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Robinson-Shore Development Co. v. Gallagher

Decided: February 3, 1958.


On appeal from Superior Court, Appellate Division, whose opinion is reported in 45 N.J. Super. 507.

For reversal -- Chief Justice Weintraub, and Justices Heher, Wachenfeld, Burling, Jacobs, Francis and Proctor. For affirmance -- None. The opinion of the court was delivered by Burling, J. Weintraub, C.J. (concurring). Heher, J. (concurring in result). Weintraub, C.J., and Heher, J., concurring in result.


[26 NJ Page 61] This is an action to quiet title. The Superior Court, Chancery Division, entered a judgment confirming a fee simple title in plaintiff, Robinson-Shore Development Co., 41 N.J. Super. 324 (Ch. Div. 1956). The defendants, William R. Gallagher and Catherine Gallagher, his wife, prosecuted an appeal to the Appellate Division, but prior to a determination of the merits the cause was remanded to the trial court for determination of the question of whether the legal effect of four deeds in defendants' chain of title may have cured any defects therein. The trial court confirmed the original judgment entered in favor of plaintiff, 43 N.J. Super. 430 (Ch. Div. 1956), and the entire case

was then determined by the Appellate Division, which court affirmed the judgment entered below. 45 N.J. Super. 507 (App. Div. 1957).

Pursuant to a petition, this court granted certification to review the cause. 25 N.J. 48 (1957).

The dispute here concerns the title to what was once an island, but which is now joined by accretion to the mainland and is located partly in the City of Ocean City and partly in the Township of Upper, Cape May County. The land engendering the litigation comprises some 340 acres. The factual setting is somewhat complex. There are two chains of title to the property in question. One is a common chain of title through which defendants claim ownership of an undivided one-third of the property, the other two-thirds being undisputedly held by the plaintiff. The plaintiff, however, has succeeded to the entire interest of a collateral chain of title, which it contends is superior to the chain through which defendants derive their interest.

By deed in 1842 Somers C. Godfrey became vested with the title to the land in controversy. In 1853 Godfrey mortgaged what was then the island to the firm of Cooper, Henderson & Co., conditioned upon payment of the principal sum of $500 plus interest within six months, which mortgage was duly recorded. This was the inception of the common chain of title which has subsequently devolved to the parties in the enunciated one third-two thirds ratio (hereinafter referred to as Chain I). Subsequently, in 1854, a judgment creditor of Godfrey levied on the premises, and at the execution sale one Lemuel H. Hopkins purchased the property subject to the prior recorded mortgage. The sheriff's deed to Hopkins was duly recorded. The plaintiff presently asserts the paramount position of the Hopkins' chain of title (hereinafter referred to as Chain II).

A heightened interest in the land in question was manifested in the year 1897. On May 18 of that year Mrs. Martha Ann (Gandy) Blakeman entered into a contract to convey the fee to John G. Gandy, Charles G. Miller and David P. Cresswell. On June 18 of the same year one

Emma Bourgeois purchased the same property from John Wahl Queen, administrator c.t.a. of the estate of Lemuel H. Hopkins, deceased.

At the insistence of Gandy, Miller and Cresswell, Mrs. Blakeman, on September 24, 1897, initiated an action entitled "Martha Ann Blakeman, complainant, v. Emma Bourgeois, et als.," to quiet her title to the premises in the Court of Chancery. In that suit Mrs. Blakeman exhibited an assignment to her of the Godfrey mortgage by Cooper, Henderson & Co., dated 1860, but unrecorded. She alleged that at the time of the assignment no payments on the mortgage had been made and that she had entered into possession of the premises in 1860 and was in "open, notorious, continued and peaceable possession" up to and including the time of the commencement of the suit, 1897. Concisely, Mrs. Blakeman's claim to the title was grounded upon 20 years' possession under a mortgage which was in default, Rev. 1877, p. 597, or, in the alternative, 20 years of adverse possession. In 1898 a preliminary hearing was held before Vice-Chancellor Grey upon the jurisdictional question of whether Mrs. Blakeman was "in peaceable possession of lands in this state claiming to own the same" so that she might maintain an action to quiet title. L. 1870, p. 20, presently N.J.S. 2 A:62-1 et seq.; Fittichauer v. Metropolitan Fireproofing Co., 70 N.J. Eq. 429 (Ch. 1905); Toth v. Bigelow, 1 N.J. 399, 402 (1949).

