Stephen v. Beall

Court Documents

United States Supreme Court

89 U.S. 329

Stephen  v.  Beall

APPEAL from the Supreme Court of the District of Columbia; the case being thus:

In the year 1849, by deed of bargain and sale, all in technical form, one Colburn conveyed to Mrs. Mary Bell and to her three children, John, Sarah, and Maria, by name, a piece of ground described, in the District of Columbia, with the appurtenances; the grant being 'unto the said Mary, John, Sarah, and Maria, their heirs and assigns forever; to have and to hold the said described land and premises with the appurtenances unto them the said Mary (the mother), John, Sarah, and Maria, their heirs and assigns forever, to them and their sole use, benefit and behoof forever.'

The mother subsequently married a man named Beall, and so became Mrs. Mary Beall.

In this state of things, the estate of one Magruder, in Maryland, being about to be sold by a certain Stephen, as trustee, under a decree of court there, Beall bought it, for $10,100, and in pursuance of the terms of sale as prescribed by the decree, paid to Stephen, the trustee, $1000 in cash, and gave to him his three notes, each for $3033.33 1/3, secured by a deed executed by himself and wife, all with recitals of its history and purpose and with everything in or about it, in form, purporting to convey the whole of the tract of land which Colburn in 1849 had conveyed to her the said Mrs. Beall (while bearing the name of Bell), and to her three children. The children were not parties to the deed of trust.

The order of court for the sale of Magruder's property directed that a deed should be given by Stephen, the trustee, only on the payment by the purchaser of all the purchase money.

Beall, the husband, did not pay his three notes, and a resale by Stephen of the original property was directed by the court having jurisdiction of the matter. The proceeds were directed to be applied to discharge the three notes, and any surplus was to be paid to Beall. A resale by public auction was accordingly made on the 5th of May, 1859; the purchaser being one Crowley. The price, however, thus obtained was but $6478, thus leaving a debt due by Beall of $2622, exclusive of interest. The resale was reported to the court and was confirmed by it, after an opposition to it by Beall. To get satisfaction for the deficit of $2622 and interest Stephen, the trustee, now, June, 1871, filed a bill in the court below against Mr. and Mrs. Beall, praying an account of what was due to him on the notes and a sale of the property which had been conveyed to him by Mr. and Mrs. Beall in the deed of trust, or of so much of it as would satisfy what should be found due.

Mr. and Mrs. Beall answered. They set up that at the time of the execution of the deed of trust, the title to the lot was in Mrs. Beall (then Mrs. Bell), 'jointly with her children,' naming them; and 'submitted that the lot could not now be sold without affecting their rights.'

They submitted further, that Mrs. Beall could neither at law nor in equity pledge her separate estate for the payment of her husband's debt.

On a cross-bill filed by them, they averred that when the sale was made by Stephen as trustee, to Beall, Stephen misrepresented the value of the property, much exaggerating it, and promised to execute a valid deed to Beall for it, on receiving the $1000 and the notes.

They averred further, that Stephen was now in possession of the land of Magruder said to have been resold to Crowley; that the said resale was really made for Stephen, the trustee; and fraudulent, as being a purchase made by a trustee at his own sale. They did not in this cross-bill state when Stephen came into possession of the property once held by him in trust, nor state any other thing to show how long after the 'resale' it was. The cross-bill itself was sworn to February 28th, 1872.

Stephen, in answer to this cross-bill, denying his promise to execute any deed before the full purchase-money was actually paid, admitted that he was in possession of the land resold, but averred that the resale to Crowley was a bon a fide sale; and that he Stephen was in possession by a bon a fide purchase from Crowley, and for full consideration which had been paid by him. He denied all fraud in the said purchase by Crowley on the resale, and in his own purchase, and averred that his own purchase from Crowley was not thought of by either himself or Crowley, until after Crowley's purchase had been made; and, of course, that it was made without any fraudulent combination with Crowley. But he did not state the date when he came into possession of the property on his alleged purchase from Crowley.

No proofs being made, the case was heard on the pleadings.

The court below dismissed the bill, and Stephen appealed.

