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ROBERTS v. NORTHERN PACIFIC RAILROAD COMPANY.

decided: April 22, 1895.

ROBERTS
v.
NORTHERN PACIFIC RAILROAD COMPANY.



APPEAL FROM THE CIRCUIT COURT OF THE UNITED STATES FOR THE WESTERN DISTRICT OF WISCONSIN.

Author: Shiras

[ 158 U.S. Page 9]

 MR. JUSTICE SHIRAS, after stating the case as above, delivered the opinion of the court.

So far as those portions of the lands, described in the bill of complaint, consist of parcels held and used by the railway company for the necessary and useful purposes of their road as a public highway, it is obvious that the title and possession thereof cannot be successfully assailed by the appellants. The

[ 158 U.S. Page 10]

     latter became purchasers long after the railroad company had entered into visible and notorious possession of these portions of the lands, and had constructed the roads, wharves, and other improvements called for by their contract with the county.

It is well settled that where a railroad company, having the power of eminent domain, has entered into actual possession of land necessary for its corporate purposes, whether with or without the consent of the owner of such lands, a subsequent vendee of the latter takes the land subject to the burthen of the railroad, and the right to payment from the railroad company, if it entered by virtue of an agreement to pay, or to damages, if the entry was unauthorized, belongs to the owner at the time the railroad company took possession.

In Schuglkill Nav. Co. v. Decker, 2 Watts, 343, where there was a claim for damages caused to land by the construction of a canal, and where the land had been subsequently conveyed to a third person, it was held by the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania that such purchaser was not entitled to recover. The court said, per Chief Justice Gibson to this claim: "It is a decisive objection that the plaintiff has not a title to the damages, which, being in compensation of an injury in the nature of a trespass, could not pass by mere conveyance of the land. In like manner the conveyance of a party wall does not entitle the grantee to contribution from the adjoining owner, it being held in Hart v. Kucher, 5 Serg. & Rawle, 1, that the claim is satisfied by payment to the first builder, though the purchaser had not notice of it; and, on the same principle, it was held in Commonwealth v. Shepard, 3 Penn. 509, that the claim to compensation under the act adjusting the titles to land in . . . Luzerne and Lycoming counties is personal, and does not pass by a conveyance of the land. Granting the compensation here to be, what it certainly is, the price of a perpetual easement, it is impossible to imagine a title to it in a subsequent grantee of the land subject to the easement."

And in McFadden v. Johnson, 72 Penn. St. 335, the same court held that the damages to land, occasioned by the construction of a railroad, were a personal claim by the owner

[ 158 U.S. Page 11]

     when the injury occurred -- that they did not run with the land, nor pass by a deed, though not reserved.

Numerous authorities to the same effect may be found collected in Wood on Railroads, vol. 2, p. 994; and the conclusion established by the decisions is there said to be that the damages belong to the owner at the time of the taking, and do not pass to a grantee of the land under a deed made subsequent to that time, unless expressly conveyed therein.

So, too, it has been frequently held that if a land owner, knowing that a railroad company has entered upon his land and is engaged in constructing its road without having complied with the statute, requiring either payment by agreement or proceedings to condemn, remains inactive and permits them to go on and expend large sums in the work, he will be estopped from maintaining either trespass or ejectment for the entry, and will be regarded as having acquiesced therein, and be restricted to a suit for damages. Lexington & Ohio Railroad v. Ormsby, 7 Dana, 276; Harlow v. Marquette, &c. Railroad, 41 Michigan, 336; Cairo & Fulton Railroad v. Turner, 31 Arkansas, 494; Pettibone v. La Crosse and Milwaukee Railroad, 14 Wisconsin, 443; Chicago & Alton Railroad v. Goodwin, 111 Illinois, 273.

It is not pretended that Roberts, the subsequent purchaser, acted in ignorance of the railroad company's title. On the contrary, in the answer it is alleged that "the defendant, Roberts, purchased said lands from said county in good faith and for the consideration named, which was the actual value of the title to said lands, the value of such title having been greatly impaired and rendered almost valueless by the cloud upon the same created by said resolutions of the county board and such conveyance by the county clerk and such legislative act." So far, then, from being a purchaser for a valuable consideration without notice, Roberts actually avows that he bought lands worth over two hundred thousand dollars, and upon which, as alleged in the bill and not denied in the answer, the railroad company has expended, in the construction of its road and the erection of depots and docks and piers, several hundred thousand dollars, for the nominal sum of three hundred and

[ 158 U.S. Page 12]

     eighty-five dollars, and that he secured this bargain because the outstanding and well-known title of the railroad company, originating in the county's contract and deed, confirmed by the act of the legislature, "greatly impaired and rendered almost valueless" the title so purchased by Roberts.

