Fayerweather v. Ritch
195 U.S. 276 (1904)

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U.S. Supreme Court

Fayerweather v. Ritch, 195 U.S. 276 (1904)

Fayerweather v. Ritch

Nos. 157-158

Argued October 12-13, 1904

Decided November 28, 1904

195 U.S. 276

Syllabus

Where the appellant's contention is that the circuit court, by giving unwarranted effect to a judgment of a state court and accepting that judgment, which contained no finding of one of the fundamental facts as a conclusive determination of that fact, deprived him of his property without due process of law, and that contention is made in good faith, and under the circumstances, upon reasonable grounds, the application of the Constitution is involved and this Court has jurisdiction of a direct appeal from the Circuit Court.

Where it appears that a question was distinctly put in issue and the parties presented, or had an opportunity to present, their evidence, and the question was decided by a court of competent jurisdiction, private right and public welfare both demand that the question so adjudicated shall, except in direct proceedings for review be considered as finally settled and conclusive upon the parties.

The ordinary rule in cases tried by the court without a jury is that a judgment entered without any special findings is, like a general verdict in a jury case, tantamount to a finding in favor of the successful party of all the facts necessary to sustain the judgment.

While in some cases on a plea of res judicata evidence aliunde the record is proper to show what particular questions were tried and determined

Page 195 U. S. 277

in the former case, it is not competent to introduce the testimony of the trial judge as to the matters then considered and passed on by him.

Where, in an action in a court of competent jurisdiction, the validity of certain releases is put in issue by the pleadings and no judgment can properly be rendered without determining that question, and judgment is rendered against the parties executing the releases and who were before the trial court, the judgment in effect determines that the releases are valid and the question of their validity is res judicata notwithstanding no special findings in regard thereto were made by the trial judge.

The controlling question in these cases arises on pleas of res judicata. The essential facts are as follows:

On October 6, 1884, Daniel B. Fayerweather, a citizen and resident of the State of New York, made a will, by the ninth article of which he gave to twenty colleges bequests amounting in the aggregate to $2,100,000. By the tenth article, he gave the residuary estate to his executors, as trustees, directing them to divide it equally among the twenty colleges named in the ninth article. On the same day, he signed the following statement:

"This certifies that I have executed my will of this date, having been advised by my counsel of the provision and restrictions of the law of this state relative to benevolent corporations. I trust my heirs will permit the provision of this my will to be carried into effect."

At that time, by c. 360, Laws of 1860, of the State of New York, a testator having husband, wife, child, or parent was forbidden to give to literary or benevolent institutions more than one-half of his estate. On December 13, 1884, the testator made a first codicil to his will, by which he revoked the tenth article, and gave the residuary of his estate absolutely to his executors. In other respects, the will was ratified. At or about the same time, a paper, bearing date December 11, 1884, headed "Private Memorandum," was signed by him, which reads as follows:

"I have made Messrs. Bulkley and Ritch my residuary legatees in the confidence that thereby my intentions as expressed in my will shall be carried into effect, and without

Page 195 U. S. 278

litigations on the part of any person or persons interested. In case of my death, I trust that they will take such steps, by will or otherwise, as will protect my estate against the contingency of the death of either before my estate is settled and distributed."

By subsequent codicils, minor changes were made and Henry B. Vaughan was added as executor. The testator died on November 15, 1890, leaving a widow and three nieces, his only heirs at law and next of kin. On the day of his death, he executed a codicil, which was mainly a confirmation of the provisions of the will and prior codicils.

Mr. Fayerweather's estate amounted at the date of the will to about three millions of dollars, and at the time of his death to from five to six millions of dollars, mainly in personal property.

While, by the articles in the will, prior to the ninth, he had made provision for his widow and also bequests to his three nieces, yet obviously his purpose was to give the bulk of his estate to the several colleges named, and to avoid the restraining effect of the New York statute. After the death of Mr. Fayerweather the will and codicils were propounded for probate, to which the widow and nieces filed objections. A hearing was had before the surrogate, and on February 25, 1891, he entered an order admitting the will to probate, and leaving the contest of the codicils to continue. On February 24, 1891, the three executors, residuary legatees, made a deed of gift, which reads:

"Know all men by these presents, That we, Justus L. Bulkley, Thomas G. Ritch, and Henry B. Vaughan, residuary devisees and legatees under the will, meaning thereby the original will and the subsequent codicils of Daniel B. Fayerweather, late of the City of New York, deceased, prompted by our determination that we will not retain for our own use any part of the residuary estate left to us by his will, and by the desire to make such disposition of his said residuary estate as in our judgment will best honor his memory, do dispose of so much

Page 195 U. S. 279

of the same as shall remain after the payment of all lawful fees, expenses, and charges as follows:"

"First, we reserve the power to make, and we retain the right to assent to, any enlargement of the $15,000 a year by the will left to Mrs. Fayerweather, which she may desire."

