Harris v. McGovern/Opinion of the Court
Actual title to the lot in controversy is claimed by the plaintiffs as devisees and heirs of Stephen Harris, deceased, by virtue of an ordinance of the city, which, as they allege, was subsequently ratified by an act of Congress. Opposed to that, the theory of the defendants is that the city ordinance granted the lot to Stephen A. Harris, under whom they derive title, and that inasmuch as they have been in the open adverse possession of the same, claiming title, for more than five years, the title of the plaintiffs, if any they or their testator ever had, is barred by the Statute of Limitations.
Possession being in the defendants, the plaintiffs brought ejectment, and the defendants appeared and pleaded as follows: 1. The general issue. 2. That they were seised in fee-simple of the premises. 3. That the title and right of possession of the plaintiffs were barred by the Statute of Limitations.
Pursuant to the act of Congress, the parties waived a jury and submitted the evidence to the court. Special findings were filed by the judge presiding, with his conclusions of law, as exhibited in the record. Hearing was had, and the court rendered judgment in favor of the defendants, and the plaintiffs sued out the present writ of error.
Three errors are assigned, as follows: 1. That the court erred in the conclusion of law that the Statute of Limitations began to run as early as July 1, 1864, as found in their first conclusion of law. 2. That the court erred in the conclusion that the defendants were in possession of the premises for more than five years subsequent to the time when the Statute of Limitations commenced to run. 3. That the court erred in their fourth conclusion of law, that the defendants were entitled to judgment.
Actions of the kind cannot be maintained in that State, unless it appears that the plaintiff, his ancestor, predecessor, or grantor, was seised or possessed of the premises in question within five years before the commencement of such action. Stats. Cal. 1863, 326; 2 Code, sect. 318.
From the findings of the Circuit Court it appears that the lot in controversy is within the corporate limits of the city, and that it is situated west of Larkin Street and northwest of Johnson Street, as they existed prior to the passage of the ordinances, which were afterwards ratified by the act of the legislature of the State. Stats. Cal. 1858, 53. Said land is also within the boundaries designating the lands to which the right and title of the United States were relinquished and granted to the city and its successors. 13 Stat. 333, sect. 5.
Prior to the incorporation of San Francisco the locality was known as the pueblo or town by that name; and the findings of the court show that on Sept. 25, 1848, the alcalde of the pueblo made a grant in due form of the land in controversy to a party designated in the instrument by the name of Stephen A. Harris, which grant was duly recorded in the official book of records kept for that purpose; that at that date there was a man residing in that pueblo by the name of Stephen A. Harris and another man by the name of Stephen Harris; that the grant was intended for and delivered to the latter and not to Stephen A. Harris; and that Stephen Harris, to whom the grant was delivered, acquired all the title that passed or was conveyed by the grant of the alcalde. It also appears that Stephen Harris, two years later, left California, and that he never returned to that State; that he went to New Jersey, where he remained several years, and then removed to Illinois, where, on the 5th of November, 1867, he died, leaving a will, by which he devised his property, including the land in controversy, to the plaintiffs, who are his children.
By the fifth finding of the court it appears that there was no evidence introduced tending to show that the deceased, or the plaintiffs, or any person claiming through or under them, ever improved the land, or was ever in the actual possession or occupation of the land or any part of the same. On the other hand, it appears that Stephen A. Harris, May 1, 1854, conveyed the land to the person named in the sixth finding, by deed in due form, which was duly recorded, and that all the right, title, and interest thus acquired by the grantee by sundry mesne conveyances subsequently vested in the defendants for a valuable consideration, without notice of the claim of the plaintiffs or their testator.
There was no evidence to show that any party was in actual occupation of the land Jan. 1, 1855, or any time between that date and the first day of July of the same year; but the seventh finding of the court shows that one of the grantors of the defendants, in the spring of 1864, took actual possession of the land, claiming title under one of the said mesne conveyances, and that he fenced and occupied the lands, and that he and his several grantees, including the defendants, have since that time to the present been in the actual, peaceable, open, continuous, exclusive, and adverse possession of the land, claiming title thereto in good faith against all the world, under the said several mesne conveyances.
