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United States Supreme Court

88 U.S. 178

Marsh  v.  Whitmore

Mr. Justice FIELD, after stating the case, delivered the opinion of the court, as follows:

The answer of the defendant is sustained in all material allegations by the evidence in the case, except in one particular, which we will presently mention.

So far as the notes are concerned the case may be dismissed from further consideration. The bill does not charge any fraudulent conduct on the part of the defendant in connection with them, but merely a neglect of professional duty in prosecuting them. The insolvency of the company, and the amount of its mortgages, are a sufficient answer to the charge for neglecting to proceed against its property, and the decision of the Supreme Court justified the withdrawal of the proceeding instituted to charge the stockholders. As justly observed by the learned district judge who presided in the Circuit Court on the trial of this case, an attorney cannot be charged with negligence when he accepts as a correct exposition of the law a solemn decision of the Supreme Court of the State. That decision was made in 1858, and was so generally acquiesced in that numerous kindred suits were disposed of in conformity with it.

The particular in which the evidence fails to fully support the allegations of the answer relates to the transmission averred to have been made to the complainant of the account of the sales had, showing the prices obtained and the names of the purchasers. But in this particular we think the answer is so far responsive to the averments of the bill that it must be taken as evidence on behalf of the defendant. And there is much in the testimony, and the circumstances attending the sale, which leads of the conclusion that the complainant was informed of the prices received. He was deeply interested in the sale; he had notice of the time and place at which it was to be made; and it had been postponed on several occasions at his request. It is hardly credible that he did not ascertain the prices which the bonds brought when the sale was made. It is not a reasonable inference that he lost all interest in the result when he was unable to obtain a further postponement of the sale. And if he ascertained the prices, it is highly probable that he ascertained the names of the purchasers also.

The sale of the bonds was made in June, 1857, and it was not until January, 1869, nearly twelve years afterwards, that the complainant asserted any claim to the bonds, or any claim that the defendant was accountable to him for any neglect of duty or misconduct in relation to them. The question, therefore, is, whether the complainant under these circumstances, after this long acquiescence in the acts of the defendant, with knowledge of the transaction, can call upon him to account for the present value of the bonds purchased by him. Most undoubtedly that sale was voidable. The character of vendor and that of purchaser cannot be held by the same person. They impose different obligations. Their union in the same person would at once raise a conflict between interest and duty, and, constituted as humanity is, in the majority of cases duty would be overborne in the struggle. The law, therefore, wisely prohibits a party selling on another's account from becoming a buyer on his own at the sale, and will always condemn transactions of that character whenever their enforcement is attempted. The complainant could have treated the purchase made by the defendant as a nullity. He could have insisted that the relation of the defendant to the property was not changed by the proceeding, and that he stood charged with the same trust respecting it with which he was charged previously. And were there nothing more in the case than the fact of the sale and purchase, the complainant would be entitled to call the defendant to account for the full value of the bonds. But unfortunately for him there is more in the case. He has adopted and approved of the transaction. His declaration to the defendant at Augusta the year following the sale is evidence tending to that effect, and considered in connection with his long acquiescence in the transaction, must be deemed conclusive. Had he at once denied the validity of the transaction, or by any declaration or proceeding indicated dissatisfaction with it, or even refrained from expressions of approval, he would have stood in a court of equity in a very different position. There is no doubt that the prices bid at the sale were all that the bonds were then worth, and there is no reason for imputing intentional fraud to the defendant. Under these circumstances he may very well have been justified in assuming, and in acting upon the assumption, that the complainant was satisfied with his proceedings. The fact that the complainant never felt himself aggrieved until the bonds of the company had risen to their par value, which only occurred after this court had adjudged, on appeal from the Supreme Court of the State, that the stockholders were personally liable for its debts, leads to the inference that the present suit was prompted more by a spirit of speculation than any sentiment that injustice had been done to him.

At any rate the claim now presented is a stale one. The complainant does not set forth specifically any grounds which could have constituted impediments to an earlier prosecution of his suit. He does not even inform us when he first became acquainted with his supposed wrongs. His language is that he was not aware of the purchase by the defendant until lately-language altogether too vague to invoke the action of a court of equity. The party, says this court in Badger v. Badger, [3] citing from previous decisions, who appeals to the conscience of the chancellor in support of a claim, where there has been laches in prosecuting it, or long acquiescence in the assertion of adverse rights, 'should set forth in his bill specifically what were the impediments to an earlier prosecution of his claim; how he came to be so long ignorant of his rights, and the means used by the respondent to fraudulently keep him in ignorance; and how and when he first came to a knowledge of the matters alleged in his bill; otherwise the chancellor may justly refuse to consider his case, on his own showing, without inquiring whether there is a demurrer or formal plea of the statute of limitations contained in the answer.'

The reasons here stated apply to the present case, and justify the decree of the Circuit Court dismissing the complainant's bill; which is, therefore,



^3  2 Wallace, 95.

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).