"Second, we reserve the power to make, and we retain the right to assent to, any enlargement of the provisions made by the will for Mrs. Mary W. Achter and Mrs. Emma S. Drury, in case we shall be satisfied that such enlargement would not be against the wishes of Mr. Fayerweather."

"Third, we give to Lucy J. Beardsley, wife of Morris B. Beardsley, $100,000."

"We do this because of Mr. Fayerweather's letter written to Mr. Vaughan and Mr. F. B. Myrick. If accepted, this gift is in discharge of any claim under that letter."

Then, after making gifts of several sums to individuals, hospitals, and colleges (some being those named in the will of Mr. Fayerweather, and others not so mentioned), the deed closes with these words:

"We execute this instrument, recognizing that there is pending a contest in proceedings for the probate of Mr. Fayerweather's will, and recognizing further that, if such contest shall not prevail, a question may be made about our legal rights as devisees and legatees. . . . Our object is each for himself to give away whatever may come to us as residuary devisees and legatees under Mr. Fayerweather's will."

Subsequently, and on March 5, the executors, as residuary legatees, entered into an agreement with the contestants by which the amounts coming to them were increased, and thereupon the contestants executed the following paper:

"In consideration of the instrument of even date herewith executed by Justus L. Bulkley, Thomas G. Ritch, and Henry B. Vaughan, residuary devisees and legatees under the will, meaning thereby the original will and subsequent codicils of Daniel B. Fayerweather, . . . we, the undersigned, being

Page 195 U. S. 280

the widow and all of the next of kin of the said Daniel B. Fayerweather, do hereby severally agree for ourselves, our, and each of our heirs, executors, and administrators, as follows:"

"1. All objections to the probate of the will and four codicils of the late Daniel B. Fayerweather, offered for probate to the surrogate of the County of New York, are hereby withdrawn, and we consent to the probate of the same."

"2. No suit shall hereafter be brought for the construction of the said will and codicils or either of them, or to set aside the will and codicils or either of them, and we further agree not to make any claim upon the said Justus L. Bulkley, Thomas G. Ritch, and Henry B. Vaughan or either of them, or against their heirs or personal representatives, or either against them, the said Bulkley, Ritch, and Vaughan, as executors, or as residuary legatees, other than for amounts left to us by the will and codicils aforesaid, and the deed of gift executed by the said Bulkley, Ritch, and Vaughan on the 24th day of February, 1891, and the instrument dated on the 5th day of March, 1891."

"3. Upon the payment to the undersigned, respectively, of the several amounts mentioned in said deed of gift and said instrument, we will severally execute a general release of all claims, except those arising under the will and codicils, both to the executors and to the donees mentioned in the deed of gift on the 24th day of February, 1891, and to the said Bulkley, Ritch, and Vaughan individually."

On March 24, 1891, the codicils were admitted to probate on written consent, signed by the attorneys for the parties to the contest. On June 12, 1891, the widow executed the following release:

"Know ye, that I, Lucy Fayerweather, widow of Daniel B. Fayerweather, of the City of New York, for and in consideration of the sum of $225,000, lawful money of the United States, to me in hand paid

