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decided: April 11, 1892.



Author: Field

[ 144 U.S. Page 540]

 MR. JUSTICE FIELD, after stating the case, delivered the opinion of the court.

The title of the complainants is founded upon the adverse possession of themselves and parties, through whom they derive their interests, under claim and color of title, for a period exceeding the statutory time which bars an action for the recovery of land within the District of Columbia. The statute of limitation to such cases in force in the District is that of 21 James I, ch. 16. That statute, passed "for quieting of men's estates and avoiding of suits," among other things

[ 144 U.S. Page 541]

     declared that no person or persons should at any time thereafter make any entry into any lands, tenements or hereditaments but within twenty years next after his or their right or title shall thereafter have first descended or accrued to the same, and that in default thereof such persons not entering, and their heirs, should be utterly excluded and debarred from such entry thereafter to be made, any former law or statute to the contrary notwithstanding.

Twenty years is, therefore, the period limited for entry upon any lands within this District after the claimant's title has accrued. After the lapse of that period there is no right of entry upon lands against the party in possession, and all actions to enforce any such alleged right are barred. Complete possession, the character of which is hereafter stated, of real property in the District for that period, with a claim of ownership, operates therefore to give the occupant title to the premises. No one else, with certain exceptions -- as infants, married women, lunatics and persons imprisoned or beyond the seas, who may bring their action within ten years after the expiration of their disability -- can call his title in question. He can stand on his adverse possession as fully as if he had always held the undisputed title of record.

The decisions of the courts have determined the character of the possession which will thus bar the right of the former owner to recover real property. It must be an open, visible, continuous and exclusive possession, with a claim of ownership, such as will notify parties seeking information upon the subject that the premises are not held in subordination to any title or claim of others, but adversely to all titles and all claimants. In the present cases the adverse possession of the grantors of the complainants sufficient to bar the right of previous owners, is abundantly established within the most strict definition of that term.

The objection of the defendants to the jurisdiction of a court of equity in this case arises from confounding it with a bill of peace and an ordinary bill quia timet, to neither of which class does it belong, nor is it governed by the same principles. Bills of peace are of two kinds: First, those

[ 144 U.S. Page 542]

     which are brought to establish a right claimed by the plaintiff, but controverted by numerous parties having distinct interests originating in a common source. A right of fishery asserted by one party and controverted by numerous riparian proprietors on the river, is an instance given by Story where such a bill will lie. In such cases a court of equity will interfere and bring all the claimants before it in one proceeding to avoid a multiplicity of suits. A separate action at law with a single claimant would determine nothing beyond the respective rights of the parties as against each other, and such a contest with each claimant might lead to interminable litigation. To put at rest the controversy and determine the extent of the rights of the claimants of distinct interests in a common subject the bill lies, which is thus essentially one for peace. Second: bills of peace of the other kind lie where the right of the plaintiff to real property has been unsuccessfully assailed in different actions, and is liable to further actions of the same character, and are brought to put an end to the controversy. "The equity of the plaintiff in such cases arose," as we said in Holland v. Challen, 110 U.S. 15, 19, "from the protracted litigation for the possession of the property which the action of ejectment at common law permitted. That action being founded upon a fictitious demise, between fictitious parties, a recovery in one action constituted no bar to another similar action or to any number of such actions. A change in the date of the alleged demise was sufficient to support a new action. Thus the party in possession, though successful in every instance, might be harassed and vexed, if not ruined, by a litigation constantly renewed. To put an end to such litigation and give repose to the successful party, courts of equity interfered and closed the controversy. To entitle the plaintiff to relief in such cases the concurrence of three particulars was essential: He must have been in possession of the property, he must have been disturbed in its possession by repeated actions at law, and he must have established his right by successive judgments in his favor. Upon these facts appearing, the court would interpose and grant a perpetual injunction to quiet the possession of the plaintiff against any further

[ 144 U.S. Page 543]

     litigation from the same source. It was only in this way that adequate relief could be afforded against vexatious litigation and the irreparable mischief which it entailed. Adams on Equity, 202; Pomeroy's Equity Jurisprudence, ยง 248; Stark v. Starrs, 6 Wall. 402; Curtis v. Sutter, 15 Cal. 259; Shepley v. Rangeley, 2 Ware, 242; Devonsher v. Newenham, 2 Schoales & Lef. 199." It is only where bills of peace of this kind -- more commonly designated as bills to remove a cloud on title and quiet the possession to real property -- are brought, that proof of the complainant's actual possession is necessary to maintain the suit. Frost v. Spitley, 121 U.S. 552, 556.

There is no controversy such as here stated in the present case. The title of the complainants is not controverted by the defendants, nor is it assailed by any actions for the possession of the property, and this is not a suit to put an end to any litigation of the kind. It is a suit to establish the title of the complainants as matter of record, that is, by a judicial determination of its validity, and to enjoin the assertion by the defendants of a title to the same property from the former owners, which has been lost by the adverse possession of the parties through whom the complainants claim. The title by adverse possession, of course, rests on the recollection of witnesses, and, by a judicial determination of its validity against any claim under the former owners, record evidence will be substituted in its place. Embarrassments in the use of the property by the present owners will ...

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