Patterson v. Hewitt , 195 U.S. 309 ( 1904 )

  • 195 U.S. 309 (1904)


    No. 23.

    Supreme Court of United States.

    Argued October 25, 26, 1904.
    Decided November 28, 1904.

    *312 Mr. W.B. Childers, with whom Mr. F.W. Clancy was on the brief, for appellants.

    Mr. H.B. Fergusson for appellee.

    *317 MR. JUSTICE BROWN, after making the foregoing statement, delivered the opinion of the court.

    The defense of laches, which prompted the dismissal of the bill in this case, has so often been made the subject of discussion in this court that a citation of cases is quite unnecessary. Some degree of diligence in bringing suit is required under all systems of jurisprudence. In actions at law, the question of diligence is determined by the words of the statute. If an action be brought the day before the statutory time expires, it will be sustained; if a day after, it will be defeated. In suits in equity the question is determined by the circumstances of each particular case. The statute of limitations consorts with the rigid principles of the common law, but is ill adapted to the flexible remedies of a court of equity. The statute frequently works great practical injustice — the doctrine of laches, never. True, lapse of time is one of the chief ingredients, but there are others of almost equal importance. Change in the value of the property between the time the cause of action arose and the time the bill was filed; complainant's knowledge or ignorance of the facts constituting the cause of action, as well as his diligence in availing himself of the means *318 of knowledge within his control, are all material to be considered upon the question whether the suit was brought without unreasonable delay.

    1. In the case under consideration the appellants claim the benefit of section 2938 of the Compiled Laws of New Mexico, to the following effect:

    "No person or persons, nor their children or heirs, shall have, sue or maintain any action or suit, either in law or equity, for any lands, tenements or hereditaments, but within ten years next after his, her or their right to commence, have or maintain such suit shall have come, fallen or accrued," etc.

    If this were an action of ejectment at law, there seems to be no question but what it could be maintained, since it was brought within ten years from the time the cause of action accrued; but where the statute is in terms applicable to suits in equity, as well as at law, it is ordinarily construed, in cases demanding equitable relief, as fixing a time beyond which the suit will not under any circumstances lie, but not as precluding the defense of laches, provided there has been unreasonable delay within the time limited by the statute. In an action at law courts are bound by the literalism of the statute, but in equity the question of unreasonable delay within the statutory limitation is still open. Alsop v. Riker, 155 U.S. 448, 460.

    If this were not so, it would seem to follow that in the code States, where there is but one form of action applicable both to proceedings of a legal and equitable nature, a statute of limitations, general in its terms, would apply to suits of both descriptions and the doctrine of laches become practically obsolete. This, however, is far from being the case, as questions of laches are as often arising and being discussed in the code States as in the others. In a few cases where the statute of limitations is made applicable in terms to suits in equity, it has been construed as allowing a suit to be begun at any time within the period limited by the statute, notwithstanding the intermediate laches of the complainant, although in those *319 cases it will usually be found that the language of the statute is explicit and imperative. Hill v. Nash, 73 Mississippi, 849; Washington v. Soria, 73 Mississippi, 665.

    But the weight of authority is the other way, and we consider the better rule to be that, even if the statute of limitations be made applicable in general terms to suits in equity, and not to any particular defense, the defendant may avail himself of the laches of the complainant, notwithstanding the time fixed by the statute has not expired. This has been expressly held in Alabama, Scruggs v. Decatur Mineral & Land Co., 86 Alabama, 173; in Missouri, Bliss v. Prichard, 67 Missouri, 181; Kline v. Vogel, 90 Missouri, 239; and in New York, Calhoun v. Millard, 121 N.Y. 69. In the last case the question is discussed at considerable length by Chief Judge Andrews, and the conclusion reached that "the period of limitation of equitable actions, fixed by the statute, is not, where a purely equitable remedy is invoked, equivalent to a legislative direction that no period short of that time shall be a bar to relief in any case or precludes the court from denying relief in accordance with equitable principles for unreasonable delay, although the full period of ten years has not elapsed since the cause of action accrued. . . ."

    Indeed, in some cases the diligence required is measured by months rather than by years. Pollard v. Clayton, 1 Kay & Johnson, 462; Attwood v. Small, 6 Clark & Finelly, 232.

    And in others a delay of two, three or four years has been held fatal. Twin-Lick Oil Co. v. Marbury, 91 U.S. 587; Hayward v. National Bank, 96 U.S. 611; Holgate v. Eaton, 116 U.S. 33; Hagerman v. Bates, 5 Colorado App. 391; Graff v. Portland Co., 12 Colorado App. 106.