In spite of the narrow projected issue, above outlined, the inquiry actually pursued was not so limited. In fact, a lengthy hearing was had on the precise nature and extent of Mrs. Blakeman's possession. This broad excursion into the issue of possession may have been precipitated by the counsel for defendants' mistaken notion that the plaintiff was obliged to "prove adverse possession of the whole premises beyond a reasonable doubt." Blakeman v. Bourgeois, 59 N.J. Eq. 473, at page 475 (Ch. 1900).

The vice-chancellor rendered his opinion in 1900, holding that Mrs. Blakeman had sufficiently established the jurisdictional prerequisite of peaceable possession under a claim

of ownership, as called for by statute. Apparently, however, no order or decree was ever entered in the cause, nor was the second stage of proving title ever pursued by the parties. This lack of prosecution, in light of the previous arduous efforts of Mrs. Blakeman and the vendees of her realty to clear any conceivable cloud on the property, is best explained by the events transpiring in the interval between the commencement of the litigation and the rendition of the vice-chancellor's opinion.

While the cause was pending Mrs. Blakeman became disenchanted with her bargain and assigned and quitclaimed her interest under the Godfrey mortgage to a corporation, the Ocean City Association, on May 31, 1899. Two days previously, on May 29, 1899, the Ocean City Association had also acquired a one-third interest in the original agreement between Mrs. Blakeman and Gandy, Miller and Cresswell by purchasing an assignment of Gandy's interest. In addition, on May 26, 1899 the Ocean City Association had also acquired a one-quarter interest in the Hopkins title (Chain II) from Emma and George A. Bourgeois, Jr. To further complicate matters Mrs. Blakeman, prior to receiving her purchase money, had tendered a quitclaim deed to Gandy, Miller and Cresswell on August 30, 1897 and they had recorded the deed. One final step completes this phase of the story, in 1902 Miller assigned his interest in the contract to John A. Higgons.

Thus realigned, the parties interested in the disputed property again engaged in litigation. In 1903 the Ocean City Association commenced an action in the Court of Chancery joining as defendants Cresswell and Higgons and as a technical party defendant, Mrs. Blakeman. It sought a decree declaring "null and void" the recorded quitclaim deed of August 30, 1897 from Mrs. Blakeman to Gandy, Miller and Cresswell, upon the ground that it was obtained by fraud; further declaring that Cresswell and Higgons had no right in the premises by virtue of the original agreement with Mrs. Blakeman which was "forfeited and at an end," and requiring Mrs. Blakeman to deliver "a formal and proper

deed of conveyance of her right, title and interest in the mortgaged premises" "which she is willing to do but is prevented from so doing by the record of the said quit-claim deed." Higgons and Cresswell counterclaimed against the Ocean City Association and Mrs. Blakeman, seeking specific performance of the original agreement and to compel Mrs. Blakeman to deliver to them a warranty deed for the premises. The vice-chancellor entered a decree in favor of Higgons and Cresswell. The Ocean City Association and Mrs. Blakeman appealed and in a per curiam opinion, the Court of Errors and Appeals concurred in the views expressed in the opinion of the vice-chancellor. Ocean City Ass'n v. Cresswell, 71 N.J. Eq. 292, 295 (E. & A. 1906). As a result of the litigation, Ocean City Association, Cresswell and Higgons each owned an undivided one-third interest in Chain I. Subsequently, Ocean City Association acquired Cresswell's interest, thus establishing the previously referred to one third-two thirds ratio.

