Jones v. White
Jones v. White, Wythe 111 (1791), was a case that discussed when courts of equity could properly consider actions concerning conflicting titles to land.
Henry Hatcher obtained a survey for a tract of land in 1740 but was not granted title to that tract until the respective letters of patent were sealed in 1756. Elisha White, the appellee, purchased Hatcher’s tract from him for valuable consideration sometime in 1761/62. White alleged that the reason for the delay between the survey and the grant to Hatcher was due to a dispute between the governor and the people of Virginia regarding a fee demanded by the governor for his signature on grants such as the one that was to be made to Hatcher. During this delay, in 1744, Wood Jones, the appellant’s father of the same name, paid a similar disputed fee and was granted a tract of land that subsumed the land that was to be granted to Hatcher. When White discovered Jones’s interest in the land, he filed a petition for grant of the land to himself, which was granted in 1964. White also sued Jones for possession of the property but Jones died before answering White’s bill. White then brought a bill of revivor against Jones’s son and heir. Jones denied having any notice of Hatcher’s survey and argued that this dispute was not the proper object of a court of chancery. The county court granted title to White and ordered Jones to pay costs. Jones appealed this decision.
The Court's Decision
The High Court of Chancery reversed the decision of the county court, explaining that regardless of whether White asserted that the grant to Hatcher was to operate retroactively from the day of commencement or that Jones Sr. had acquired title to the land through surreptitious means, either theory would be sufficient for a court of common law to award a proper and appropriate remedy. Thus there was no ground for White to bring such a case in a court of equity particularly given the amount of time that passed between commencement of Hatcher’s title and White’s attempts to assert it. The Court of Appeals disagreed with the holding of the H.C.C. but affirmed the result. The court declared that, “[W]here fraud is suggested and proved, courts of equity have competent jurisdiction, are most usually and properly resorted to, and can afford ample and adequate relief.” The court did not reverse the result because White had failed to make any proof of either the allegations in his bill or any fraud on the part of Jones Sr.
Wythe agreed with the Court of Appeals’ decision and stated that the H.C.C.’s decision rested upon the faulty foundation that so long as White had a remedy available at common law, he should have sought it. Wythe also made the point that the Court of Appeals’ decision did not disturb the doctrine that the date of effect for a claim of title may relate back to the date of commencement when a subsequent grantee knew of the other grant or perhaps even the survey done for such a grant; but where such knowledge was not charged or proven, the relation would be inadmissible in court if it would harm an innocent person’s interests.
- George Wythe, Decisions of Cases in Virginia by the High Court of Chancery, (Richmond: Printed by Thomas Nicolson, 1795), 111.