Page 195 U. S. 281

by Justus L. Bulkley, Thomas G. Ritch, and Henry B. Vaughan, as executors and trustees under the last will and testament of Daniel B. Fayerweather, deceased, and individually, and as the representatives of the persons or corporations hereinafter named, forming a class known as donees, under the deed of gift executed by the said Bulkley, Ritch, and Vaughan, on February 24th, 1891, which sum is in compromise and full settlement of any and all contests on my part of the will of said Daniel B. Fayerweather, deceased, or concerning his estate, have remised, released, and forever discharged, and by these presents do, for myself and for my heirs, administrators, and executors, remise, release, and discharge the said Justus L. Bulkley, Thomas G. Ritch, and Henry B. Vaughan, as executors and trustees aforesaid, as individuals and as representatives of the said donees constituting a class, and also the said donees, to-wit, the persons and corporations mentioned in a certain deed of gift duly delivered, made by Justus L. Bulkley, Thomas G. Ritch, and Henry B. Vaughan on the 24th day of February, 1891, which deed of gift was introduced in evidence in the probate proceedings of the last will and testament of Daniel B. Fayerweather, deceased, and marked 'Exhibit No. 7, contestants,' and which said deed of gift is hereby made a part of this release, in order that the persons constituting said class of donees and to whom this release runs may be more fully known, and also the legal successors, assigns, heirs, executors, and administrators of all the aforesaid persons and corporations, of and from all and all manner of action and actions, cause and causes of action, suits, debts, dues, sums of money, claims and demands whatsoever in law or in equity, which against the said persons or corporations, or any of them, I ever had or now have, or which I or my heirs, executors, or administrators hereinafter shall, can, or may have for, upon, or by reason of any matter, cause, or thing whatsoever, except my claim for the annuity given me by the will and codicils thereto of said Daniel B. Fayerweather, deceased, and also my claim for the increased annuity mentioned

Page 195 U. S. 282

in the agreement dated March 5th, 1891, and made pursuant to the deed of gift above referred to."

Releases similar in form were executed by the other three contestants, the nieces and next of kin.

In January, 1893, five of the colleges named in article 9 of the will brought suit in the Supreme Court of the State of New York against the executors of Mr. Fayerweather's will, the executors of the will of Mrs. Fayerweather (who had died since the release), the nieces, the donees in the deed of gift, and all the colleges not joined as plaintiffs. The contention of the plaintiffs was that the codicil which gave the residue of the estate to the three executors absolutely was made in pursuance of an agreement that they should take that residue in trust for the colleges mentioned in the will, and distribute it among them. The complaint set forth the will and codicils, their admission to probate, and the issue of letters testamentary, and averred that the value of the estate left by the testator was upwards of $6,000,000 and the residuary estate more than $3,000,000. It alleged that the intention of the testator was to devote the principal part of his estate to the several institutions mentioned, and that the proceedings taken by him were under the advice of counsel and for the purpose of carrying into effect that intention, and upon a promise and assurance from the executors that they would dispose of the residuary estate accordingly; it averred also the fact of a contest in respect to the probate of the will and codicils, a settlement with the contestants in consideration of the payment of $310,000 and the execution of releases by them. The prayer was that it be adjudged and decreed that the residuary estate was devised by the testator and received by the executors in trust for the purposes set forth, that they be required to apply that estate to those purposes, and, also,

"that the ultimate rights of the plaintiffs as between them and each of them and every of the other defendants herein be determined by the judgment in this action in accordance with the allegations of this complaint and the prayer hereinbefore contained. "

Page 195 U. S. 283

The donees in the deed of gift answered, asserting the validity of that deed, and praying that its provisions be carried out.

The widow's executors and the nieces also appeared and filed an answer and counterclaim, in which they alleged that the agreement which the suit was brought to enforce was a secret trust to evade the New York statute by giving more than half to the several institutions, that the releases were obtained from them by concealment and fraud, and therefore of no obligation, and prayed for judgment, among other things --

"3d. That it be adjudged that the said settlements and releases made with or obtained from the said Lucy Fayerweather, Mary W. Achter, and Emma S. Fayerweather, respectively, were and are each fraudulent and void, and that the same be set aside, upon such terms as may be just and equitable, and that the sums paid for the same to said releasors or their attorneys, respectively, with the interest thereon, including the increased payments to said Lucy Fayerweather on her annuity, be charged against or allowed upon the sums payable to them respectively under the judgment herein, or be otherwise provided or accounted for as may be according to equity."

"4th. That it be adjudged that the said deed of gift, dated February 24th, 1891 (Exhibit F), was and is fraudulent and void, and that the said Thomas G. Ritch, Justus L. Bulkley, and Henry B. Vaughan be enjoined and restrained from further distributing the said residuary estate, or any part thereof, under the same, except to continue the payment of the said annuity to said Anner Amelia Reynolds, as aforesaid."

