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United States Supreme Court

69 U.S. 87

Badger  v.  Badger

BADGER died in 1818, leaving a widow and ten children, one of whom only was of age at that time; the others being minors, of different ages. One of them came of age in 1824; another in 1828; a third in 1831; a fourth in 1834; a fifth in 1835; a sixth in 1837. The eldest son, Daniel Badger, took administration on the estate in 1819, an uncle being joined with him; and soon after filed an inventory of the estate, its debts, and liabilities. In 1820, having settled on administration account, the administrators obtained leave from the court to sell certain portions of the real estate. None of these proceedings were the subject of question.

In 1827, they filed a further account, which had indorsed upon it what purported to be the written approval of the widow and heirs, the latter acting by their guardians. By this account they claimed credit for several thousand dollars, alleged to have been advanced for the estate, and in 1830 got leave from court to sell as much real estate as would pay this balance. Public sale of the real estate was accordingly made; when it was bought by a friend of Daniel Badger, the administrator, and soon afterwards conveyed to him. The widow died in 1855, aged 74.

In 1858, James Badger, a son and heir, whose age did not appear, further than from the fact of the father's death in 1819, and one of the persons who by his guardian, now dead, had approved of the account of 1827,-filed a bill against his brother Daniel, administrator, as aforesaid,-in the Circuit Court for the Massachusetts District, charging that the account of 1827 was false and fraudulent; that the real estate had been sold beneath its value, and bought in for his said brother, the administrator; that before this purchase he had silenced the objections of some of the heirs who opposed the sale by purchasing their shares; and had forged, or fraudulently procured the signature of the widow, his mother; and in this way had obtained license from the court to sell. The bill alleged, that 'the fraudulent acts and doings of the said Daniel were unknown to the complainant and his coheirs, until within five years last past,' and prayed an account, &c.

The answer of Daniel Badger, the defendant, denied the allegations of the bill generally; and, on the last point, denied 'that the complainant, or any of the said heirs-at-law of said intestate, did not have personal knowledge of all acts and doings of said Daniel (the administrator), in reference to the sale and purchase of these estates until within five years.'

There was much testimony from different members of the family; the charges of the bill being more or less supported by the evidence of heirs who had sold out what rights they had to James Badger, the complainant below. Some of the witnesses testified that Daniel, the defendant, who bore his father's name exactly, had often declared that, being the oldest son and bearing the paternal name, he was entitled to all the property. One of the witnesses was a daughter, born in 1807.

The court below dismissed the bill as being stale. On appeal the question was, whether this was rightly done?

Mr. Robb, for the complainant in error: We are entitled to the relief prayed for, unless we have lost our rights by the lapse of time, or the statutes of limitations, or are otherwise estopped from asserting them.

It may be true that courts of equity consider themselves bound by the statutes of limitations, which govern courts of law in like cases; and in many other cases they act upon the analogy of the limitations at law, as where a legal title would in ejectment be barred by twenty years' adverse possession; courts of equity will act upon the like limitations, and apply it to all cases of relief sought upon equitable titles or claims touching real estates. These, as abstract propositions, we do not controvert. But they do not furnish any ground for refusing the relief prayed for in this bill. If the defendants invoke the protection of this abstract principle, they must clearly bring themselves within it. It is not for the plaintiff to show that he is not barred by the statute, but for the defendants to show that he is; they must make it appear by a proper plea and proof, that they are entitled to the benefit of the limitation. It will be said that more than twenty years had elapsed since the sales took place, before this suit was commenced, and that this is apparent on the record. But it does not appear that this plaintiff became of age twenty years before the commencement of the suit. The inference is that he did not.

Nor are we barred by any rule of limitations, peculiar to courts of equity, because of alleged laches. We do not admit 'that courts of equity treat a less period than the one specified in the statute as a bar to the claim.' Story, J., says: [1] 'In a case of trusts of lands, nothing short of the statute period, which would bar a legal estate or right of entry, would be permitted to operate in equity as a bar of the equitable estate.' Certainly no bar, either legal or presumptive, will begin to run until after the cause of action or suit has arisen; and in equity, in cases of fraud and mistake, it will begin to run only from the time of the discovery of such fraud or mistake, and not before. The license to sell, we assert and show, was procured by fraud.

Daniel Badger sustained to his mother and brothers and sisters, more especially the minors, a relation of peculiar trust and confidence, of both natural and legal obligation. He was not only administrator, and thus the guardian of their interests, but he was her son and their protector. It was his duty, imperatively imposed, to deal with them frankly and truthfully and honestly, and a court of equity will hold him strictly to it. If he suffered them to be deceived, this was a fraud upon them. But whether fraud or mistake, they will not be barred, either by the statute or by laches, until they discovered it. When was that? Certainly not until long after these sales took place. There can be no acquiescence without full knowledge of facts. Even a written acknowledgment of acquiescence in his acts, made in ignorance of their rights, would not bind them. In Michoud et al. v. Girod et al., [2] this was so held, in the following words: 'Even acquittances given to an executor, without full knowledge of all the circumstances, where information had been withheld by the executor, are not binding.' And this court set aside and annulled a decree in favor of one of the executors for a large amount, although there had been a judgment in his favor by a competent court, after a full trial before arbitrators, and an allowance of the sum so found to be due him in the executor's account.

When did they first discover that they had been deceived and imposed upon by their brother? or, in other words, when did they first learn that their estates were not legally liable to be taken and sold for payment of debts? for not until that time will the limitation begin to run.

The bill alleges, substantially, that this was not known to them until within five years before the commencement of the suit. The answer does not deny this. It is, at least, evasive. The bill does not allege that they 'had no knowledge of the sale and purchase of these estates until,' &c., and the answer denies what is not alleged,-leaving the allegation unanswered.

Sufficient does not appear to make it the duty of this court to shield the defendant from accountability for his acts,-acts certainly never permitted to such a trustee,-on the ground that the plaintiff has grossly neglected to enforce his rights in the premises.

But, in cases of actual fraud, courts of equity do not adopt or follow the statutes of limitations; they will grant relief within the lifetime of the party who committed it, or within thirty years after it has been discovered, or become known to the party whose rights are affected by it.

The rule, as stated by the court, in Michoud et al. v. Girod et al., just cited, is universally recognized and applied by courts of equity. It has been affirmed by this court in subsequent cases, and we do not think it will be controverted. It was held, in that case, that 'a purchase, per interpositam personam, by a trustee or agent of the particular property of which he has the sale, or in which he represents another, whether he has an interest in it or not, carries fraud upon the face of it;' and that 'this rule applies to a purchase by executors, though they were empowered by the will to sell the estate;' and 'that a purchase so made by executors will be set aside.' The sales in the case at bar took place in 1830; the present suit was begun in 1858, and in the lifetime of the person upon whom the fraud is proved, and within thirty years after it had been discovered. There was sufficient motive for an heir's not attempting to set the sale aside, in the fact that the widow would have had her dower in whatever land might be recovered.

Mr. Merwin, contra.

Mr. Justice GRIER delivered the opinion of the court.


^1  Baker v. Whiting, 3 Sumner, 486.

^2  4 Howard, 503.

This work is in the public domain in the United States because it is a work of the United States federal government (see 17 U.S.C. 105).