U.S. Supreme Court Smyth v. New Orleans Canal & Banking Co., 141 U.S. 656 (1891)
Smyth v. New Orleans Canal and Banking Company
Submitted November 5, 1891
Decided November 23, 1891
141 U.S. 656
APPEAL FROM THE CIRCUIT COURT OF THE UNITED
STATES FOR THE EASTERN DISTRICT OF LOUISIANA
The plaintiff in his bill set up in himself a legal title to real estate derived from the State of Louisiana to which it had been listed as swamp or overflowed lands; averred that the respondents claimed the same land under certain old French grants which had been recognized by the Land Office as valid, and prayed that he might be declared to be the owner and put in possession of the premises, and have an accounting for rents and profits. Held that on these averments he had a plain, adequate and complete remedy at law, and that the bill must be dismissed.
The Court stated the case as follows:
The controversy involved in this suit arises from conflicting claims of the parties to lands in the suburbs of New Orleans, alleged to be of great value. It seems, from the opinions of the Secretaries of the Interior presented on the hearing, that no regular survey by the Land Department of the government was extended over the city and its suburbs prior to 1871. The surveys previously made were only such as were required to ascertain the boundaries of old grants from the Spanish or
French government. But in 1871 and 1872, under the direction of the Land Department, surveys were extended over the city and adjoining country to Lake Ponchartrain, and township maps of the same were prepared and approved. One of the townships described as township twelve south, range eleven east, disclosed various lands which, being low and wet, fell under the designation of swamp or overflowed lands covered by the swampland grant to the state of 1849, and they were listed to the state. Within the township there were extensive improvements, consisting of railroads, gardens, racecourses, cemeteries, and buildings of various kinds, such as are usually found in the neighborhood of a large city.
When it became known that the lands of the township were held by the Land Department to belong to the state, and therefore were open to sale, many parcels were entered by different parties, the complainant in this case being one of them.
It subsequently appeared that certain ancient grants covering the premises, alleged to have been made by the former governments of Spain and France, were brought forward by one of the defendants in this case, the New Orleans Canal and Banking Company, which claimed under them, for itself and its vendees, title to the lands. Proceedings were then taken to obtain a reconsideration of the action of the Land Department, a resurvey of the city and suburbs, and an annulment of the listing of the lands in township 12 south to the state, as swamp and overflowed.
It would serve no useful purpose to detail at length the various proceedings had under the direction of the Interior Department, exercising its supervisory authority over the officers of the Land Department, to correct their alleged erroneous action. They are stated at length in the opinions of the secretaries. It is sufficient to say that the genuineness and extent of the ancient grants were considered and established. The finding of the lands as vacant, swamp, and overflowed was set aside, and the listing of the same to the state was cancelled.
The complainant thereupon filed his bill in the Circuit Court
of the United States for the Eastern District of Louisiana, by which he seeks to have his alleged title adjudged to be valid, and possession of the demanded premises decreed to him, with the rents and profits for their unlawful use and possession. In the bill, he details the various steps taken through the instrumentality of the Land Department to obtain title to the premises. He sets forth that by the Treaty of Paris of April 30, 1803, with the French Republic, the whole, Province or Territory of Louisiana, comprising the lands designated on the official map of township 12 south, range 11 east, was ceded to the United States; that the lands had not been previously separated from the public domain; that since their cession, the United States have exercised ownership over them, and Congress has passed several acts respecting them, and, among others, the Swampland Act of 1849, and that under them the lands have been selected and listed, as swamp and overflowed land, to the state, and he has become their purchaser. He also avers that he is the sole owner of 2,295 acres of the lands by his purchase, of which he has received patents for all but 800 acres, and for this balance he has been prevented from receiving patents by the fraudulent conduct of parties claiming under pretended ancient grants. After reciting various proceedings before the Land Department and in the district court of the United States respecting the said grants, the bill alleges that the Land Department has decided that these ancient grants were complete French grants needing no confirmation, and obligatory upon it so far as to require it to direct the public surveys to be closed on the lands covered by them. It charges that the various proceedings taken by the department in that respect were invalid and unauthorized, and that from the invalidity and unauthorized character of the proceedings the complainant's right to the lands was not defeated nor impaired. It therefore prays that the complainant may be declared the owner and put in possession of the premises described, and have an accounting for the rents and profits.
MR. JUSTICE FIELD delivered the opinion of the Court.
Notwithstanding the statement of the bill respecting the alleged illegal and fraudulent use of the ancient grants produced, and the alleged illegal proceedings of the department, the bill avers the possession by the complainant of a legal title to the premises. Whether that title can be enforced against other claimants will depend, of course, upon the validity of the ancient grants produced, and of the proceedings by which Louisiana is alleged to have acquired the property. That can be shown in an action at law as well as in a suit in equity. If the state acquired a good title by the Swampland Act of 1849, and the listing of the lands and patents to her, and she sold the premises, as alleged, to the complainant, he can recover them in an action at law, and the rents and profits accrued thereon since the defendants have been in possession, and for that purpose there is no occasion for any proceeding in equity. The sixteenth section of the Judiciary Act of 1789, which is carried into the Revised Statutes as sec. 723, declares that suits in equity shall not be sustained in either of the courts of the United States in any case where a plain, adequate, and complete remedy may be had at law. The allegations as to the illegality of the action of the Land Department, and the fraudulent proceedings of the defendants in bringing forward the pretended ancient grants, are entirely unnecessary to the
maintenance of the action. The facts upon which a title to the premises in controversy rests, or by which such title can be defeated, can be readily shown in an action at law. No discovery is necessary for the intervention of any equitable jurisdiction, nor would there be any avoiding of a multiplicity of suits by maintaining this proceeding in a court of equity. In a single action at law, all the facts can be established and all the questions necessary to determine the right to the property can be considered and disposed of. The allegation of fraudulent proceedings respecting the acquisition of the title does not convert an action at law into a suit in equity. The title stated is merely legal, and as was said in the case of Hipp v. Babin, 19 How. 271, 60 U. S. 277 , where an ejectment suit in equity was sought to be sustained:
"The evidence to support it appears from documents accessible to either party, and no particular circumstances are stated, showing the necessity of the courts interfering, either for preventing suits or other vexation, or for preventing an injustice, irremediable at law."
The demurrer to the bill was therefore properly sustained and the suit dismissed on the ground that the complainant had an adequate remedy at law, such dismissal being without prejudice to any subsequent action at law which the complainant might be advised to bring.
MR. JUSTICE BLATCHFORD took no part in the decision of this case.