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Mashunkashey v. United States

October 16, 1942


Appeal from the United States District Court for the Northern District of Oklahoma; Franklin E. Kennamer, Judge.


Before PHILLIPS, BRATTON, and HUXMAN, Circuit Judges.

HUXMAN, Circuit Judge.

The defendant below, herein called the appellant, has appealed from a declaratory judgment rendered by the United States District Court for the Northern District of Oklahoma. The jurisdiction of the federal court was invoked under 28 U.S.C.A. § 41 and 28 U.S.C.A. § 400.

Charles Mashunkashey, a full-blood, restricted Osage Indian, died June 10, 1934, without issue, survived by his wife, the appellant; Ben Mashunkashey, a half-brother; his maternal grandmother; and James G. Blaine,*fn1 who was no blood relation to the deceased. All of them, with the exception of appellant are full-blood, restricted Indians. Appellant is not of Indian blood.

He left a will in which he bequeathed all his property, save a small bequest to his half-brother, to appellant. The will was disapproved by the Secretary of the Interior. Appellant then employed Inghram D. Hook, an attorney, to represent her in connection with a contest over the will. Negotiations were carried on by the attorney with the restricted Indians, resulting in an agreement in which appellant agreed to accept $15,000 in full settlement of all claims against the estate. The settlement and release*fn2 effectuating the same were approved by the Assistant Secretary of the Interior April 12, 1938. Thereafter application was made for the administration of the estate in the County Court of Tulsa County, Oklahoma. Hook thereupon filed the release and requested an order of the Probate Court directing the payment of the $15,000 to him and appellant. The order was entered, and upon authorization from the Assistant Secretary of the Interior, the money was paid. Appellant and Hook endorsed the check and received the moeny.

Thereafter appellant intervened in the probate proceedings by a different attorney and claimed to be an heir of decedent by virtue of being his wife, and laid claim to most of the estate. The restricted Indians filed their answers setting up the release, and resisted her claim. The County Court held that it had no jurisdiction to construe the release, but entered judgement declaring appellant to be an heir. On appeal, the District Court indicated that it doubted its jurisdiction to construe the release.*fn3 Thereupon, this action was instituted by the government on behalf of the Indians, seeking a declaratory judgment of the federal district court interpreting the release to the effect that appellant had relinquished any claim she might have had to the estate and was not entitled to any interest therein. The appeal is from a judgment sustaining the contention of the government.

Maintain this action msut be found in the general law. The government brought this action in its own right and in its capacity as guardian of the restricted Indians. As guardian of such Indians, the government stands charged with all the obligations attending such a relationship. It not only has the power to institute actions to preserve the rights of its wards, Heckman v. United States 224 U.S. 413, 32 S. Ct. 424, 56 L. Ed. 820; United States v. Minnesota, 270 U.S. 181, 46 S. Ct. 298, 70 L.ED. 539; McCarty v. Hollis, 10 Cir., 120 F.2d 540, but it is its duty to do so when those rights are threatened.

It is true, as asserted by appellant, that the federal government has no probate jurisdiction. But the government does not in this case in any way seek to interfere with the probate of the estate in the state court. however, in the Probate Court appellant is asserting a right to the property of the estate against the wards of the government. The validity of that right depends upon the interpretation of the release which appellant executed. Both the Probate Court and the State District court held that they had no jurisdiction to construe the release. There can be no question as to the power of the Federal District Court to determine the validity and effect of the release. Strickland v. Peters, 5 Cir., 120 F.2d 53; Eddy v. Eddy, 6 Cir., 168 F. 590.

It is asserted that in any event the government must fail because it has failed to assert or establish a right in itself or its wards superior to the right of appellant. Fairly interpreted, the petition asserts a claim to the property on behalf of its wards. If by the payment of the $15,000 the restricted Indians purchased a relinquishment of appellant's claim, then as to her they do have and asset a superior right, and that is sufficient for the purpose of this action. Having established their right as against her, they are then in position to assert their rights in the Probate Court.

It is further contended that the court erred in holding that the release effected a full and complete settlement of all of appellant's right, title and interest in and to the estate of the deceased. Appellant's position is that the release relinquished her claims against the estate and her right to be appointed administratrix of the estate, but not her interest as an heir in the property of the estate. Just what the nature of the claims was that appellant asserts she released is not clear. It is not claimed or asserted that the estate was indebted to her in any way as a creditor.Just why the government would authorize the payment of $15,000 of restricted funds belonging to its wards in release of nebulous claims and in release of a claimed right to administer the estate under a will which was void because not approved by the Secretary of the Interior, and let stand a claim she was asserting as against its wards to the corpus of the estate, is not made to appear. In our view, there is no ambiguity in the written release. The release, in language as clear as crystal, states that $15,000 was paid for the release of any and all claims which she might have by reason of being the widow of the deceased, or for any other reason or cause whatsoever, and upon the further condition that she would not make a claim to administer the estate. This is strong language. It is difficult to see how more embracive language could be used. Her right to inherit certainly is a claim she makes as the widow. While no oral testimony was necessary to support this interpretation of the release, the testimony that was adduced clearly supports this construction. The release intended by the payment of the $15,000 to eliminate her as a claimant to any part of the estate.

Finally, it is contended that her attorney, Inghram Hook, was not empowered by his employment to execute a release of her interest as an heir of the estate. She admits delivering a letter, dated March 22, 1938, to Hook, which she signed. The letter states:

"Mr. Inghram D. Hook, 1508 Federal Reserve Bank Bldg., "Kansas City, Missouri "Dear Sir: Re: ...

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