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ROBINS I.P.F. v. SOUTHOLD DEV.

February 1, 1991

ROBINS ISLAND PRESERVATION FUND, INC., PLAINTIFF,
v.
SOUTHOLD DEVELOPMENT CORP., DEFENDANT. SOUTHOLD DEVELOPMENT CORP., THIRD-PARTY PLAINTIFF, V. STATE OF NEW YORK, THIRD-PARTY DEFENDANT.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Wexler, District Judge.

MEMORANDUM AND ORDER

In the above-referenced action, Robins Island Preservation Fund, Inc. ("plaintiff") seeks, inter alia, a declaration regarding ownership interest and possessory rights in Robins Island, an island of approximately 445 acres located in the Peconic Bay in Suffolk County, New York. Briefly stated, plaintiff's claim is premised on the argument that New York State, in violation of certain national treaties, improperly confiscated Robins Island in 1779 from plaintiff's alleged predecessors-in-interest. Plaintiff, a not-for-profit Delaware corporation with its principal place of business in Maryland, thus claims present ownership to more than seventy percent of Robins Island. Named as defendant is Southold Development Corporation ("defendant"), a New York corporation which currently holds title to Robins Island. In addition, a third-party complaint naming the State of New York, ("the State"), has been filed in the action. Currently before the Court are defendant's and plaintiff's cross-motions for summary judgment pursuant to Rule 56(c) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure. In addition, defendant alternatively seeks dismissal, pursuant to Rule 12(b)(7) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, for failure to join necessary and indispensable parties. The State, as third-party defendant, also moves for various relief, including inter alia, dismissal of the complaint and summary judgment. After a brief statement of the relevant background facts, the Court will turn to address the parties' motions, beginning with the motions for summary judgment made by defendant and the State.

I. BACKGROUND

According to the complaint, one Joseph Wickham purchased Robins Island in 1715. In 1734, he devised the property to his son Joseph "and to the male heirs of his body lawfully begotten or to be begotten forever." Complaint at para. 9. Such a devise created an "estate tail" in Robins Island whereby Joseph Wickham II held the fee interest in the property for his life, and upon his death the fee interest would belong to his eldest son. In other words, from generation to generation, Robins Island would be perpetually inherited by the eldest son in direct descent from Joseph Wickham, Sr. In fact, upon the death of Joseph Wickham II in 1749, his eldest son, Parker Wickham, obtained the estate tail interest in Robins Island.

On October 22, 1779, at a time during the Revolutionary War when British forces occupied Long Island, the State of New York passed the Act of Attainder. That act declared Parker Wickham, among others, convicted of treason, and further declared that all property owned by those named was forfeited to, and vested in, the people of the State of New York. Prior to the confiscation, as noted above, Parker Wickham possessed a "fee tail" estate to various holdings in Suffolk County, including Robins Island. Plaintiff contests the validity of the State's confiscation of Robins Island in 1779, and argues that in any event the 1779 Act of Attainder did not affect any estate or interest held by Parker Wickham's eldest son at the time. See Complaint at para. 13. More particularly, as to the former point, plaintiff argues that at the time of the State's 1779 Attainder Act, ("the Attainder"), British forces occupied and maintained control over New York City and Long Island. See Plaintiff's Memo at 5. Consequently, plaintiff asserts that New York exercised no sovereignty over Long Island during the period, and therefore state law had no force or effect. Id. As to the latter point noted above, plaintiff argues that even if the Attainder was valid to confiscate Robins Island, the future possessory interest of Parker Wickham's son remained valid because the Attainder only sought to confiscate the interest of the individuals specifically named in the statute.

Many of the historical facts are not in dispute, although there is strong disagreement between the parties as to their interpretation. At any rate, in 1782, New York State abolished fee tail estate interests in land, and upon enactment of that same legislation, converted those estates to fee simple estates. In addition, in late 1782 the United States entered into a Provisional Treaty of Peace with Great Britain, ("the 1783 Treaty"), which was executed in 1783. According to the complaint, a portion of the 1783 Treaty was intended to restore all confiscated "Estates, Rights and Properties" to, inter alia, "real British subjects." Plaintiff further points out that Article V of the 1783 Treaty provided that persons with any interest in confiscated lands "shall meet with no lawful impediment in the prosecution of their just rights." Complaint at para. 16. Furthermore, Article VI of the Treaty prohibited future confiscations of property. Id.

In May of 1784, the legislature of the State of New York passed an Act for the speedy sale of confiscated estates, which confirmed the confiscations authorized by the Attainder and provided procedures for expediting the sale of those confiscated estates. Thereafter, in August of 1784, the Commissioners of Forfeiture of the State of New York conveyed Robins Island in fee simple to Benjamin Tallmedge and Caleb Brewster. See Plaintiff's Affirmation at exhibit 2. According to the complaint, defendant in the action at bar holds title to Robins Island based on a chain of title which commenced with that 1784 conveyance.

