Face Challenges Confidently

196 Arias v. Kerlin

Thursday, September 3rd, 2015

Richard F. Brown

The following is not a legal opinion. You should consult your attorney if the case may be of significance to you.
Arias v. Kerlin, 275 S.W.3d 1 (Tex. App. – Corpus Christi 2006) is another case litigating the title to Padre Island. While it does not directly involve any oil and gas issue, it is an important title case for titles originating in the period when Mexican sovereignty was contested by the United States. Descendants of Padre Balli claimed that in 1999 they discovered that an 1847 “Tutor’s Deed” was fraudulent and ineffective to convey title, because one of the children named in the deed as grantor, Jesus Balli, was twenty-two years old and married at the time of the conveyance. Because Jesus Balli was not a minor, his father could not lawfully enter into a deed on behalf of Jesus Balli. The defendant, Kerlin, filed a motion for summary judgment on multiple grounds, which was granted, but reversed and remanded on appeal.
The Tutor’s Deed was signed on March 17, 1847, in Matamoros, Mexico, and confirmed by a Mexican court decree. “However, by late 1845, Texas had joined the United States, and American soldiers began occupation of the border area, including Padre Island, while the exact boundary between Texas and Mexico remained in dispute.” The parties agreed that under Mexican law at the time, a male remained a minor until he either reached the age of twenty-five or married, while under American law at the time, a male became an adult at twenty-one. Therefore, one of the critical questions in the case was to determine the applicable law. The court referred to existing case law for the general rule that title granted by the Mexican government on or before December 19, 1836, is good, and that Mexican authority to grant lands in Texas north or east of the Rio Grande ended with the signing of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo on May 30, 1848. Title to land in Texas that was acknowledged by the Mexican government after December 19, 1836, is not given automatic recognition.
Kerlin argued that jurisdiction of the Mexican State of Tamaulipas over the premises in dispute did not cease until May 30, 1848, citing Martin v. Weyman. Martin confirmed Mexican authority over a disputed border tract in which Mexico retained de facto jurisdiction. This court construed Martin as standing for the premise that determining which country held de facto jurisdiction is a fact question to be resolved on a case-by-case basis, and in this case there was some evidence that American troops had been occupying Padre Island since 1845. The court found that “Texas courts have held the Mexican government was divested of its jurisdiction over the disputed area possibly as early as 1836 and at least by 1845 or 1848,” and therefore, “the Mexican court affirming the transfer of Padre Island in 1847 was most likely without jurisdiction over the property involved.” Moreover, because Kerlin had not provided sufficient evidence that the Mexican government retained jurisdiction, summary judgment was improper.
Any decision holding that determining the applicable law turns on the status of troop deployments over 160 years ago presents obvious problems of proof and introduces uncertainty into land titles. It works against Kerlin in this case, because to prevail, he must show that Mexico did in fact retain jurisdiction over Padre Island in 1847.