Warner v. Godfrey
186 U.S. 365 (1902)

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U.S. Supreme Court

Warner v. Godfrey, 186 U.S. 365 (1902)

Warner v. Godfrey

No. 191

Argued April 26, 1902

Decided June 2, 1902

186 U.S. 365

Syllabus

This was a bill, filed by the appellee to establish her title to land in the City of Washington of which she claimed to have been defrauded. The main asserted badges of fraud were a gross inadequacy of consideration, and other matters stated in the opinion of the court. Both the trial and the appellate courts concurred in holding that the proof vindicated the defendants, and it is held by this Court that the entire want of foundation for the charges of wrongdoing urged against the defendants, and upon which the long litigation proceeded, may be taken as conclusively established.

The complainant, having expressly declined to put an end to the litigation on the theory that the proof showed that she was entitled to an unconditional recovery of the property, she is not to be allowed to reform her pleadings, and change her attitude towards the defendants, in order to obtain that which she had elected not to seek, and had declined to accept.

On September 1, 1896, Lily Alys Godfrey, appellee herein, filed a bill in the Supreme Court of the District of Columbia, sitting in equity, to establish her title to five lots of land situated in the City of Washington, of which it was asserted she had been defrauded by one Stephen A. Dutton.

The defendants to the bill were Dutton and wife, Louis W. Richardson, Fred M. Czaki, and Mary Alice Godfrey (mother of complainant). Omitting averments relating to real estate other than that now in controversy, it suffices to say that the bill detailed grossly fraudulent and criminal practices by which Dutton, without consideration, on or about March 26, 1896, obtained the title to a large amount of real estate, the property of the complainant, including that now in controversy, that is, lots 1, 2, 3, and 66 in a subdivision of block 134, in the City of Washington. It was averred that, by a deed recorded April 13, 1896, Dutton and his wife conveyed, without consideration and fraudulently, the lots in question to the defendant Richardson. The latter answered the bill on December 1, 1896, and averred that he was a bona fide purchaser of the property, without notice,

Page 186 U. S. 366

actual or constructive, of any equity of the complainant; that, through his brokers or agents, B. H. Warner & Co., he had paid full consideration to Dutton for the property, and he annexed to the answer, as a part thereof, the contract of purchase from Dutton, a copy of which is in the margin. *

Page 186 U. S. 367

On March 28, 1897, a decree pro confesso was entered as to one of the lots of land affected by the bill, which is not involved in this controversy, and title to which remained in Dutton. By the decree, the legal title to said lot was established in the complainant.

By an amended bill filed on May 1, 1897, Warner and Wine were made defendants to the cause. The amendment added to the clause in the original bill, which charged that the conveyance to Richardson was without consideration, the following:

"That the said Richardson was only a nominal party to the said transaction; the real parties were the said Dutton, on the one part, and Brainard H. Warner and Louis D. Wine, on the other; that the said Wine and Warner pretend that they advanced or furnished to the said Dutton the sum of six thousand five hundred and eighty-six and 33/100 ($6,586.33) dollars, and took from the said Dutton the said conveyance to the said Richardson to secure the repayment of the said sum so claimed to have been advanced. Whether said Warner and Wine actually furnished said Dutton such sum or any sum whatsoever the complainant cannot affirm or deny, and demands strict proof in that behalf, and she avers that the said Warner and Wine had such notice of the frauds of the said Dutton as herein set forth, and of such facts and circumstances as put them on inquiry as to the conveyance to said Dutton, that in equity, they should have no benefit from said conveyance to said Richardson, but the same should be decreed to be cancelled and held for naught."

