Allegations that an attorney conspired with Capt. Richard King more than 120 years ago to deprive a widow’s heirs of the rightful title to a portion of the famed King Ranch will not be argued to a jury.
On Aug. 28, the Texas Supreme Court held in King Ranch, Inc., et al. v. Chapman that Helen Chapman’s heirs presented no evidence of King’s alleged extrinsic fraud to support their claim for a bill of review to set aside an 1883 judgment that settled a dispute over land located in Nueces County. To avoid the four-year statute of limitations for a bill of review, the heirs had to prove extrinsic fraud by showing that their ancestors were denied a chance to fully litigate all rights asserted before the judgment was rendered in 1883.
The Supreme Court also held in the 7-0 decision — with Justices Craig Enoch and Harriet O’Neill abstaining — that the King Ranch proved its adverse possession of the approximately 1,550 acres of land known as the Rincon de Santa Gertis as a matter of law, producing evidence that the ranch has used the property in dispute for more than 100 years.
“What this opinion says is that you can’t get a do-over after 120 years,” says John Thomas, a partner in Houston’s Hicks, Thomas & Lilienstern and one of the attorneys representing the ranch. “You can’t just take isolated tidbits of information 120 years after the fact and turn it into a lawsuit,” says Thomas, who represented the ranch along with Mike Hatchell, the principal in Hatchell P.C. in Tyler.
According to the Supreme Court’s opinion, the case demonstrates the wisdom in protecting the stability of final judgments. “Richard King and William Chapman, along with every witness with personal knowledge of the events at issue, have long since expired. The paper trail of evidence, though surprisingly detailed, cannot turn speculation about King’s motives into evidence of his fraud,” Justice Wallace Jefferson wrote for the court.
William R. Edwards, a partner in the Edwards Law Firm in Corpus Christi and an attorney for the Chapman heirs, says he’s disappointed that the Supreme Court did not let the case go to trial.
“It’s my feeling that if stare decisis and the rules of evidence applied, I should have been in a position to go to a jury,” Edwards says. He declines further comment.
But Ernest Smith, a University of Texas School of Law professor who teaches in the area of property law, says the Supreme Court believed the plaintiffs’ claims are based upon inferences rather than on hard evidence.
“It seems to me to send a signal to people who base their claims on incidents that happened a long time ago, that the Texas Supreme Court is not going to look favorably on that,” Smith said of the high court’s opinion.
Tidbits and Folklore
According to the opinion, 20 heirs of William and Helen Chapman sued approximately 200 parties alleged to own interests in the Rincon. The heirs alleged a conspiracy between King and attorney Robert Kleberg deprived them of rightful title to part of the Rincon and that they are entitled to receive all bonuses, royalties or other profits derived from oil and gas leases on the land, according to the opinion
The Chapman heirs’ claims to the land date back to the mid- 1850s. According to the opinion, King and William Chapman each owned a one-half undivided interest in the Rincon in 1853, but Chapman’s widow alleged in a suit filed in 1879 that King had ejected her from the land.
According to the opinion, Helen Chapman’s suit, filed in the 25th District Court in Nueces County and bearing Cause No. 1279, sought an undivided one-half interest in the Rincon, but the widow, who had moved to South Carolina, died before the case was resolved. The case settled in 1883, and the trial court rendered a judgment granting to King all the land but requiring him to pay Helen Chapman’s estate $5,811, according to the opinion.
According to the opinion, Kleberg and his firm, Lackey & Stayton, participated in the representation of Helen Chapman and also represented King in unrelated matters while Cause 1279 was pending. According to the opinion, after King died in 1885, Kleberg became manager of the King Ranch and also married King’s daughter, Alice.
The 28th District Court in Corpus Christi granted summary judgment to the King Ranch defendants, both on the Chapman heirs’ request for a bill of review to set aside the 1883 judgment and on the trespass to try title suit.
In a 2-1 decision, Corpus Christi’s 13th Court of Appeals reversed and remanded the case in 2001, holding that the Chapman heirs produced enough evidence to raise a genuine material fact of extrinsic fraud in the 1883 judgment.
Justice Federico Hinojosa wrote the opinion in which he was joined by retired 13th Court Justice Melchor Chavez, sitting by assignment. Justice J. Bonner Dorsey said in a dissenting opinion that there is no evidence that King and Kleberg committed extrinsic fraud.
According to the Supreme Court’s opinion, the Chapman heirs “cobbled together a series of historical tidbits and Texas folklore” in an effort to regain title to the land. According to the opinion, the heirs allege that King paid Kleberg a $5,000 retainer while the land dispute action, Cause No. 1279, was pending but rely solely on Tom Lea’s fictional account of an 1881 conversation between the two men in his two-volume work, “The King Ranch,” to support their claim. According to the opinion, the Corpus Christi Caller-Times published an Aug. 23, 1992, article in which King Ranch archivist and historian Bruce Cheeseman was quoted as saying: “Clearly, Kleberg was looking after the interest of his in-state client versus the interests of his out-of-state client.” Cheeseman claimed he was misquoted, but even if the quote is accurate, it doesn’t support an inference that King committed extrinsic fraud, according to the opinion.
Another piece of evidence cited in the opinion is Kleberg’s statement in an 1881 letter to his parents that King “asked us to attend to his legal business for him.” But such dual representation is permissible under today’s Texas Disciplinary Rules of Professional Conduct and was not prohibited in the 1880s, Jefferson said in the opinion.