Townsend v. Little/Opinion of the Court

United States Supreme Court

109 U.S. 504

Townsend  v.  Little

The facts found by the court leave no ground for the as against Townsend, had he continued the owner of the premises in controversy, she certainly has none against innocent bona fide incumbrancers and purchasers, without notice of her claim. The arrangement between Townsend and the appellant was a secret agreement known only to themselves, and, as found by the court, they, after the agreement, continued to live together, as they had previously done, in order that the public might not know that any change had taken place in their relations to each other. A secret agreement, as between herself and Townsend, which they purposely kept concealed, cannot be set up against bona fide purchasers without notice. The finding of the court that neither Hooper, Jennings, nor Roberts had notice, either actual or constructive, of appellant's alleged rights, cuts up by the roots all claim on her part as against them to the premises in controversy.

Appellant contends, however, that her joint physical occupancy with Townsend of the premises, as found by the court, was constructive notice to the defendants Hooper and Jennings of her alleged rights, and that they, therefore, purchased in subservience thereto. When Townsend, in 1866, entered into possession of the premises which he had previously bought with his own money, he took with him his lawful wife and the appellant, his polygamous wife. At that time it is not disputed that he was the sole occupant under the act of congress. The appellant was no more a joint possessor at that time than any servant or guest of the hotel. A secret agreement subsequently entered into between Townsend and the appellant, and purposely kept concealed from the public by them, cannot be held to change the nature of Townsend's occupancy so as to affect with constructive notice persons who had no actual notice. Constructive notice is defined to be in its nature no more than evidence of notice, the presumption of which is so violent that the court will not even allow of its being controverted. Plumb v. Fluitt, 2 Anstr. 438; Kennedy v. Green, 3 Mylne & K. 719. Where possession is relied on as giving constructive notice it must be open and unambiguous, and not liable to be misunderstood or misconstrued. Ely v. Wilcox, 20 Wis. 523; Patten v. Moore, 32 N. H. 384; Billington v. Welsh, 5 Bin. 132. It must be sufficiently distinct and unequivocal so as to put the purchaser on his guard. Butler v. Stevens, 26 Me. 484; Wright v. Wood, 11 Harr. (Pa.) 130; Bogue v. Williams, 48 Ill. 371. As said by STRONG, J., in Meehan v. Williams, 12 Wright, 238, what makes inquiry a duty is such a visible state of things as is inconsistent with a perfect right in him who proposes to sell. See, also, Holmes v. Stout, 3 Green, Ch. 492; McMechan v. Griffing, 3 Pick. 149; Hanrick v. Thompson, 9 Ala. 409.

Tested by these rules, it is plain that the physical occupancy of the premises in question by appellant, as found by the district court, was not such possession as to put a purchaser on inquiry and charge him with constructive notice. On the contrary, viewed in connection with the other facts found, it was such as to mislead him.

The case of appellant is therefore an attempt to set up a secret trust as against bona fide purchasers for value without notice. But nothing is clearer than that a purchaser for a valuable consideration, without notice of a pior equitable right, obtaining the legal estate at the time of his purchase, is entitled to priority in equity as well as at law, according to the well-known maxim that when equities are equal the law shall prevail. Williams v. Jackson, 107 U.S. 478; [2 SUP. CT. REP. 814;] Willoughby v. Willoughby, 1 Term Rep. 763; Carlton v. Low, 3 P. Wms. 328; Ex parte Knott, 11 Ves. Jr. 609; Tildesley v. Lodge, 3 Smale & G. 543; Shine v. Gough, 1 Ball & B. 436; Bowen v. Evans, 1 Jones & La. T. 178; Vattier v. Hinde, 7 Pet. 252. This is the case of defendants Hooper and Jennings.

The appellant contends, however, that as the deed executed by the mayor of Salt Lake City to Townsend was without witnesses, as required by the general law of the territory, it did not convey the legal title. But the act of the territorial legislature providing for the conveyance to occupants, by the mayor, of lands included in the town-site, did not require witnesses to his deed. It merely directed that 'deeds of conveyance for the same shall be executed by the mayor of the city or town under the seal of the corporation.' According to the well-settled rule, that general and specific provisions, in apparent contradiction, whether in the same or different statutes, and without regard to priority of enactment, may subsist together, the specific qualifying and supplying exceptions to the general, this provision for the execution of a particular class of deeds is not controlled by the law of the territory requiring deeds generally to be executed with two witnesses. Pease v. Whitney, 5 Mass. 380; Nichols v. Bertram, 3 Pick. 342; State v. Perrysburg, 14 Ohio St. 472; London, etc., Ry. v. Wandsworth Board of Works, L. R. 8 C. P. 185; Bish. Writ. Laws, § 112a. The deed of the mayor to Townsend having been executed in conformity with the special act, was therefore valid and effectual to convey the legal title.

The result of these views is that the appellant has failed to show herself entitled to the relief prayed in her bill. The decree of the supreme court of the territory of Utah affirming the decree of the district court, by which her bill was dismissed, must be affirmed.


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