On July 17, 1897, before any pleading by Warner and Wine, an amended and supplemental bill was filed, accompanied with numerous interrogatories required to be answered by the defendants Warner and Wine. The averments of the original bill as to the fraudulent practices by which Dutton had obtained the property of complainant were reiterated. As respects the defendants Warner and Wine, it was charged that Dutton, on March 29, 1896, with the object of consummating the fraud which he had practiced upon the complainant,

"entered into negotiations with said B. H. Warner & Co., or said defendants, Warner and Wine, through one Ellen S. Mussey, a lawyer of said city, to whom he applied for a loan on the security of this

Page 186 U. S. 368

complainant's said property, and on information and belief this complainant charges that said Ellen S. Mussey, after bringing the matter to the attention of the said B. H. Warner & Co., or said Warner and Wine, reported to the said Dutton that a loan of from twenty-five to thirty thousand dollars could readily be negotiated on the security of said property, and stated that, if he would return the following week, she would have everything in readiness to complete the transaction. Accordingly, the said Dutton came again to the said City of Washington on or about the 10th day of April, then next, and, going to the office of said B. H. Warner & Co., then and there signed a paper writing or contract agreeing to sell all of said lots in square 134 at and for the grossly inadequate price of $25,000, said sum being less than one-half the price or consideration at which the said B. H. Warner & Co. had been authorized to sell the said lots by said Mary Alice Godfrey."

After averring that, by reason of the circumstances referred to, the defendants were put upon notice as to whether Dutton had honestly acquired the property, it was charged that it was the duty of defendants to have notified the complainant of the proposition of Dutton, but that no notice, in fact was given. It was averred, moreover, that the said firm and the defendants Warner and Wine

"purposely and intentionally concealed the fact that the said Dutton had signed the aforesaid contract to sell said lots at and for the grossly inadequate sum of $25,000, and that he was eager and anxious to dispose immediately of said lots so soon after acquiring the same."

And further, it was averred that

"the said defendants, Warner and Wine, immediately set about the acquisition of said lots for their own benefit, and, with a view to, and for the purpose of, concealing their connection with said transaction, caused the title to the said lots to be conveyed to defendant Richardson by a pretended deed, bearing date the 13th day of April, 1896,"

and that said Richardson, because of his youth and inexperience and his relationship to the defendant Wine, and his connection in business with the firm of B. H. Warner & Co.,

"was chosen as the instrument or tool of the said defendants Warner and Wine

Page 186 U. S. 369

for the consummation of their schemes to get possession of this complainant's said property for the said grossly inadequate sum of $25,000."

A joint and several answer was filed on behalf of Warner and Wine, and therein it was averred that the lots in question were bought by them in good faith for an adequate consideration, and that the title was taken in the name of Richardson merely for the purpose of convenience in making subsequent conveyances.

Issue having been joined, testimony was taken and in all about one hundred and forty witnesses were examined. But a portion only of the evidence, embodied in 600 printed pages, has been submitted for the inspection of this Court. The court below, however, referred to the record as an "immense" one, and it was stated that the greater part of the evidence consisted of the testimony of witnesses introduced to contradict on the one hand, or to support on the other, the denial of the defendant Warner, made under oath in his answer to the amended bill and in answers to special interrogatories, that he had had any acquaintance with Dutton, or ever had any business relations with him of any description until the transaction of April, 1896. This latter testimony is not contained in the printed record filed in this Court.

The trial court decreed in favor of the defendants. In the opinion by it delivered, the evidence respecting the different circumstances relied upon by the complainant to establish her case was reviewed, and it was held that the evidence was inadequate to support the charge of either actual or constructive fraud on the part of the defendants Warner and Wine.

Respecting one of the alleged circumstances charged to constitute a badge of fraud, viz., that Warner and Dutton were acquainted and had business dealings together prior to the sale in question, the court upheld the contention of Warner that he had had no acquaintance or dealings with Dutton prior to said purchase. Referring to the evidence on this branch of the case, the court said:

"A most careful examination has satisfied me beyond doubt that the entire testimony adduced in behalf of the complainant

Page 186 U. S. 370

designed to show that Warner was ever in the company of Stephen A. Dutton on either of the occasions as described is absolutely untrue, and that by far the greater part of it consists of unfounded falsehoods uttered from bad motives and attempted to be sustained by deliberate perjury."

