Haffner v. Dobrinski/Opinion of the Court

Haffner v. Dobrinski
Opinion of the Court by Melville Fuller

United States Supreme Court

215 U.S. 446

Haffner  v.  Dobrinski

 Argued: November 12, 1909. ---

The supreme court of Oklahoma held that there was no error in excluding all the evidence because the petition did not state a cause of action in equity; that the doctrine is well settled that specific performance is never demandable as a matter of absolute right, but as one which rests entirely in judicial discretion, to be exercised, it is true, according to the settled principles of equity, but not arbitrarily and capriciously, and always with reference to the facts of the particular case.

The principles applied were announced in Pope Mfg. Co. v. Gormully, 144 U.S. 224, 236, 36 L. ed. 414, 419, 12 Sup. Ct. Rep. 632. As remarked by Mr. Justice Brown in that case: 'To stay the arm of a court of equity from enforcing a contract, it is by no means necessary to prove that it is invalid; from time to time immemorial it has been the recognized duty of such courts to exercise a discretion; to refuse their aid in the enforcement of unconscionable, oppressive, or iniquitous contracts; and to turn the party claiming the benefit of such contract over to a court of law. This distinction was recognized by this court in Cathcart v. Robinson, 5 Pet. 264, 276, 8 L. ed. 120, 124, wherein Chief Justice Marshall says: 'The difference between that degree of unfairness which will induce a court of equity to interfere actively by setting aside a contract, and that which will induce a court to withhold its aid, is well settled. Mortlock v. Buller, 10 Ves. Jr. 292; Day v. Newman, 2 Cox, Ch. Cas. 77. It is said that the plaintiff must come into court with clean hands, and that a defendant may resist a bill for specific performance, by showing that, under the circumstances, the plaintiff is not entitled to the relief he asks. Omission or mistake in the agreement, or that it is unconscientious or unreasonable, or that there has been concealment, misrepresentation, or any unfairness, are enumerated among the causes which will induce the court to refuse its aid." And see Hennessy v. Woolworth, 128 U.S. 438, 442, 32 L. ed. 500, 501, 9 Sup. Ct. Rep. 109; Nickerson v. Nickerson, 127 U.S. 668, 32 L. ed. 314, 8 Sup. Ct. Rep. 1355.

And the supreme court of Oklahoma further said (p. 443) that where it is disclosed by complainant himself that the contract upon which he bases his suit 'is unreasonable in its provisions, if not unconscionable, and void under the statute of frauds, and that the acts done and relied upon to warrant a decree on the ground of part performance are not of such a nature that damages would not be an adequate relief, but, on the contrary, that he has within his immediate control money and property more than sufficient to compensate him for any loss sustained, a case for equitable intervention is not shown, and upon such state of facts, a court of equity is justified in refusing specific performance.'

In short, the court held that the trial court was fully warranted in refusing to require the alleged contract to be specifically performed, as being so unreasonable in its provisions as to justify such refusal, and also for want of mutuality, and not practically enforceable as to both parties, and as to the part performance relied on to take the contract out of the statute of frauds, that the contention was without merit. The doctrine is that, in order that specific performance may be decreed on the ground of part performance, the acts done by the one seeking relief, and relied on to warrant a decree, must be of such a nature that damages would not be an adequate relief. Williams v. Morris, 95 U.S. 444, 24 L. ed. 360. But here, as the lower court pointed out, the plaintiff showed on the face of his petition that he had in his possession money belonging to the defendant adequate to cover any possible damages many times over. He had paid the merely nominal sum of $50.20 on the purchase price, entered into the possession of the property, done the repairing common to all farmers, expended $60 in improvements, and prepared 110 acres for crop. But he had in his own control the $920 derived from the sale of the wheat and oats, and, in addition thereto, the sum of $458.76, the first year's returns from the farm above the cost of obtaining it. In other words, he had lived on the farm free for over a year; had almost $1,400 of the other's money in his hands, and now complained in equity that fraud would be perpetrated upon him if the court does not enforce a contract which will allow him to remain nine years longer in possession of the land, free from any obligations with which defendant can force him to comply until the expiration of that time. Such a condition of affairs did not appeal to equitable consideration. The action of the trial court was sustained as entirely justified. We concur in that conclusion, and nothing else calls for comment.

Judgment affirmed.

Notes Edit

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).

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