As noted above, one of plaintiff's theories is based upon the argument that New York exercised no sovereignty over Long Island at the time of the Attainder, and thus it had no lawful effect over the area. The crux of plaintiff's alternative theory, based on, inter alia, clauses cited above from the 1783 Treaty, as well as identical language drafted into the final Definitive Treaty of Peace with Great Britain, is that the 1784 conveyance of Robins Island by the state was void. More specifically, plaintiff argues that the Attainder confiscated a mere life interest held by Parker Wickham. Thus, plaintiff claims that Parker Wickham's son retained his vested possessory fee tail estate as of the time of the confiscation. Furthermore, plaintiff asserts that because New York had abolished fee tails in the interim, when Parker Wickham died in 1785 his son held the exclusive right to the fee simple of Robins Island. As alleged successors-in-interest to Parker Wickham's son, plaintiff claims the right to current possession of Robins Island.

In response to the complaint, defendant points out that title to Robins Island has remained stable for over two hundred years, and that plaintiff's action destabilizes the title to all land formerly owned by Parker Wickham, including parts of the Towns of Southold, Riverhead and Southampton, New York. Among the affirmative defenses asserted by defendant are, inter alia: (1) that plaintiff has failed to name indispensable parties; (2) that the action is barred by the statute of limitations; and (3) that through adverse possession title has been acquired by defendant and its predecessors. As noted above, plaintiff and defendant move for summary judgment, pursuant to Rule 56 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure. In addition to defendant's Rule 56 motion, which seeks dismissal of the complaint, the State moves for various alternative relief, including dismissal of the complaint, pursuant to Rule 12(b) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, and summary judgment. Aside from asserting the statute of limitations as a time bar, a defense also raised by defendant, the State additionally asserts that plaintiff's causes of action are barred by the doctrine of laches.

II. DISCUSSION

Given the unique nature of this case, and the lengthy arguments made by the parties in their papers, the Court will address only the issues which it considers to be dispositive of the motions. Accordingly, for the reasons set forth below, the Court finds that defendant's and the State's motions for summary judgment must be granted. By way of an outline, the Court will address the following points in the following sequence: (A) New York's Act of Attainder of 1779 was validly exercised over Parker Wickham, and at the time New York conveyed Robins Island in 1784, it held a fee simple absolute interest in the premises; therefore, the Court finds that plaintiff has no claim under the 1783 Treaty, and that there is no federal question jurisdiction over this case. (B) Pursuant to the Court's diversity jurisdiction, the substantive law of New York would apply, and therefore, based on both Supreme Court precedent and New York law, the Attainder was valid. However, even if the Court were to find that the Act of Attainder was not valid, application of the state statute of limitations would bar plaintiff's claim. (C) Even assuming, arguendo, that Joseph Wickham did retain some future interest in Robins Island, the equitable doctrine of laches bars plaintiff's claim. Moreover, even if the Court were to find that application of a state-law time bar was inappropriate, public policy demands that plaintiff's claim cannot exist in perpetuity and unsettle title to real property in New York.

For each of the points made below, the Court emphasizes that the summary judgment standard of Rule 56(c) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure controls. Accordingly, it is to be noted that a motion for summary judgment may be granted only when it is shown that "there is no genuine issue as to any material fact and that the moving party is entitled to a judgment as a matter of law." Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(c); Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 323, 106 S.Ct. 2548, 2552- 53, 91 L.Ed.2d 265 (1986); Donahue v. Windsor Locks Bd. of Fire Comm'rs, 834 F.2d 54, 57 (2d Cir. 1987); Winant v. Carefree Pools, 709 F. Supp. 57, 59 (E.D.N.Y.), aff'd, 891 F.2d 278 (2d Cir. 1989). The burden on such a motion is upon the moving party to clearly establish the absence of a genuine issue as to any material fact. Donahue, 834 F.2d at 57. In addition, the court must resolve all ambiguities and draw all reasonable inferences in favor of the non-moving party. Id. With these principles in mind, the Court notes that many of the factual issues raised by the parties herein involve questions regarding the interpretation of both historical documents and historical events. Therefore, in light of the fact that this case poses a number of mixed issues of law and fact, albeit ancient fact, and given that no one involved in this case has any personal knowledge of the great majority of the facts, the Court views this case as one particularly well-suited to disposition by motions. Consequently, in consideration of all the documentation submitted by the parties, the Court finds as follows.

A. Validity of New York's Act of Attainder

As noted above, plaintiff asserts that the Attainder had no lawful effect on Parker Wickham's interest in Robins Island, since the British forces allegedly occupied the Long Island area at the time of the Attainder. See Plaintiff's Memo. at 4-6. However, the cases relied upon by plaintiff to support this proposition are far outweighed by the Supreme Court cases cited by defendant and the State, which stand for the proposition that an act taken by a state after July of 1776 was an act taken by a sovereign and independent government. Ware v. Hylton, 3 U.S. (3 Dall.) 199, 224-25, 1 L.Ed. 568 (1796); M'Ilvaine v. Coxe's Lessee, 8 U.S. (4 Cranch) 209, 212, 2 L.Ed. 598 (1808). It is of particular significance that the court ...


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