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ALBERT ET AL. v. LEHIGH COAL AND NAVIGATION COMPANY (10/03/68)

decided: October 3, 1968.

ALBERT ET AL., APPELLANTS,
v.
LEHIGH COAL AND NAVIGATION COMPANY



Appeal from judgment of Court of Common Pleas of Luzerne County, March T., 1965, No. 1193, in case of George Albert et al. v. Lehigh Coal and Navigation Company et al.

COUNSEL

Neville B. Shea, with him Hopkin T. Rowlands, Jr., for appellants.

James P. Harris, Jr., for appellees.

Bell, C. J., Musmanno, Jones, Cohen, Eagen, O'Brien and Roberts, JJ. Opinion by Mr. Justice Jones. Mr. Justice Cohen and Mr. Justice Roberts concur in the result.

Author: Jones

[ 431 Pa. Page 602]

This appeal arises from a judgment entered, in an action to quiet title, by the Court of Common Pleas of Luzerne County and requires resolution of the question of the ownership of a large tract of land located in Fairview Township, Luzerne County.

[ 431 Pa. Page 603]

The original warrant for the subject land was issued to George W. Woodward*fn1 and covered 399 acres plus allowances of 6%, or approximately 423 acres,*fn2 located originally within Hanover Township, later within Wright Township and now located in Fairview Township, Luzerne County. On August 11, 1842, G. W. Woodward sold to one Volney Maxwell two warrants, one for the 399 acre tract and the other for a 417 acre tract located in Wright Township, Luzerne County. On March 25, 1867, Maxwell conveyed the 399 acre tract warrant to one John Brown and, on March 30, 1867, Brown conveyed this warrant to the Lehigh Coal and Navigation Company (Lehigh). Despite these conveyances both the 399 acre tract and the 417 acre tract continued to be carried on the tax records as "unseated"*fn3 lands in Wright Township in the warrantee name of George W. Woodward, the acreage of the one warrant being set forth as 399 acres and the acreage of the other warrant as 417 acres.

[ 431 Pa. Page 604]

The Luzerne County tax records show that Lehigh on June 1, 1868 paid 1867 taxes ($42.47) and that such payment would appear to have been credited to the 417 acre tract which Lehigh did not own and the records do not reveal that the 1867 taxes on the 399 acre tract which Lehigh did own were paid. The records further show that, on June 2, 1870, Lehigh paid 1868 and 1869 taxes and, again, such tax payments appear to have been credited to the 417 acre tract which Page 604} Lehigh did not own and the records do not reveal that taxes for 1868 and 1869 were paid on the 399 acre tract which Lehigh did own.*fn4

On July 1, 1870, by reason of the nonpayment of the 1867, 1868 and 1869 taxes on the 399 acre tract, the Treasurer of Luzerne County, at a tax sale, sold to the Commissioners of that County the 399 acre tract and, on September 18, 1878, -- over eight years subsequent to the tax sale, -- the 399 acre tract was sold at a tax sale by the County to one S. S. Winchester. On the date of that sale Winchester did not comply with his bid although he did pay the amount of his bid on September 26, 1878, eight days subsequent to the tax sale. In the meantime, Lehigh, on September 24, 1878, six days subsequent to the sale, attempted to redeem the 399 acre tract by again paying 1868 and 1869 taxes. The County Commissioners of Luzerne County, by reason of Lehigh's attempt at redemption, refused to deliver a deed to Winchester and, on November 26, 1878, Winchester instituted a mandamus action against the County in the Court of Common Pleas of Luzerne County to compel the County Commissioners to give him a deed. Almost a year later, on November 10, 1879, the court issued a decree directing the County Commissioners to execute and deliver a deed to the 399 acre tract to Winchester and, in compliance with that decree, the County Commissioners did execute and deliver such a deed to Winchester on December 26, 1879. Lehigh was not made, nor did it intervene as, a party to this mandamus proceeding.

Winchester later died and, on June 27, 1882, the 399 acre tract was sold at a public sale, for the payment of debts in Winchester's estate, to one G. S. Halsey.

[ 431 Pa. Page 605]

Two years later, on June 21, 1892, Halsey conveyed the 399 acre tract to one Robert Sayre who conveyed his interest in this tract on July 9, 1894 to the Wright Township Water Company (Wright). Record title remained in Wright's name until June 27, 1938 when Wright conveyed its interest to the Lehigh Valley Railroad Company (Lehigh Valley). In the meantime, Wright did not pay the 1933 and 1934 taxes which were assessed in its name against the land and, as a result thereof, the Treasurer of Luzerne County on July 9, 1940 sold the tract to the Luzerne County Commissioners and, on June 30, 1952, twelve years later, the Tax Claim Bureau of Luzerne County sold the land to George Albert and Thomas C. Moore, the present appellants.

