosed.