Lewis v. Hawkins by Noah Haynes Swayne
Court Documents

United States Supreme Court

90 U.S. 119

Lewis  v.  Hawkins

APPEAL from the Circuit Court for the Western District of Arkansas.

The case was thus:

A statute of limitation in Arkansas, passed January 4th, 1851, [1] enacts that no suit at law or in equity for the recovery of real estate shall be brought after the lapse of seven years from the time when the cause of action accrued.

This statute being in force, Lewis, in November, 1853, agreed to sell to Hawkins certain real estate; Hawkins, for the consideration-money giving to Lewis his two promissory notes, each for the sum of $500, payable, one on the 1st of February, 1855, and the other on the 1st of February, 1856, and Lewis at the same time giving to Hawkins his bond in the penal sum of $2000, binding him, Lewis, upon the payment of the two notes to Hawkins, to convey in fee simple the premises so sold.

It did not appear that this bond authorized Hawkins to take possession of the property sold, or that he did so.

In October, 1855, Hawkins sold and conveyed the land to one Hamiter; Hamiter, as a part of the consideration, assuming the payment of the notes which Hawkins had given to Lewis. Hamiter went into possession of the premises, and occupied them, with his family, until May, 1866, when he died, leaving a widow and nine children his heirs-at-law, and whom, with the widow, he made his devisees; the widow being made his executrix. The widow and her family had occupied the premises ever since Hamiter's, the husband's, death.

Nothing having been paid by any one upon the two notes, Lewis sued Hawkins, and on the 11th of August, 1860, recovered a judgment against him for $1201. The judgment remaining also wholly unpaid, Lewis filed, in August, 1871, a bill against Hawkins and the widow and executrix of Hamiter (his children and heirs-at-law not, however, being made parties), to enforce the payment of the notes and interest against the land.

The bill alleged that the complainant had always been and still was willing to perform the agreement on his part, and offered to execute and bring into court, to be delivered to the defendants, or either of them lawfully entitled thereto, a deed conveying the land in fee simple in accordance with the condition of the title-bond, on being paid the purchase-money due, with the interest. And alleged further that the complainant, since the second note fell due, had duly tendered to Hawkins a deed of conveyance, and demanded the payment of the amount due for the purchase-money thereof; but that Hawkins refused to accept the deed and to pay the purchase-money.

The prayer of the bill was that the equity of redemption of the defendants, and of all persons claiming through them or either of them, might be barred and foreclosed, and that the defendants be compelled to pay to the complainant the amount due to him for the land with interest; the complainant being ready and willing to execute and deliver to the defendant Hawkins, or his assigns, a deed for the land in fee simple with warranty of title; and that in case the said defendants would not pay the said purchase-money by a short day to be named, the premises might be sold and the proceeds applied to the payment of the decree to be rendered for the purchase-money.

Both defendants answered.

The answer of Hawkins denied that nay tender of a deed as alleged in the bill had been made to him, and he set up as a defence his discharge in bankruptcy.

Mrs. Hamiter, the widow, relied upon the already-mentioned statute of limitations of Arkansas, which bars suits at law and in equity for real estate after the lapse of seven years from the time the cause of action accrued.

The depositions of both Lewis and Hawkins were taken. The former stated that the tender alleged in the bill had been made; the latter that no such tender had ever been made.

The court below dismissed the bill for want of equity, and from that, its decree, Lewis, the complainant, brought the case here.

Mr. A. H. Garland, for the appellant:

There is nothing in the record showing upon what grounds the bill was dismissed.

If the court based its decision upon the question of tender of a deed, it was error.

If upon the statute of limitations, it was error equally.

There are no other points upon which it is possible to have founded the decree.

