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EL PASO BRICK COMPANY v. JOHN H. MCKNIGHT

SUPREME COURT OF THE UNITED STATES


April 6, 1914

EL PASO BRICK COMPANY, APPELLANT
v.
JOHN H. MCKNIGHT

Author: Lamar

[ 233 U.S. Page 255]

MR. JUSTICE LAMAR, after making the foregoing statement, delivered the opinion of the court.

 McKnight brought suit against the El Paso Brick Company to try the right of possession to conflicting mining locations. In his complaint he asserted his own title and attacked that of the Defendant under locations older in date but which he claimed had been forfeited by failure to do the annual assessment work for 1903 and 1904, thereby leaving the land open to the locations made by McKnight in 1905 and 1906. The Brick Company, while insisting that the plaintiff's own evidence proved that the assessment

[ 233 U.S. Page 256]

     work had in fact been fully performed, relied on the legal effect of the company's application for a Patent to the land and the final receipt issued to it by the Receiver of the Local Land Office in October, 1905. To this the plaintiff replied that the entry, on which the receipt issued, had been cancelled on the ground that the patent proceedings were absolutely void because the statutory affidavit of posting had not been filed.

1. Locators of mining claims have the exclusive right of possession of all the surface included within the exterior limits of their claims so long as they make the improvements or do the annual assessment work required by the Revised Statutes, § 2324. The law, however, provides (Rev. Stats., §§ 2325, 2333) a means by which the locator can pay the purchase price fixed by statute and convert the defeasible possessory title into a fee simple. Sixty days' notice must be given in order that all persons having any adverse claim may be heard in opposition to the issue of a patent. That notice is threefold. It must be given by publication in the nearest newspaper, by posting in the Land Office, and by posting on the land itself, and it is provided in the statute that this latter fact may be proved by the affidavit of two persons before an officer residing within the land district (Rev. Stat., § 2335). All persons having adverse claims under the mining laws may be heard in objection to the issuance of a patent. But (§ 2325) "if no adverse claim shall have been filed . . . it shall be assumed that the applicant is entitled to a patent, upon the payment to the proper officer of five dollars per acre, and that no adverse claim exists; and thereafter no objection from third persons to the issuance of a patent shall be heard, except it be shown that the applicant has failed to comply with the terms of this chapter" [relating to mineral lands].

2. In the present case the Brick Company's application for a patent was filed, each of the several forms of notice

[ 233 U.S. Page 257]

     required by statute was given, no adverse claim was filed, the purchase price was paid to the Government, and a final receipt was issued by the local land office. The entry by the local land officer issuing the final receipt was in the nature of a judgment in rem (Wight v. Dubois, 21 Fed. Rep. 693) and determined that the Brick Company's original locations were valid and that everything necessary to keep them in force, including the annual assessment work, had been done. It also adjudicated that no adverse claim existed and that the Brick Company was entitled to a patent.

From that date, and until the entry was lawfully cancelled, the Brick Company was in possession under an equitable title, and to be treated as "though the patent had been delivered to" it. Dahl v. Raunheim, 132 U.S. 260, 262. And, when McKnight instituted possessory proceedings against the Brick Company, the latter was entitled to a judgment in its favor when it produced that final receipt as proof that it was entitled to a patent and to the corresponding right of an owner.

Nor should the result have been different when the record showed that the entry and final receipt, properly issued, had been improperly cancelled. It is true that the order of the Department was a denial of the patent, but it was not a conclusive adjudication that the Brick Company was not entitled to a patent, nor could such an order deprive the Brick Company of rights vested in it by law. For while the General Land Office had power of supervision over the acts of the local officers, and could annul entries obtained by fraud or made without authority of law, yet if the Department's cancellation was based upon a mistake of law, its ruling was subject to judicial review when properly drawn in question in judicial proceedings, inasmuch as the power of the Land Office is not unlimited nor can it be arbitrarily exercised so as to deprive any person of land lawfully entered and paid for. Cornelius v.

[ 233 U.S. Page 258]

     the present case such proof by supplemental affidavits, properly executed, showed that the land had been properly posted. But that fact was not allowed to have any effect because of the mistaken view that, as the original affidavit of posting had been signed before an officer residing outside of the land district, the patent proceedings were absolutely void. This confused service by proper posting -- which was jurisdictional, -- with defective proof of such service which -- like the defective return of an officer, -- could be corrected. Under the law, jurisdiction depended upon giving notice by publication in a newspaper, by posting in the land office, and by posting on the land itself, -- the statute directing how the giving of such notice should be proved. But irregularities in complying with such directory provision could be cured, and when cured, as it was here, the patent should have been issued. The cancellation of the entry was based on a plain error of law, and though there was no appeal in fact, and no right of appeal to the courts, the ruling did not operate to deprive the Brick Company of its property in the mines. The fact that the Brick Company, perforce, yielded to the erroneous ruling, and instituted new proceedings in order to secure a patent, as evidence of its title, did not destroy the rights with which the Company had become invested by full compliance with the requirements of Rev. Stat., § 2325. When, therefore, in the suit to try the right of possession the plaintiff asked that proper effect be given to the final receipt and the entry on which it was based as a judgment in rem, it was not making, as is contended, a collateral attack on the order of the Land Department, but was merely relying on the valid entry and asking the court to decline to give effect to the erroneous cancellation.

4. This conclusion makes it unnecessary to decide the question as to whether the territorial statute, imposing upon the locator the burden of proving that he has performed the annual assessment work, is void as being in

[ 233 U.S. Page 260]

     conflict with the Federal statutes, which require no such annual proof, raise no presumption of abandonment and as construed in Hammer v. Garfield, 130 U.S. 291, demand clear and convincing proof that work has not been done before a forfeiture can be declared. It also makes it unnecessary to determine whether the affidavit of work being offered for one purpose by McKnight could be used for another purpose by the Brick Company as substantive evidence in the case.

Many pages of the briefs are devoted to a discussion of these questions, but if any of them were decided in favor of the Brick Company it could not increase its rights. If the legal propositions involved could be decided in favor of McKnight that could not overcome the fact that the issuance of the final receipt to the Brick Company on October 23, 1905, was an adjudication not only that the Brick Company was entitled to a patent, but that McKnight then had no adverse claim to the land. Of course he acquired none in May, 1906, by locating on property that had previously been and then was segregated from the public domain.

The judgment of the Supreme Court of the Territory of New Mexico is reversed and the case is remanded to the Supreme Court of the State of New Mexico for further proceedings not inconsistent with this opinion

Reversed.

Syllabus FOOTNOTES

1 SEC. 2315. The owner or owners of any unpatented mining claim in this Territory, located under the laws of the United States and of this Territory, shall, within sixty days from and after the time within which the assessment work required by law to be done upon such claim should have been done and performed, cause to be filed with the recorder of the county in which such mining claim is situated, an affidavit setting forth the time when such work was done, and the amount, character, and actual cost thereof, together with the name or names of the person or persons who performed such work; and such affidavit, when made and filed as herein provided, shall be prima facie evidence of the facts therein stated. The failure to make and file such affidavit as herein provided shall, in any contest, suit or proceedings touching the title to such claim, throw the burden of proof upon the owner or owners of such claim to show that such work has been done according to law."

19140406

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