    2. The facts in this case, so far as they concern the applicability of the defense of laches, are that all prior locations made by the claimants to this land were abandoned in August, 1883, when an oral agreement was entered into that Hewitt should be appointed trustee for all concerned; that upon the performance of certain conditions by the parties interested he *320 should make a deed to each of such parties as should contribute his part to the work and expense necessary to obtain a patent; that each of the appellants contributed his share of the work in the years 1883 and 1884 — enough to entitle each of them to a deed of his interest under the agreement; that in April, 1885, Henry J. Patterson demanded a deed of Hewitt, which was refused, but that C. Ewing Patterson did not demand his deed until just before the institution of this suit; that the defendants and their associates, from the year 1885 to 1890, performed a large amount of work in developing the mine to which neither of the appellants contributed any part; that in November, 1890, a large body of rich ore was discovered, and since that time gold to the amount of several hundred thousand dollars has been taken out. Both of the appellants left the Territory of New Mexico during the year 1885, and resided abroad up to the time of the beginning of this suit. Both were aware that Hewitt had refused to deed them their interest in the mine and in the patent which he in the meantime had obtained to the property.

    It thus appears that the right of action accrued to the appellants in April, 1885, and that this suit was not begun until eight years thereafter — in 1893. Whether the refusal of Hewitt to make the deeds was right or wrong is not material here. There is no doubt from the findings that appellants had no share in the subsequent development of the mine or the discovery of the ore in 1890, and that it was through the efforts and perseverance of the defendants, and the aid they received from Fergusson, that they were put in possession of this valuable property. If appellants had expected a share in this property they should either have brought a bill promptly to enforce their rights, or at least contributed their proportionate share to the subsequent work and labor, and the expenses then incurred. To award them now a deed to their original interest in the property would be grossly unjust to the defendants, through whose exertions the value of the property was discovered and the mine put upon a paying basis. While *321 it is true the court might impose upon the appellants the payment of their proportionate share of labor and expenses as a condition of relief, it could not compensate the defendants for the risk assumed by them that their exertions would come to naught. There is no class of property more subject to sudden and violent fluctuations of value than mining lands. A location which to-day may have no salable value may in a month become worth its millions. Years may be spent in working such property apparently to no purpose, when suddenly a mass of rich ore may be discovered, from which an immense fortune is realized. Under such circumstance, persons having claims to such property are bound to the utmost diligence in enforcing them, and there is no class of cases in which the doctrine of laches has been more relentlessly enforced.

    3. But little need be said in reply to appellants' argument, that a trust relation was established between these parties by the oral agreement of 1883, under which Hewitt was to take possession, hold the property for the benefit of all concerned, and ultimately to convey to each his proportionate share. In this connection it is sought to apply the familiar rule that neither laches nor the statute of limitations is applicable against an express trust, so long as that trust continues. Conceding all that can be claimed as to the existence of an express parol trust in this case, the refusal of Hewitt to execute the deed to H.J. Patterson of his interest in the property, of which both appellants had notice, was a distinct repudiation of such trust, which entitled the complainants to immediate relief and opened the door to the defense of laches. Speidel v. Henrici, 120 U.S. 377, 386; Riddle v. Whitehill, 135 U.S. 621, 634.

    The Supreme Court of the Territory also found that the case was within section 2916 of the Compiled Laws of the Territory, requiring that all actions founded upon "unwritten contracts . .. or for relief upon the ground of fraud, and all other actions not herein otherwise provided for and specified," shall be brought within four years; and that this defense was not *322 answered by section 2930, declaring that "none of the provisions of this act shall run against causes of action originating in or arising out of trusts, when the defendant has fraudulently concealed his cause of action, or the existence thereof, from the parties entitled or having the right thereto." As there was no evidence that the defendants had fraudulently concealed the facts from the appellants, and abundant proof that the facts were known to them, the latter section was held not to apply. While the case does not necessarily involve it, we see no reason to question the correctness of the court's conclusion on this point.

    We are clearly of the opinion that the delay of eight years in this case was inexcusable, and the decree of the court below must, therefore, be


Document Info

DocketNumber: 23

Citation Numbers: 195 U.S. 309, 25 S. Ct. 35, 49 L. Ed. 214, 1904 U.S. LEXIS 720

Judges: Brown, After Making the Foregoing Statement

Filed Date: 11/28/1904

Precedential Status: Precedential

Modified Date: 4/15/2017

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