Southall v. M'Keand
Southall v. M'Keand, Wythe 95 (1791), was a case involving a dispute over a parcel of land in Richmond that was a prize in a lottery William Byrd III held to help pay his debts.
William Byrd III held a lottery in 1767 to help pay off some debts he had accumulated. Prizes in this lottery were parcels of land taken from Byrd's holdings in Richmond. Byrd divided his holdings into unimproved lots, which would be awarded in half-acre portions; and improved lots, which were occupied tenements. The occupied lots' tenants had improved their lots to various degrees, and some tenants occupied more than half an acre of land. M'Keand was one of the tenants.
After the lottery tickets were sold but before the drawing, Byrd started surveying and laying out the lots, intending to reduce the size of the improved lots to half an acre each. Byrd's tenants objected to that plan, so most of the improved lots were awarded according to whatever amount of property their tenant had occupied. M'Keand did not object to the reduction, so his tenement as given away in the lottery was reduced to half an acre. Some previous tenants in M'Keand's tenement had occupied extra land adjacent to that half-acre lot; Byrd sold this adjacent land to M'Keand, who later sold it to Powell, who in turn sold the land to Mayo, who further sold the land to Carter.
Southall won M'Keand's tenement in the lottery. Southall believed that his prize included the adjacent occupied land to M'Keand's half-acre lot. Southall quickly notified M'Keand that Southall claimed the adjacent land to the half-acre lot, but Southall did not file a bill in Henrico County Court to enforce his claim until nearly 15 years later, after M'Keand had made £1000 worth of improvements to the land.
The Henrico County Court dismissed Southall's bill, and Southall appealed to the High Court of Chancery.
The Court's Decision
The High Court of Chancery ordered a survey to be made of the disputed land and given to a District Court jury, along with a plan for the City of Richmond (which indicated that the land attached to the winning lottery ticket would be half an acre in size), and ordered the District Court jury to determine the boundaries of M'Keand's tenement. After a hung jury, the second jury determined that the City of Richmond plan properly set out the area attached to the lot, and found in favor of M'Keand. The District Court judge, however, entered a verdict certifying that the evidence favored Southall. The High Court of Chancery voiced its approval of the District Court verdict, but also stated that the plan posted by Byrd for the City of Richmond was fair and that the parties should therefore be bound by it. As a consequence, the High Court of Chancery held that Southall was not entitled to the adjacent land purchased by M'Keand as a matter of equity, and upheld the County Court's decision dismissing Southall's bill.
Southall appealed the High Court of Chancery's decision to the Supreme Court of Appeals of Virginia. The Supreme Court of Appeals held that Southall was entitled to the full bounds of the area occupied by M'Keand, not just the half-acre parceled out by Byrd, since that was the agreement Byrd had reached with the other, objecting tenants, and an observer from a distance such as Southall had no reason to know that M'Keand specifically hadn't objected. Furthermore, the Supreme Court of Appeals said, M'Keand had notice of Southall's claim. However, the Supreme Court of Appeals continued, since Southall waited so long to enforce his claim in court, he was not entitled to the extra value M'Keand had added to the land in the meantime. Therefore, the Supreme Court of Appeals said, Southall was entitled to the value of the land at the time M'Keand bought it from Byrd. Since Powell was not aware of the cloud surrounding the title to the land, the Supreme Court of Appeals said, Southall had no claim against him Powell or Mayo. Since M'Keand was dead by the time of the Supreme Court of Appeals's decision, the Supreme Court of Appeals remanded the case to the High Court of Chancery to revive Southall's claim against M'Keand's estate.
Wythe's commentary for this case provides a good example of his pedantic writing style; he enters into an almost line-by-line dissection of the Supreme Court of Appeals's opinion. He criticizes the Supreme Court of Appeals's statement that the District Court's verdict shouldn't be considered to settle the issue of where the boundaries of Southall's property lie, since the verdict was against the evidence. Wythe was also displeased with the Supreme Court of Appeals's comment that it was unusual for the High Court of Chancery to accept such a verdict. Wythe rhetorically asks the Supreme Court of Appeals if the Chancellor is bound to always agree with the District Court judge's interpretation of the facts. The editor of the Wythe's Decisions volume, though, notes that the Supreme Court of Appeals's comments were likely meaningless asides leading up to their statement that they would review the case de novo.
Wythe also takes issue with the Supreme Court of Appeals's assertion that all lottery winners, including Southall, had a right to expect that the prize would be the territory as occupied by its tenants, since tenants on that land prior to M'Keand kept a public tavern on some of the adjacent ground. Wythe pointed out that the plan on display in Williamsburg that described the lottery prize plots indicated that M'Keand's property only contained half an acre. Wythe argued that the prior tenants' occupation was not consistent enough to have attached the property to the M'Keand lot.
Wythe also disagreed with the Supreme Court of Appeals's statement that Southall should not be bound by Byrd's survey reducing M'Keand's plot in the lottery to half an acre because neither Southall nor M'Keand were present to imply their consent to the scheme. Wythe argues that Byrd's survey was necessary in order for lottery entrants to know what land they were eligible to receive, and that it would have been practically impossible for Byrd to get the consent of all his tenants and lottery entrants before performing the survey. Wythe also noted that instead of being set aside as a separate plot in the lottery, the adjacent land to the M'Keand plot was included in the next plot over, which just happened to be awarded to a ticket held by William Byrd, who could then sell the land to M'Keand. If not for that luck of the draw, Wythe says, Southall would have been unable to file a claim on the land in court or in equity at all, and would have had to settle for trying to get monetary compensation from Byrd.
Wythe then proceeds to give a narrative re-enactment of how he believes Byrd's lottery would have been carried out in order to show that there was no point to the Supreme Court of Appeals's discussion over whether copies of Byrd's plan for the City of Richmond should be allowed into evidence, since M'Keand had never objected to being included in the new boundaries as laid out by that plan.
Wythe also notes that it would be worth figuring out some day whether equity would have provided relief for M'Keand in a situation where Southall had pursued his claim immediately in a court of common law, resulting in M'Keand losing both his purchased land and the value of improvements he made.
Wythe concludes by pondering how the executors for M'Keand's estate will be attached to the suit.
- George Wythe, Decisions of Cases in Virginia by the High Court of Chancery, 95 (Richmond: J.W. Randolph, 2d ed. 1852).
- "William Byrd III", The Colonial Williamsburg Official History & Citizenship Site, http://www.history.org/almanack/people/bios/biowbyrd.cfm
- Southall v. M'Keand, 1 Va. (1 Wash.) 336 (1794)
- Wythe 102.