On August 24, 1959, appellants instituted an action to quiet title against Lehigh Valley and in this action a judgment by default against the Lehigh Valley was entered by the Court of Common Pleas of Luzerne County. Lehigh was not a party to this action.

On January 1, 1962, Lehigh conveyed whatever interest it had in the land to the Blue Ridge Real Estate Company.

The following additional facts must be noted: (1) Lehigh made seven conveyances totaling 156 acres out of the 399 acre tract, two of these conveyances being made a few months after the 1870 tax sale but the deeds recording the first four of the seven conveyances were not recorded until 1892; (2) three of Lehigh's adverse conveyances, totaling 83.61 acres were later made; (3) in 1933 and 1934, 150 acres of this tract were carried on the assessment books in Lehigh's name, although Lehigh then claimed and now claims to own all the acreage, remaining after previous conveyances, in this tract and Lehigh did pay all the taxes levied under these assessments against it for 1933 and 1934

[ 431 Pa. Page 606]

    while the taxes for the acreage represented by the previous conveyances were paid by the several owners against whom such acreage was assessed; (4) the tax assessments for 1933 and 1934 against Wright, on the basis of which the 1940 tax sale was held for nonpayment of these taxes, was found by the court to have included the acreage claimed by Lehigh and upon which Lehigh had paid taxes for 1933 and 1934 at least to the extent of 150 acres thereof.

Appellants' claim of title to that portion of the land in the 399 acre tract which remained after the adverse conveyances is based upon the 1870 tax sale, the 1878 tax sale, the 1879 court decree, the 1940 tax sale and the 1952 tax sale. Lehigh's claim of title is based upon the 1867 deed of Brown to Lehigh.

After hearing, the Court of Common Pleas of Luzerne County entered judgment nisi in favor of Lehigh and against appellants upon the following grounds: (a) that the 1870 tax sale was void and invalid as against Lehigh because Lehigh had paid the 1867-1869, inc., taxes on the 399 acre tract even though such payments had been erroneously credited by the County Treasurer to the 417 acre tract held in the warrantee name of G. W. Woodward and owned by others than Lehigh; (b) that the 1940 tax sale was void and invalid as against Lehigh because the land, for the nonpayment of taxes on which the sale was held, had been doubly assessed, it being assessed to both Lehigh and Wright and, furthermore, Lehigh had paid the taxes on the land assessed in its name for the years 1933 and 1934 upon the basis of which the 1940 tax sale was held; (c) that the 1879 decree of the Court of Common Pleas directing the execution and delivery of a deed to Winchester, following the 1878 tax sale, did not bind Lehigh because Lehigh had not been a party to that mandamus proceeding. Upon the dismissal of

[ 431 Pa. Page 607]

    exceptions to the judgment nisi and the entry of a final judgment in favor of Lehigh by the court en banc, this appeal was taken.

In evaluating the merits of this appeal, we start with the well settled principle of law that, in an action to quiet title, the plaintiffs must recover on the strength of their own title and not upon the weakness of the title of the defendant: Cox's Inc. v. Snodgrass, 372 Pa. 148, 152, 92 A.2d 540 (1952); Blumner v. Metropolitan Life Ins. Co., 362 Pa. 7, 12, 66 A.2d 245 (1949); Ransberry v. Brodhead's Forest & Stream Assoc., 315 Pa. 513, 515, 174 A. 97 (1934).

The appellants, initially, must rest their claim of title on the validity of the 1870 tax sale to Luzerne County because, if that tax sale was invalid, Winchester, appellants' predecessor in title, did not by the County-Winchester deed of 1879 receive any title to the 399 acre tract. In this connection, two inquiries arise: (1) were the taxes for 1867-1869, inc., paid by Lehigh on the 399 acre tract prior to the date of the tax sale? (2) what was the effect of the 1879 decree in the mandamus action directing delivery of the deed to the 399 acre tract by the County to Winchester following the 1878 tax sale?

The tax records show the following:

1. Transcript of Unseated Land Taxes

1856 to 1869

Lehigh Coal & Navigation Co. to ...


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