WILLISON V. WATKINS, 28 U. S. 43 (1830)

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U.S. Supreme Court

Willison v. Watkins, 28 U.S. 3 Pet. 43 43 (1830)

Willison v. Watkins

28 U.S. (3 Pet.) 43


It is an undoubted principle of law fully recognized by this Court that a tenant cannot dispute the title of his landlord either by setting up a title in himself or a third person during the existence of the lease or tenancy. The principle of estoppel applies to the relation between them, and operates with full force to prevent the tenant from violating that contract by which he claimed and held the possession. He cannot change the character of the tenure by his own act merely, so as to enable himself to hold against his landlord, who reposes under the security of the tenancy, believing the possession of the tenant to be his own, held under his title, and ready to be surrendered by its termination, by the lapse of time or demand of possession.

The same principle applies to mortgagor and mortgagee, trustee and cestui que trust, and generally to all cases where one man obtains possession of real estate belonging to another by a recognition of his title.

In no instance has the principle of law which protects the relations between landlord and tenant being carried so far as in this case, which presents a disclaimer by a tenant with the knowledge of his landlord and an unbroken possession afterwards for such a length of time that the act of limitations has run out four times before he has done any act to assert his right to the land.

When a tenant disclaims to hold under his lease, he becomes a trespasser and his possession is adverse, and as open to the action of his landlord as a possession acquired originally by wrong. The act is conclusive on the tenant.

He cannot revoke his disclaimer and adverse claim so as to protect himself during the unexpired time of the lease. He is a trespasser on him who has the legal title. The relation of landlord and tenant is dissolved, and each party is to stand upon his right.

If the tenant disclaims the tenure, claims the fee adversely in right of a third person or in his own right, or attorns to another, his possession then becomes a tortious one by the forfeiture of his right, and the landlord's right of entry is complete, and he may sue at any time within the period of limitation, but he must lay his demise of a day subsequent to the termination of the tenancy, for before that he had no right of entry. By bringing his ejectment, he disclaims the tenancy and goes for the forfeiture. It shall not be permitted to the landlord to thus admit that there is no tenure subsisting between him, and the tenant which can protect his possession from this adversary suit, and at the same time recover on the ground of there being a tenure so strong as that he cannot set up his adversary possession.

A mortgagee or direct purchaser from a tenant, or one who buys his right at a sheriff's sale, assumes his relation to the landlord, with all its legal consequences, and is as much estopped from denying the tenancy.

If no length of time would protect a possession originally acquired under a lease, it would be productive of evils truly alarming, and we must be convinced beyond a doubt that the law is so settled before we would give our sanction to such a doctrine, and this is not the case upon authorities.

Page 28 U. S. 44

The relation between tenants in common is in principle very similar to that between lessor and lessee. The possession of one is the possession of the

other, while ever the tenure is acknowledged. But if one ousts the other, or denies the tenure, and receives the rents and profits to his exclusive use, his possession becomes adverse, and the act of limitations begins to run, so of a trustee, so of a mortgagee.

In relation to the limitations of actions for the recovery of real property, the Court thinks it proper to apply the remarks of the learned judge who delivered the opinion of the Court in the case of Bell v. Morrison, 1 Pet. 360, and to say the statute ought to receive such a construction as will effectuate the beneficent objects which it intended to accomplish, the security of titles, and the quieting of possessions. That which has been given to it in the present case is, we think, conformable to its true spirit and intention without impairing any principle heretofore established.

An action of trespass to try titles was brought in the circuit Court of South Carolina on 20 April, 1822, by the defendant in error against the plaintiff in this Court for the recovery of six hundred acres of land situated on the Savannah River. The title claimed by the plaintiff below and the evidence are fully stated in the opinion of the Court.

On the trial in the circuit court, the defendant proved that Samuel Willison, his father, had possession of the land in 1789, and cultivated it till the period of his death in 1802, from which time his widow and family possessed it until the death of his widow in 1815, and that from 1815 until this action was brought, the children retained possession by their tenants. That in the lifetime of Samuel Willison, Bordeaux, through whom the plaintiff claimed, was apprised that he claimed to hold the land by an adverse title. That the widow in 1802, on demand made, refused to give possession to Ralph S. Phillips, who claimed the land, and set up a title in herself, and was sued as a trespasser. That in 1793, Bordeaux and Willison were in treaty for the sale of this land, Bordeaux wishing to sell and Willison to purchase. The plaintiff then offered in evidence a power of attorney from Bordeaux to Willison dated February, 1792, authorizing him to take possession of the land, and sue trespassers, and that Willison was then a tenant of Bordeaux. The defendant having pleaded the statute of limitations (five years adverse

Page 28 U. S. 45

possession giving a title under it) relied upon the foregoing facts. But the presiding judge overruled the plea and instructed the jury that, when a tenancy had been proved to have once existed, the tenancy must not only be abandoned, but possession given up, before an adverse possession can be alleged. To this decision the defendant excepted.

The defendant brought this writ of error.

In the argument of the cause, the counsel for the plaintiff in error presented for the consideration of the court other exceptions besides that upon which the judgment of the circuit court was reversed. The decision of the court is exclusively upon the law arising on that which is stated.

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