The appellate court coincided with the opinion of the trial court that the evidence introduced at the hearing failed to sustain the claim that there had been either actual or constructive fraud, as alleged in the bill, on the part of Warner and Wine, and that, on the contrary, the proof showed there was no ground for awarding the relief prayed in the bill. It was, however, held that, "from another point of view, made clear by the testimony, though it may not be specifically presented by the pleadings," the complainant, standing in the stead of Dutton, was entitled to disaffirm the sale and recover the property from Warner and Wine on repaying to said defendants the price actually paid by them to Dutton for the property and such further sums as might have been paid by them in the discharge of taxes and encumbrances. The ground for this conclusion was as follows: that the testimony showed that the firm of B. H. Warner & Co. were the agents of Dutton in negotiating the sale, and as it was further shown that Richardson, the purchaser named in the contract, was only an ostensible buyer, and that Warner and Wine, members of the firm of B. H. Warner & Co., were the real purchasers, and as it appeared that the fact of the purchase by Warner and Wine was not made known to Dutton, the latter would have had a right, by a "timely bill filed for that purpose," to set aside the sale on the ground that his agents had been unfaithful to their trust by buying the property of their principal for their own account without the knowledge and consent of their principal; that this right, thus existing in Dutton, might be availed of in equity by the complainant, as the equitable owner of the property. As, however, the court found that the act of Warner and Wine in buying the property through their firm, as agents of Dutton, involved no intentional wrong, but constituted a mere legal or constructive fraud, it was held that the complainant, in order to obtain equity, must do equity, and that she could not avail of her right to disaffirm

Page 186 U. S. 371

the purchase by Warner and Wine without reimbursing them for the money actually paid by them to Dutton, and such other sums, if any, paid by them in the discharge of taxes and encumbrances, less such sums as had been received, or ought in the exercise of due diligence to have been received, as rents and profits of the property. After deciding that, upon such payment, the defendants should be decreed to reconvey the property to the complainant, the court said (16 App.D.C. 117):

"It may be that, to obtain this relief, the bill will have to be amended to some extent. If so, it can be done without reopening the case for further testimony. Doubtless, too, a reference to the auditor will be necessary for a statement of the account between the parties before a final decree can be entered."

"It follows that the decree dismissing the bill must be reversed, and the cause remanded, with directions to vacate the said decree, and take such further proceedings in accordance with this opinion as may be expedient and proper."

"The costs of this appeal will be divided equally between the parties."

Upon the filing of the mandate of the Court of Appeals in the Supreme Court of the District, the complainant prepared an amendment to the bill in which it was averred that the defendants Warner and Wine, as members of the firm of B. H. Warner & Co., were agents of the defendant Dutton to find a purchaser for the lots in question; that said defendants did not inform Dutton that they were the real purchasers of the lots; that, in consequence of such fact, the purchase was fraudulent at law and voidable at the election of Dutton or of the complainant, for whom Dutton held title under a constructive trust, by reason of his fraudulent conduct in the premises. The amendment also contained an averment of a willingness, upon reconveyance of the title, to repay such sums as had been expended by the defendants for and on account of the property.

This proposed amendment to the bill was served upon the defendants accompanied with a notice that it was the intention of the complainant to apply to the court for leave to file the amendment and at the same time to ask a reference of the cause to an auditor to state the account without affording the defendants

Page 186 U. S. 372

the opportunity of taking testimony to disprove the allegation of the amendment that the firm of B. H. Warner & Co. were agents of Stephen A. Dutton. The defendants at once filed an answer to the amendment, in which the following averments were contained:

