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U.S. Supreme Court

Exploration Co., Ltd. v. United States, 247 U.S. 435 (1918)

Exploration Company, Limited v. United States

No. 277

Argued May 1, 1918

Decided June 10, 1918

247 U.S. 435


Statutes of limitation upon suits to set aside fraudulent transactions do not begin to run until discovery of the fraud. Bailey v. Glover, 21 Wall. 342.

This rule applies to the provision of the Act of March 3, 1891, 26 Stat. 1093, that suits to vacate land patents shall only be brought within six years after the dates of the issuance of the patent.

235 F.1d 0 affirmed.

This suit was brought in the United States District Court for the District of Colorado to cancel nine coal land patents embracing 1,120 acres of land in Colorado which, it was charged, had been procured from the United States by fraud. A further purpose of the suit was to cancel deeds of the same land from various persons to one Philip L. Foster alleged to be in secret trust for the Exploration Company, a foreign corporation, for whose benefit it is alleged the frauds were committed. Six of the patents were of date of October 16, 1902, and three of date of September 6, 1902. The suit was brought March 3, 1911, about eight and a half years after the dates of the patents, the bill alleging that the fraud by which the patents were obtained was self-concealing in its nature, was concealed from the government by the wrongdoers, and was not discovered until 1909. The defendants demurred on the ground that the suit was barred by the statute of limitations, and the demurrer was sustained by the district court. 190 F.4d 5. The Circuit Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit reversed this decision, and the

Page 247 U. S. 436

case was sent back to the district court. 203 F.3d 7. After trial, a decree was rendered against the defendants, the present plaintiffs in error. 225 F.8d 4. This decree was affirmed by the circuit court of appeals, 235 F.1d 0, and the case comes here.

The district court found the following facts:

The Exploration Company, defendant herein, is a corporation of Great Britain, authorized to purchase, own, and operate mines, and to purchase and own shares of stock in mines in all parts of the world. It was the owner of mines and mining lands in different parts of the world, and also of shares of stock of corporations engaged in mining in the United States and other countries. In 1901 and for several years thereafter, its representative in this country was Charles A. Molson, to whom it had executed a general power of attorney to represent it in all matters in the United States. The Exploration Company desired to acquire certain coal lands in the State of Colorado which were a part of the public domain of the United States, but was unable to do so because it was a foreign corporation, and desired more of these coal lands than a domestic corporation could obtain under the laws of the United States. It therefore conceived and carried into effect the following scheme for the purpose of acquiring them: Mr. Molson employed one Henry Burrell to obtain title to the lands. Burrell employed other agents, who were sent to residents of Colorado, legally entitled to acquire public coal lands from the United States, and induced them to make entry of such lands as were pointed out to them by the Exploration Company's agents, and which were supposed to contain valuable veins of coal. A large number of such entries were made on lands situated in the Counties of Gunnison and Delta, the parties having filed declaratory statements as required by law. Many of these lands were abandoned and no patents applied for, but the filings on the lands herein involved were paid for and

Page 247 U. S. 437

patents therefor secured. Henry Burrell was a witness in most, if not all, of these entries. The parties who made the entries were promised the sum of twenty-five dollars for their services in so doing. Burrell was to pay all fees, as well as the purchase money, with funds furnished by the Exploration Company. The entrymen and women executed deeds of conveyance for their respective tracts of land and delivered them to Burrell as soon as the final proofs were made and the money paid by the Exploration Company's agent to the respective officers of the land offices within whose jurisdiction the lands were situated. Henry Burrell caused these deeds to be made to Alexander Burrell, his brother, and Alexander Burrell later conveyed the lands to Alberta L. Smith, a resident of Montana, the only consideration for the conveyance being that Smith promised to hold them in trust for and to convey them to any person designated by the agent of the Exploration Company. The agent Charles A. Molson having died, the Exploration Company appointed Philip L. Foster to succeed him as its duly authorized general agent in the United States, and Smith conveyed these lands to Foster, without any other consideration, who holds the legal title in secret trust for the Exploration Company. In 1902, patents to these lands were issued by the United States, but the fact that they were secured by false affidavits, and not for the benefit of the entrymen and women, but for the sole benefit of the Exploration Company, who in reality paid the government the purchase money, was kept secret, and did not become known to any of the officers of the government, nor did any facts become known to them which could arouse the suspicion of one reasonably diligent that the patents had been obtained by false affidavits for the sole benefit of the Exploration Company until 1909, more than six years after issuance of the patents, and then it only became known to the officers of the government by reason of the fact that a

Page 247 U. S. 438

Utah corporation had acquired a great many of the public lands in the same manner that these lands were obtained, and, this being discovered in 1909, the Secretary of the Interior directed in that year an examination of all coal land entries made in the States of Utah and Colorado. The facts were for the first time discovered in this investigation. There was nothing in the records, or on file in the General Land Office of the United States or the Department of the Interior which could possibly have aroused a suspicion that these lands had been obtained for the sole benefit of the Exploration Company until the reports of the special agents of the General Land Office were made in the latter part of 1909. As soon as the facts were ascertained, the Secretary of the Interior transmitted them to the Department of Justice with the request to institute suits to set aside the patents to the lands, and this suit was accordingly instituted on March 3, 1911, several months less than two years after the discovery of the alleged fraudulent acts.

The district court found that the defendants did not actively conceal the facts which constitute fraud in this case by enjoining silence on the entrymen and patentees, or by directing them or the agents who acted for it to refuse to give any information relating to the entries, if asked by the officers of the government, but were guilty of a passive concealment. When the investigation was made by the agents of the General Land Office in 1909 in relation to these entries, the patentees as well as the company's agents stated the facts truthfully, but until that time, the fact that the entries were all made for the benefit of the Exploration Company and that the legal title held by the defendant Foster was for the benefit of the company was concealed. There were no facts or circumstances within the knowledge of any official of the government prior to the investigation in 1909 which could arouse even a bare suspicion that the entries were made in the manner hereinbefore described and for the benefit of the Exploration Company.

Page 247 U. S. 445

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