The conclusion, therefore, seems warranted that, as to those portions of the lands in question which are occupied and used by the railroad company, the county having stood by for years, and permitted the company to proceed in the construction of its road and appurtenances at a vast expense, and having accepted large sums as taxes, would be estopped from interfering with the possession of the railroad company. A fortiori, it follows that Roberts, buying with notice, could not buying with notice, could not maintain either trespass or ejectment for such portions, nor would he, as such purchaser, be entitled to recover damages for the occupation thereof.

The foregoing observations apply only to those portions of the lands in question which have been actually occupied and used by the railroad company for corporate purposes, or, in other words, to such lands as the railroad company could have condemned by the exercise of its right of eminent domain.

But, as it appears in the bill and answer, that considerable portions of the land in dispute are not held or occupied by the railroad company for its necessary public purposes, but for sale to others, and presumably could not have been procured by the company under its power of condemnation, other questions are raised for our consideration.

And, first, it is claimed that the county, in granting such lands to the company, made a donation of them, or, in other words, that the company became possessed of them without having given any legal consideration therefor, and that the county was disabled by law from so parting with its property.

A natural observation, when this proposition is presented, is, that the county does not appear to have ever attempted to rescind or withdraw from the transaction. As already said, the railroad company proceeded to construct its road and expend its money on the faith of the grant, during a period of several years, the county not objecting, and, indeed, continuing

[ 158 U.S. Page 13]

     to recognize the company's title by accepting the annual taxes. Nor is the county now a party to the attempt to deprive the company of its property. Should these appellants succeed in appropriating to themselves the lands in question, their success would not inure to the benefit of the county. The only pretence of authority from the county to assail the company's title is found in the quitclaim deeds executed to the defendant Roberts by the county clerk, pursuant to a resolution of the board of supervisors of the county, in 1888, for an alleged consideration of three hundred and eighty-five dollars. Whatever might be the result in a court of law of a contest between these respective grantees of the county, it may well be doubted whether a court of equity could be successfully appealed to by a purchaser from the county of property worth upwards of two hundred thousand dollars for a nominal consideration of less than four hundred dollars. If the county had found that it had been overreached in its bargain with the railroad company, or had learned that its grant of these lands was invalid for want of power, and had come into a court of equity, offering to do equity by an offer to return or account for the consideration received, the condition of things would have been different from what it now is. In such a proceeding the rescission would have inured to the benefit of the taxpayers of the county; but, under the present claim, the benefit would go to a private party, who bought with knowledge of the county's previous sale, and who admits in his answer that he secured his own grant for a grossly inadequate consideration because of the fact of such previous sale.

Nor can it be said that these observations do not apply to Roberts and Ellis, who, as defendants in the equity proceedings, may claim to be regarded as involuntary parties, for, in their answer, they do not content themselves with denying the complainants' title, but offer to do equity, to an insignificant extent, by offering to return the amount of the taxes paid, and themselves pray for the decree that their title may be established, and for such other and further relief as may be proper and agreeable to equity.

[ 158 U.S. Page 14]

     So far, at least, as the claim of Roberts and Ellis to affirmative equitable relief is concerned, we think that they cannot, in the circumstances disclosed, be permitted to assert the supposed invalidity of the county's grant to the railroad company.

Our argument has heretofore proceeded on the assumption that the grant by the county to the railroad company was a donation, a mere gift, and, therefore, in view of cited decisions of the Supreme Court of Wisconsin, beyond the power of the county, and invalid; and our conclusions, upon that assumption, and as respects those portions of the lands which have been subjected to use as a public highway, are that the county, much less its subsequent grantees with notice, cannot, in the state of facts disclosed by this record, disturb the possession of the railroad company; and that, as respects those other portions of the lands, which the railroad company could not have taken by the exercise of its power of eminent domain, and as to which the company must depend upon the validity of the county's grant, the defendants, as purchasers with notice and upon an inadequate consideration, are in no position to invoke the assistance of a court of equity.

But it is contended on behalf of the railroad company that the assumption that the county's grant was a mere gift, a donation without consideration, and therefore void as against the county and its subsequent grantees, is unfounded; that the transaction was really a sale within the legitimate powers of the county and the railroad company, and that the company, having performed its part of such sale by the payment of the consideration, is entitled to the protection of a court of equity against such a claim as is set up by Roberts and Ellis.

Our next inquiry, therefore, is whether the railroad company was entitled to that part of the decree of the court below which confirmed their title to such portions of the lands as they could not have appropriated under their power of eminent domain. Was it within the power of the county to sell, and of the company to ...


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