Dade v. Irwin/Opinion of the Court
This is an appeal from the Circuit Court of the District of Columbia, sitting in Alexandria.
In the year 1824, the appellant, Jane Dade, became indebted to Thomas Irwin, the testator, and executed two deeds of trust for the security of the debt. At the November term of the Circuit Court of Alexandria county, 1830, Irwin, the executor, filed his bill to obtain a decree of the sale of the estate so conveyed in trust; and a decree was made without objection for the sale, the appellant admitting the justice of the claim; and the original trustee having become insane, William L. Hodgson was appointed trustee to make the sale. After sundry delays, the trustee advertised the estate for sale on the 28th of November, 1834; and on the day preceding the intended, sale he present bill was filed by the appellant for an injunction against the sale. The bill made no objection to the original debt or decree, but simply set up a claim, by way of set-off or discount, of a totally distinct nature, and unconnected with the original debt, as due by the testator to her, and for which she alleged in her bill that she ought to receive a credit, to which in equity and strict justice she was entitled. The claim thus set up had its origin in this manner. In May, 1821, James Irwin gave his note for $826.63 to John Adam or order, for Mrs. Dade, for money borrowed of her, which note was endorsed by Adam, and on the same day James Irwin, as collateral security therefor, assigned to Adam a debt due to him by Alexander Henderson for cordage sold him by Thomas Irwin (the testator) as his agent, and for which the assignment alleged Thomas Irwin was liable, having received Henderson's note without the consent of James Irwin. Upon the back of this assignment there now purports to be the following endorsement, 'If the within debt cannot be recovered from Alexander Henderson, I am liable for the same, provided full time be allowed for the prosecution of the suit.' The supposed note referred to in the assignment was dated in January, 1804, and was for the payment of $901.83 to the order of Thomas Irwin, and was signed by Alexander Henderson & Co. This note the bill alleged to include the debt due to James Irwin. Judgment was obtained upon this note in 1805. Afterwards Henderson, in 1806, became insolvent, and in 1816 a bill in equity was filed for the satisfaction of the judgment out of supposed effects in the hands of certain garnishees, which suit was not finally disposed of until October, 1835, and was then abated by Henderson's death.
The answer to the present bill by Thomas Irwin, the executor, denied the whole equity thereof. It denied that James Irwin ever executed the supposed assignment. But he admitted the origin of the debt due by Henderson and Co., and that the note taken by the testator included it; but that Henderson having become insolvent he was not liable for that amount, and charged it in his accounts against James Irwin and Co. He also denied the supposed endorsement on the assignment to be genuine, but alleged the same to be a sheer fabrication.
The injunction prayed for by the bill was granted, and afterwards the court directed an issue to be tried by a jury to ascertain whether the testator's signature to the endorsement was genuine or not. That issue was tried by a jury, who were unable to agree upon a verdict. The order for an issue was then rescinded, and the cause came on for a final hearing in 1839, when the bill was dismissed with costs. There is a great deal of evidence on both sides as to the genuineness of the signature of the testator, and also as to the appearance of the ink of the endorsement being that of recent writing. It is also remarkable that in the long interval between the time when the deed of trust was given in 1824, and the time when the sale was advertised and the bill filed, no demand was ever suggested by or on behalf of Mrs. Dade for the present supposed debt due her as a set-off or otherwise. On the contrary, although repeated and earnest applications were made for delay of the sale, from the time of the decree in 1830 until the advertisement in 1834, and some correspondence took place on the subject, no allusion whatsoever was made to any such supposed claim or set-off; but an entire silence existed on the subject. It is also somewhat singular, that when the bill upon the trust deed was filed and the decree therein obtained, no suggestion was made by Mrs. Dade in answer thereto of this supposed claim, nor any postponement of the decree of sale asked upon this account.
Now, upon this posture of the case, several objections arise as to the maintenance of the suit. In the first place, the present bill is of an entirely novel character. It is not a bill of review, or in the nature of a bill of review, founded upon any mistake of facts, or the discovery of any new evidence. It admits in the most unambiguous terms that the decree was right. Then, it sets up merely a cross-claim or set-off of a debt arising under wholly independent and unconnected transactions. Now it is clear that courts of equity do not act upon the subject of set-off in respect to distinct and unconnected debts, unless some other peculiar equity has intervened, calling for relief; as, for example, in cases where there has been a mutual credit given by each upon the footing of the debt of the other, so that a just presumption arises that the one is understood by the parties to go in liquidation or set-off of the other.  In the next place, the remedy for Mrs. Dade, if any such debt as she has alleged exists, is at law against the executor; and there is no suggestion that the estate of the testator is insolvent, and that his assets cannot be reached at law. So that the bill steers aside of the assertion of any equity upon the foundation of which it can rest for its support.
In the next place, the nature and character of the claim itself, now for the first time made, long after the decease of both the Irwins, and thirteen years at least after its supposed origin. To put the case in the least unfavorable light, it is a matter of grave doubt whether the endorsement of the testator's name on the assignment is genuine or not. That very doubt would be sufficient to justify this court in affirming the decree of the court below, and leaving Mrs. Dade to her remedy at law, if any she have. But connecting this with such a protracted silence for thirteen years, without presenting or making any application for the recognition or allowance of the claim to the testator or his executor, it is impossible not to feel that the merits of the claim at such a distance of time can scarcely be made out in favor of the appellant. It is stale, and clouded with presumptions unfavorable to its original foundation, or present validity. Besides, in cases of this sort, in the examination and weighing of matters of fact, a court of equity performs the like functions as a jury; and we should not incline, as an appellate court, to review the decision to which the court below arrived, unless under circumstances of a peculiar and urgent nature.
The decree of the Circuit Court is, therefore, affirmed with costs.
This cause came on to be heard on the transcript of the record from the Circuit Court of the United States for the district of Columbia, holden in and for the county of Alexandria, and was argued by counsel. On consideration whereof, it is now here ordered and decreed by this court, that the decree of the said Circuit Court in this cause be, and the same is hereby affirmed with costs.
^2 See 2 Story Eq. Jur., §§ 1435, 1436.