"1. They deny that the firm of B. H. Warner & Co. were agents for the defendant Stephen A. Dutton, to find a purchaser for the real estate in controversy, as alleged by said amendment, or that the said firm or any of its members ever were the agents of the said Stephen A. Dutton for any purpose whatsoever. It is true that in Exhibit L.W.R. No. 1, filed as an exhibit to the answer of the defendant Louis W. Richardson, to the original bill in this cause, 'B. H. Warner & Co.,' are mentioned as agents of unnamed parties of the first part, but they aver that this circumstance grew out of the fact that a printed form of memorandum of sale belonging to the said firm, in which their names were printed as agents of the vendor, was used in the transaction, the same being the said Exhibit L.W.R. No. 1, and by a purely clerical omission the name of the said firm was not struck out and that of Mrs. Ellen S. Mussey, who was the only agent of the said Stephen A. Dutton in the matter, inserted instead. So far from being the agents of Stephen A. Dutton, neither of these defendants, nor any member of the firm of B. H. Warner & Co., was aware at the time the said memorandum of sale was prepared who was the owner of the property described in it, agency for which owner is now sought to be charged upon them, and the name of the vendor was accordingly left blank in the said memorandum for that reason. Both the said Ellen S. Mussey, who was the agent of the said Stephen A. Dutton, and the said Stephen A. Dutton himself, well knew throughout the entire transaction that the firm of B. H. Warner & Co. represented the purchaser of the said property, and in no way represented or claimed to represent the said Stephen A. Dutton."

The answer further averred that, in the beginning of the controversy, the defendants had offered to convey to complainant the property in dispute upon being reimbursed simply the money which they had actually expended, and that this offer

Page 186 U. S. 373

was rejected; that the complainant having thus rejected said offer, and having subjected the defendant to the expense of a long and costly lawsuit to disprove the charges of fraud and wrong made against them, which they had successfully done, and the defendants, in doing this, having been compelled to pay out more than $6,000 in costs and expenses, it was inequitable to allow the complainant to amend her bill by substituting a new and distinct ground of relief, and upon such ground to allow her to recover the property on simply reimbursing the defendants the amount of the purchase price and their actual outlay in the care of the property, without any allowance of interest or repayment of the expenses of the litigation. It was insisted, moreover, in the answer that, if the amendment was allowed, the defendants were entitled to be heard, in order to show that the averments contained in it were untrue, as specially set up in the answer. The court allowed the proposed amendment to be filed, and, doubtless conforming to the opinion of the Court of Appeals, where it was stated that the bill could be amended "without reopening the case for further testimony," in effect denied the right of the defendant to offer any testimony to disprove the truth of the averments contained in the amendment by ordering a reference to the auditor with directions simply to ascertain and report to the court

"the amount of the money actually paid by Warner and Wine to the defendant Dutton, and of other sums which they had paid in discharge of the taxes and encumbrances, less such sums as had been received, or ought, in the exercise of due diligence, to be received, as rents and profits of the property from the commencement of their possession."

The auditor reported that the disbursements by Warner and Wine, for and on account of the property, for taxes, interest on trust indebtedness, water rents, and repairs, exceeded the rents and profits by $3,868.95, which sum, added to $6,586.33 -- the sum paid for the property by Warner and Wine less the commission -- made a total of $10,455.28, and was the sum which the complainant should pay to the defendants, as a condition of divesting them of their interest in the property. It will be observed that no interest was allowed upon the outlays of Warner

Page 186 U. S. 374

and Wine, nor was any allowance made for the costs and disbursements occasioned in making their defense in the protracted litigation. These costs and disbursements were stated to aggregate $6,918.85, of which $1,626.00 was for examiner's fees.

Exceptions were filed to the report of the auditor, but the same were overruled, and a final decree was entered ordering the defendants to convey the lots to the complainant upon the payment within ninety days of $10,455.28 and any further expenditure on account of the property made after the close of the account embraced in the report of the auditor. It was further provided that in the event of nonpayment within the time specified the bill of complaint should stand dismissed, with costs, and in the event of payment the respective parties should pay their own costs. On appeal, the decree just referred to was affirmed, and the Court of Appeals, in its opinion, stated that "the action of the court was in strict conformity with the mandate of this Court and the accompanying opinion."

17 App.D.C. 104. This appeal was then taken.

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