With their disputes seemingly at an end, Ocean City Association and Higgons remained in the relationship of co-tenants to the property until 1925. On November 30 of that year Higgons conveyed with covenants of title his one-third interest to Katherine M. Connolly. Katherine M. Connolly, on the same day, gave back a purchase money mortgage with covenants of title to secure the sum of $23,000. On the next day, December 1, the Ocean City Association conveyed its interest to the same Katherine M. Connolly. Since it had in 1925 by quitclaim deeds acquired the remaining outstanding three-quarters of Chain II, Katherine M. Connolly acquired from Ocean City Association two-thirds of Chain I and all of Chain II. Contemporaneously, on December 1, 1925, Katherine M. Connolly conveyed her interests consisting of the entirety of both chains of title to Southern Gardens, Inc. In 1931, after default, Higgons foreclosed his mortgage, joining Katherine M. Connolly and Southern Gardens, Inc., as parties defendant to the foreclosure proceeding. A sheriff's sale was had and Higgons purchased the mortgage interest, receiving a sheriff's

deed containing recitals that it was made pursuant to the foreclosure decree and that the equity of redemption of Connolly and Southern Gardens, Inc., was barred.

By mesne conveyances the present defendants succeeded to Higgons' one-third interest and the present plaintiff succeeded to the remaining two-thirds interest. In 1956 the plaintiff commenced the current action to quiet title. At the hearing, there being no dispute as to the jurisdictional question, i.e., the peaceable possession under claim of ownership by the plaintiff, the parties proceeded to exhibit their respective titles. At this juncture the defendants were faced with a problem of proof. The success of their claim ultimately rested upon an adequate showing of Mrs. Blakeman's title and possession. They could not adduce oral testimony of the essential facts necessary to meet the burden of proof imposed upon them owing to the demise of the parties having personal knowledge of the facts. They were compelled, therefore, to rest their cause upon the ancient adjudications, the transcribed records thereof, and the various instruments and conveyances available in their chain of title. They contended (1) that Blakeman v. Bourgeois, supra, constituted a favorable and final adjudication of their title; (2) that the transcript of the testimony in Blakeman v. Bourgeois, supra, was admissible in evidence in this litigation to prove the essential facts; (3) that Ocean City Association v. Cresswell, supra, adjudicated Mrs. Blakeman's title and that that case is res judicata or collateral estoppel on the issue; (4) that the transcript of the testimony in Ocean City Association v. Cresswell, supra, was admissible in evidence in this litigation, and (5) upon the remand, that the after acquired title (Chain II) of Katherine M. Connolly and Southern Gardens, Inc., inured to the benefit of the purchase money mortgagee, Higgons, who upon foreclosure acquired a good title.

The trial court held against defendants on all grounds and entered a judgment declaring plaintiff's title "to be good and free from any claim, estate, interest, right in, or lien, or encumbrances."

The Appellate Division affirmed the determination below in all respects. The reasons advanced by both courts are recited in the reported opinions previously referred to and we see no reason to repeat them here. The reasons advanced below by the defendants are repeated and urged on this appeal.

Our view is that the case of Ocean City Association v. Cresswell, supra, did adjudicate the question of the superiority of Mrs. Blakeman's title and that the present plaintiff, being in privity with the Ocean City Association, is collaterally estopped from denying the efficacy of the former adjudication. As a consequence, we deem it unnecessary to pass upon the other questions presented.

The rule in respect to collateral estoppel was succinctly stated by the United States Supreme Court in Southern Pacific R.R. Co. v. United States, 168 U.S. 1, 48, 18 S. Ct. 18, 42 L. Ed. 355 (1897), quoted from by Justice Jacobs in N.J. Highway Authority v. Renner, 18 N.J. 485, 494 (1955). It is

"The general principle announced in numerous cases is that a right, question, or fact distinctly put in issue, and directly determined by a court of competent jurisdiction, as a ground of recovery, cannot be disputed in a subsequent suit between the same parties or their privies; and even if the second suit is for a different cause of action, the right, question or fact once so determined must, as between the same parties or their ...

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