Mr. R. T. Merrick, for Mr. and Mrs. Beall, and in support of the decree below:

The bill was rightly dismissed, and this for several reasons:

1. It wanted necessary parties. The lot conveyed by Mr. and Mrs. Beall, had been conveyed to the latter (before her marriage with Beall) and to her children. The law of the District of Columbia, as it stood prior to 1857, was the old law of Maryland, which after the creation of the District still remained. By that law a joint tenancy was created. Every party was seized per my and per tout, as the old terms are; that is to say of the whole and of part. A conveyance by the mother though it may not have made a good title for the whole, did affect the whole. A sale under the deed of trust would have cast a cloud on the title of the children, and they should have been brought in, and if any decree of sale was made it should have been with reference to their rights.

If the interest of the defendant requires the presence of new parties, he takes the objection of non-joinder, and the complainant is forced to amend, or his bill will be dismissed. [1]

2. The debt sought to be secured was the individual debt of the husband, Beall, and it was not competent for the wife, under the policy of the law made for her protection and under the provisions of the deed or deeds by which she held the property in connection with her children, to incumber that property for the security of her husband's debts. Steffey v. Steffey, in the Court of Appeals of Maryland, [2] and Central Bank of Frederick v. Copeland, [3] in the same court seem to show this.

3. That the price which Beall agreed to pay for the property was wholly excessive, is proved by what it brought on the resale; and that Stephen did promise to make a conveyance in fee simple to Beall, as soon as he got the money and secured notes, can hardly be doubted in view of the payment which the latter made of $1000 in money, and of the deed of trust given on his wife's estate. Why take cash and a security on a new estate, while the complete title in the old one is retained? If a deed in fee simple was not promised and intended, then this taking of cumulated securities shows that Stephen knew that the property had been sold to Beall at a grossly exaggerated value, and renders the allegation of fraud in this particular, as alleged in the cross-bill, the more probable.

But the great objection to the complainant's case, the vulnus immedicabile, remains. No doctrine is better settled in equity none more wisely settled, or upon foundation more deeply laid in morality and in the admitted frailty of human nature-than that a trustee shall not purchase at his own sale. No contrivances, no indirections, will save him when he has done so. The intervention of third parties so far from assisting him does but make his case worse, since the intervention of others shows his consciousness of guilt.

It is here admitted that the trustee is in possession of the property which he professed to sell, or rather to resell. At what date he sold it we know. At what date he came into possession of it is a matter not at all disclosed. He may have come into possession at once. In such a case undoubtedly his possession would be convincing proof of a bad purpose when he made the sale. And his omission to state, in any way, in his answer to the cross-bill, when he did come into possession, so that a chancellor may see how soon, or how long after the sale, it was, infers as a necessity the conclusion that his possession followed hard upon his sale.

The court should perhaps put what Chancellor Kent calls the 'sting of disability' into any such doings by a trustee, as ever getting into possession of property once sold by him in a fiduciary character. Such a rule is a safe rule, and the only safe rule.

But if a long lapse of time will repel all presumption of fraud, then certainly it lies upon a trustee to state clearly and to show that a long lapse of time has intervened. In this case the admitted possession by Stephen, as an individual, of the property sold by him as a trustee, puts upon him the burden of proof, even if the proof be nothing but his own answer. That proof he can surely give. The time when he came into possession is matter peculiarly within his own knowledge; and when, on that subject, he keeps silence, he is entitled to no favorable presumption. Those calling him to an account are entitled to every such; for it may well be that they don't know when he made his purchase.

It is not enough that he state that there was no fraud. Whether there was fraud or not may be a question of law. He swears therefore to matter of law. Let him state and swear to dates, and the court will decide whether there was or was not fraud.

Mr. T. T. Crittenden, contra, for Stephen, the appellant.

Mr. Justice HUNT delivered the opinion of the court.


^1  Shields v. Barrow, 17 Howard, 145; Daniell's Chancery Practice, p. 240; note citing numerous cases.

^2  19 Maryland, 5.

^3  18 Id. 305.

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).