SLATER V. MAXWELL, 73 U. S. 268 (1867)

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U.S. Supreme Court

Slater v. Maxwell, 73 U.S. 6 Wall. 268 268 (1867)

Slater v. Maxwell

73 U.S. (6 Wall.) 268


1. Where land is sold for taxes, the inadequacy of the price given is not a valid objection to the sale.

2. Where a tract of land sold for taxes consists of several distinct parcels, the sale of the entire tract in one body does not vitiate the proceeding if bids could not have been obtained upon an offer of a part of the property.

3. Where a fact alleged in a bill in chancery is one within the defendant's own knowledge, the general rule of equity pleading is that the defendant must answer positively, and not merely to his remembrance or belief.

Accordingly, when a bill alleged, that at the time that a very large tract

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of land -- sold for taxes -- was put up for public sale, a great many persons were present with a view to purchase small tracts for farming purposes, but that the defendant stated to them that the complainant would redeem his land from the purchasers, and in that way put down all competition, and bad the entire property struck off to him for the amount of the taxes, and that this conduct was pursued to enable him to buy without competition, for a trifling amount, all the land of the complainant: held that an answer was evasive and insufficient, when answering that the defendant "has no recollection of making said statement, nor does he believe that he stated that W. S. would redeem his land," and that he "believes the charge that he stated to the bystanders attending that sale that he would do so, to be untrue."

4. It is essential to the validity of tax sales, that they be conducted in conformity with the requirements of the law, and with entire fairness. Perfect freedom from all influences likely to prevent competition in the sale should be strictly exacted.

5. When the objections to a tax deed consist in the want of conformity to the requirements of the statute in the proceedings at the sale or preliminary to it, or in the assessment of the tax, or in any like particulars, they maybe urged at law in an action of ejectment. Where, however, the sale is not open to objections of this nature, but is impeached for fraud or unfair practices of officer or purchaser, to the prejudice of the owner, a court of equity is the proper tribunal to afford relief.

Slater filed a bill in that court to compel one Maxwell to release whatever apparent right he, Maxwell, might have acquired to a large tract of land (19,944 acres) in Virginia, under a sale of the same, made in October, 1845, by the Sheriff of Ritchie County, for taxes amounting to $30.03, accrued for 1841-1844, and the deeds executed upon such sale.

The grounds of relief set forth and relied on were:

1. That the sale had been made at a grossly inadequate price, the land having been worth $6,000, and the sale having been made to the defendant for $30.03.

2. That although the land was composed of parts, capable of being sold separately, and anyone of which would have more than paid all the taxes claimed, the whole had been set up and sold.

3. That there were many persons at the sale, bystanders, desirous of purchasing different parts, but that the defendant

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stated to them that the owner would redeem them all, and having thus prevented all competition, had the lands knocked down to himself for the paltry sum named.

As to the facts, it appeared to be true that the land had been sold at a price merely nominal, and wholly below its value, and also that the sheriff had sold the whole; but that in selling he had asked, "Who will pay the taxes and damages for the least quantity of acres?" and that getting no bid for a less quantity of acres, he had then sold the whole. The answer positively averred that no bid could be got for a part. It appeared also that in 1840, the complainant had sold 7,955 acres of the original tract, but notwithstanding this sale, the entire tract was charged in his name on the books of the commissioner of the revenue of the county, with the taxes, and was returned delinquent for their nonpayment, and was sold.

The main questions, accordingly, were had the defendant stated to the bystanders that the plaintiff would redeem the land from the tax sale with a view of preventing their bidding, and so of having the land knocked down to himself at a very low price, and if so, what was the effect in equity, upon the sale, of these statements of his?

As respected the matter of fact. In reply to a positive charge in the bill, that he had made statements of the sort above mentioned, the defendant in his answer said, "that he has no recollection of making said statement, nor does he believe that he stated that William Slater would redeem his land," and that he "believes the charge that he stated to the bystanders attending said sale, that William Slater would redeem his land from the purchaser, to be untrue."

The testimony from witnesses was thus:

One Zinn stated that

"he was present when the sheriff was crying the land, and that Maxwell stepped up, and said he knew the owners, and it was not worth while for any person to buy it, that they would pay the taxes."

Being asked, on cross-examination, by the defendant himself, whether he was certain and positive that those words were used, he answered "I am." And being asked, whether he, the defendant, "might

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not have alluded to some of the tracts lying in the Slater connection?" his reply was: "The defendant might have alluded to those tracts, or he might not. They were crying the Slater land at the time he stepped up and made the observations."

One J. R. Jones, also at the sale, testified that Mr. Maxwell, S. T. Bukey, and Manly Zinn, were present; that Mr. Zinn "appeared like as if he wanted some of the land; that Maxwell said that he knew the men, and that it was no use for them to bid, that it would be redeemed" -- as the witness understood Mr. Maxwell to mean -- "by the owner of the land."

In reply to a question, whether any other person would have bid on the Slater land, if the defendant had not made the representations he did, in relation to its being redeemed, Jones said: "It appeared to me that Mr. Bukey and Mr. Zinn were going to bid; they said they were going to bid on the Slater land." Mr. Bukey was dead at the time when the evidence was taken.

Among the exhibits filed by the complainant was certificate from the clerk of the Ritchie County Court, that the defendant was the purchaser at $31.53 of 19,944 acres in Richie County, returned delinquent and sold in the name of Slater, for taxes due in October, 1845 (the taxes which had accrued in 1841-1844), amounting to $30.03. And also a certificate, that 9,944 acres of land (evidently the same 19,944 which were sold in 1845, or a part thereof) were returned delinquent in the name of Slater, for taxes of 1846-1849, amounting to $23.78; that twenty-five acres thereof were sold in September, 1850, to satisfy the said taxes; and were bought by Maxwell for $24.96. And then followed, under date of 30 August, 1852, a receipt from the defendant Maxwell to the plaintiff Slater, by the hand of Slater's attorney, for $30, in redemption "for twenty-five acres of land purchased by me in September, 1850, for taxes, and sold as land belonging to said Slater, by the Sheriff of Ritchie County."

There was a general replication to the answer.

The court below dismissed the bill.

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