Sect. 5 of the act of Congress of July 1. 1864, relinquished to the city all the right and title of the United States to the lands within the corporate limits of the city, as defined in the act of incorporation passed by the State legislature, and of course the title of the city to those lands became absolute on that day. Lynch v. Bernal, 9 Wall. 316; Montgomery v. Bevans, 1 Sawyer, 653; 13 Stat. 333.
Infancy is not set up in this case, and if it were, if could not avail the plaintiffs, as the ninth finding of the court shows that the minor plaintiffs arrived at full age more than a year before the suit was commenced.
Lands lying west of Larkin Street and southwest of Johnson Street were relinquished to the possessors, subject to the right of the city to take possession of the same if wanted for public purposes, without compensation; but the lot in controversy is not within that reservation, as the first finding of the court shows that it is situated northwest of Johnson Street.
Appended to the findings of fact are the conclusions of law pronounced by the Circuit Court. They are as follows: 1. That the adverse possession of the grantors of the defendants commenced in the spring of 1864, and that the Statute of Limitations began to run as early at least as the first day of July of that year, when the title of the city to the municipal lands within its boundaries became perfect under the act of Congress, to which reference has already been made.
Authorities to show that the facts stated in the seventh finding of the court amount to an adverse possession of the lot in controversy, within the meaning of the State statute, are quite unnecessary, as the proposition is too plain for argument. Angell, Limitations (6th ed.), sect. 394; Green v. Liter, 8 Cranch, 229.
Cases frequently arise where the property is so situated as not to admit of use or residence, and in such cases neither actual occupation, cultivation, nor residence are absolutely necessary to constitute legal possession, if the continued claim of the party is evidence by such public acts of ownership as the owner would exercise over property which he claimed in his own right, and would not exercise over property which he did not claim. Ewing v. Burnet, 11 Pet. 41; Jackson v. Howe, 14 Johns. N. Y. 405; Arrington v. Liscom, 34 Cal. 365; Proprietors of the Kennebec Purchase v. Skinner, 4 Mass. 416.
Apply the rule to the case which the foregoing authorities establish, and it is clear that the first conclusion of law adopted by the Circuit Court is correct, as the seventh finding of facts shows that the defendants, from the date of the act of Congress confirming the title of the city to her municipal land to the date of the judgment, were in the actual, peaceable, open, continuous, exclusive, and adverse possession of the land, claiming title thereto in good faith against all the world, which is certainly a bar to the plaintiffs' right of action under the statute of the State.
Nor is there any valid objection to the second conclusion of law adopted by the Circuit Court, which was that the cause of action having accrued and the Statute of Limitations having commenced to run during the lifetime of the devisor of the plaintiffs, the running of the statute was not interrupted by his subsequent decease and the descent of the right of action to the plaintiffs, though minors at the time and under disability to sue.
Decided cases of a standard character support that proposition, and the court is of the opinion that it is correct. Jackson v. Moore, 13 Johns. (N. Y.) 513; Jackson v. Robins, 15 id. 169; S.C.. 16 id. 537; Fleming v. Griswold, 3 Hill (N. Y.), 85; Becker v. Van Valkenburgh, 29 Barb. (N. Y.) 319.
When the statute once begins to run, says Angell, it will continue to run without being impeded by any subsequent disability. Smith v. Hill, 1 Wils. 134; Angell, Limitations (6th ed.), sect. 477; Currier v. Gale, 3 Allen (Mass.), 328; Durouse v. Jones, 4 T. R. 301; Jackson v. Wheat, 18 Johns. (N. Y.) 40; Welden v. Gratz, 1 Wheat. 292.
Decisive support to the third conclusion of the Circuit Court is also derived from the authorities cited to sustain the second. Continuous adverse possession of the land, say the court in their third conclusion, having been held by the defendants and their grantors for a period of more than five years subsequent to the time when the statute began to run and before the action was commenced, the action is barred, as there was no disability to sue when the cause of action first accrued.
Suppose that is so, then clearly the defendants were entitled to judgment, and there is no error in the record.