By the terms of the contract, as evidenced by the title-bond, the purchase-money was to have been paid before a deed was made. The notes were due and payable at a specified time, and if not paid then there was a default, and Lewis had his right of action at once. Besides the tenor of the notes, the title-bond made payment a condition precedent, and no tender of a deed was necessary at all. [2]

If, however, it were necessary to tender a deed, a failure to do so would be no cause of dismissal, but only a reason for taxing Lewis for costs of suit, as he might possibly have avoided a suit by tendering the deed. But to avoid all this, we have the fact that Lewis could not know who claimed the land after Hawkins, nor to whom to make the deed. He avers, however, his readiness to make the deed to the person entitled to it under the order and decree of the court, and this was all he could do. [3] There can be nothing, then, in the question of tender.

When Hawkins purchased the land and took a title-bond from Lewis, the parties stood towards each other just as if Lewis had made a deed to Hawkins, and Hawkins had mortgaged back the land to secure the payment of the purchase-money. [4] And this proceeding is simply an attempt to foreclose a mortgage. It is a proceeding in rem to subject the land to the payment of money, of the non-payment of which Hawkins's vendee had due notice. This being true, the plea of the statute of limitations is of no effect. This defence is set up by analogy to the statute bar to the remedy at law; but it is well settled that the statute of limitations which would bar a debt secured by mortgage will not bar the remedy upon the mortgage, because the mortgage has a legal import more extensive than the mere evidence of the debt. [5]

Even if the judgment on these notes had been barred, yet Lewis could recur to his mortgage and ask for its enforcement. [6]

Indeed, it is not seen how Hawkins and his vendee, holding by consent of Lewis, and necessarily with full knowledge of the non-payment of the purchase-money, could plead limitations at all, whether in an action to recover the land or to make it pay the debt.

Messrs. Pike and Johnson, contra, for the widow:

1st. The bond for title did not convey to Hawkins any legal interest in the land, but at most an equity, with right of possession.

2d. On failure to Hawkins to pay the notes the bond was forfeited, and Lewis had a right to retake the possession.

3d. The estate in fee being in Lewis, how can he have a lien? The man cannot have a lien on that which is his own?

4th. The first note fell due on the 1st of February, 1855. Upon that default Lewis was entitled to retake possession. This suit was instituted by him on the 31st of August, 1871, eleven years after he obtained judgment. The statute of limitations then barred any action by him, in law or equity, for possession. Having lost the right to regain possession, he cannot avoid the statute bar by setting up a lien for the purchase-money, and asking to have a decree for money already in judgment, and a sale of his own land to satisfy such decree.

5th. Suppose such sale were decreed. How would the purchaser have legal title, when neither Hawkins nor Hamiter ever had any?

6th. Assume that Lewis had once, on the 1st of February, 1855, a right to sue on the notes, to bring ejectment or to foreclose, or to do all at once, yet the limitation prescribed by the act of January 4th, 1851, applied to the case and barred an ejectment or suit to foreclose at the end of seven years thereafter. Under the statute the right to foreclose was barred long before this suit was brought.

7th. It so appears on the face of the bill, and there is no averment of any fact to prevent the bar applying. The defendants could have availed themselves of the statutory bar by demurrer.

8th. The bill, therefore, did not make a case in which the plaintiff was entitled to relief or discovery, and therefore it was properly dismissed for want of equity, i. e., for want of right to equitable relief.

Mr. Justice SWAYNE delivered the opinion of the court.

Notes Edit

  1. Gould's Digest, chapter 106, § 2.
  2. 2 Parsons on Contracts, 41, ed. 1853; Ib. 187-189.
  3. Turner v. Lassiter, 27 Arkansas, 662; 1 Leading Cases in Equity, Hare & Wallace's notes, 270 et seq.
  4. Smith v. Robinson, 13 Arkansas, 534; Moore v. Anders, 14 Id. 633; Harris v. King, 16 Id. 126.
  5. Trotter v. Erwin, 27 Mississippi, 772; Bush v. Cooper, 26 Id. 599; Thayer v. Mann, 19 Pickering, 535.
  6. Bank v. Guttschlick, 14 Peters, 19.

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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