Stearns v. Page
THIS was an appeal from the Circuit Court of the United States, sitting as a court of equity, for the District of Maine.
The bill, filed by Stearns as administrator de bonis non of John O. Page, proposed to open and review the accounts of the estate of said Page, which were filed from 1811 to 1816 by his widow and original administratrix, Sarah Page.
The record was very voluminous. There was a bill, and an amended bill, and amendments to the amended bill, and an amendment to one of the amendments to the amended bill. Then there were answers to all these bills, and exceptions to the answers, and motions for the production of books and papers; and a great mass of testimony filed. After all, the record was deemed incomplete, and a certiorari issued to bring up more.
It is unnecessary to give an extended account of all these things, because the opinion of the court is so intermingled with, and founded upon, the facts of the case, that it is sufficient for the Reporter to refer the reader to that opinion.
The defendant below pleaded the statute of limitations, although he answered the bill.
In October, 1843, the Circuit Court dismissed the bill, when the complainant appealed to this court.
It was argued by Mr. Evans, for the appellant, and Mr. Allen, for the appellee. Only such parts of their arguments will be given as bear upon the question of limitations.
Mr. Evans's third point was, that the plaintiff is not barred by the statute of limitations, nor by lapse of time.
The questions how far courts of equity are bound by statutes of limitations, and whether ex proprio vigore, or only by rules of their own by analogy to the statute, and how far and under what circumstances lapse of time is a bar, have been frequently discussed before this and other tribunals.
In many cases relief has been refused; in many cases it has been granted. Many general expressions have been used, and frequent attempts been made to define with precision the principles which govern courts in these cases. But, after all, it comes to exactly this,-that there is and can be, in the nature of things, no certain and definite rule on the subject. Each case must depend upon the exercise of a sound discretion, growing out of the circumstances of the case. 3 Johns. Ch. Cas. 586.
Hercy v. Dinwoody, 2 Ves. jr. 90-93, reviews the cases prior to that time, and repeatedly speaks of the circumstances as influencing the decision one way or the other.
What, then, are the particular circumstances, or the nature and kind of circumstances, which have been held to bar relief?
They will be found to be cases where the fraud was known to the party affected by it, and who has neglected, for a long time, to assert his rights.
Or where the circumstances afford a presumption almost irresistible, that the matter was adjusted and settled by the parties in the time of it.
Or where it appears satisfactorily, that evidence has been lost, papers burned, documents scattered, which could throw light upon it, thus leaving it altogether in doubt whether any fraud were really committed.
Or where it is inequitable to grant relief;-where there is a want of good faith and conscience in the party seeking it; as where the sureties of an executor were called in, after a long period, to make good the fraud of his testator, &c.;-or where the property in question has passed into bon a fide hands, large expenditures made, &c.
Where this is done with a knowledge of the party seeking relief, it is a want of good faith to seek it. Where without his knowledge, then it has arisen from want of reasonable diligence, and the court will not permit an innocent man to suffer to help a negligent one.
Or where, on some ground of public policy, it is deemed right not to disturb family settlements and possessions.
But in cases of actual frand, against the party himself, I know of no case where relief has been withheld, unless the circumstances of the case show clearly and satisfactorily that it was known and acquiesced in, or furnish sufficient presumption that it was settled.
Where is the case that mere lapse of time, without such circumstances, bars relief?
What would be said to a bill charging fraud, admitted by the answer, but repelling it by urging, You are too late. True, I defrauded you; whether you knew it or not, I neither know nor care. I have had the fruits of it thirty years, and I set you at defiance. What would the court say? If they would grant the relief, as I think they would, then it follows that mere lapse of time, in such a state of things, is no bar.
The cases maintain this view. Any quantity of them may be found.
Lord Erskine, in Cotterell v. Purchase, Forrester, 66, says, 'No length of time can prevent the unkennelling of a fraud.'
Lord Northington, in Alden v. Gregory, 2 Eden, 285, says, 'The next question is, in effect, whether delay will purge a fraud. Never, while I sit here. Every delay adds to its injustice, amd multiplies its oppression.'
So in 2 Ves. jr. 281, 282. No length of time merely, a bar. (See case.) And that was a case where no fraud imputed.
So in our own courts. Prevost v. Gratz, 6 Wheat. 481:-'It is certainly true, that length of time is no bar to a trust clearly established; and in a case where fraud is imputed and proved, length of time ought not, on principles of eternal justice, to be admitted to repel relief. On the other hand, it would seem that the length of time during which the fraud has been successfully concealed and practised is rather an aggravation of the offence, and calls more loudly upon a court of equity to give ample and decisive relief.'
In Michoud v. Girod, 4 How. 560, 561, no length of time, as against a party to the fraud.
In Warner v. Daniels, 1 Wood. & Min., on p. 111, Justice Woodbury recognizes the general principle, that, where fraud exists, length of time is no bar, and cites several cases, quod vide.