"5th. That the said defendants Ritch, Bulkley, and Vaughan may be required to account for the moneys and property received by them from the estate of the said Daniel B. Fayerweather under said last will and testament and codicils or otherwise, and for the application thereof, and to pay over the said moneys and property remaining in their hands among the parties to this action according to their several and respective

Page 195 U. S. 284

rights thereto, as the same may be adjudged in this action."

"6th. That the ultimate rights of the parties to this action in the estate of the said Daniel B. Fayerweather be determined and enforced by the judgment in this action, in accordance with the allegations of this answer and the foregoing prayers for relief therein."

"7th. That these defendants may have such other and further relief herein as may be just and equitable, with their costs herein, to be paid as the court may direct."

The decree of the supreme court at special term, entered on December 28, 1894, adjudged and decreed that the residuary estate passed to the executors in trust for the colleges named in the ninth paragraph of the will; that the executors and trustees be restrained and enjoined from distributing the residuary estate, or any part thereof under the deed of gift, and that the plaintiffs and certain of the defendants (including therein the executors of the will of Mrs. Fayerweather and two of the nieces) recover from the trustees their costs, together with extra allowances to be paid out of the trust funds. There was no formal finding of facts and no mention made in the decree of the specific claim of the executors of Mrs. Fayerweather's will and the nieces, that the releases were fraudulently obtained. An appeal was taken by the defendants to the general term of the supreme court, which, on December 18, 1895, affirmed the judgment. A further appeal was taken to the Court of Appeals, which, on January 19, 1897, affirmed the judgment of the general term. 151 N.Y. 282. On January 28, 1897, a motion was made in the Court of Appeals to amend the remittitur so as to direct the justice of the supreme court before whom the action was tried at special term to consider the evidence given before him at the trial concerning the releases, and to determine whether the said releases were valid and binding or invalid and void, which motion was on March 9, 1897, denied.

After these proceedings in the state court, two of the nieces

Page 195 U. S. 285

and next of kin, being citizens of the State of Iowa, instituted this suit in the circuit court of the United States, making defendants substantially all the parties to the suit in the state court, the one or two omissions in no way affecting the question before us. Subsequently the remaining executor, one having resigned, of the will of Mrs. Fayerweather, filed a cross-bill, the allegations and the relief asked being similar to those in the original bill.

These bills -- in addition to setting forth the will and codicils executed by Mr. Fayerweather, the probate proceedings, and the releases by the widow and nieces, and alleging that these letters were fraudulently obtained, and not binding -- averred the bringing of the suit hereinbefore referred to in the supreme court of the state by the five colleges, annexing copies of the pleadings, and alleged

"thereupon the issues so joined, as well as others duly raised by the answers of the several defendants, came on to be tried before said court, and these complainants gave evidence tending to prove the allegations in their said answer, and all of the said allegations, and thereupon it became and was the duty of said court to adjudge and determine whether the releases therein described were invalid, and whether these complainants were entitled to the affirmative relief prayed in respect thereto;"

and further, that the defendants --

"Confederating and combining together and between themselves to prevent the entry of any judgment upon an actual determination of the invalidity of said releases so in issue, requested and induced the court to hold and decide that the right of the respective parties to said property and residuary estate did not require any consideration or decision of said issues, and said court thereupon made and rendered its decision without considering, passing upon, or including in judgment the said issues, and omitted to decide upon these complainants' right to the affirmative relief by said answer prayed in respect to said releases."

"And thereupon there was filed and entered in said action

Page 195 U. S. 286

a decision and judgment, a copy of which is hereto annexed, which complainants pray may be referred to and taken as part of this bill as if the same were herein set forth at length."

"Thereupon, by appeals taken from said judgment, in which appeals these complainants were respondents as well as appellants, said judgment was reviewed by the general term of said supreme court, sitting as a court for the correction of errors, and not exercising any original jurisdiction, and thereupon said court held and determined that the right of the respective parties to said property and residuary estate did require the consideration and decision of said issues, and thereupon, being duly informed by the record that said issues had not been in fact considered, passed upon, or included in said judgment, it became and was the duty of said court, pursuant to due process of law, the law of the land, and the provisions of the Constitutions of the State of New York and of the United States, to require and order that said issues should be in fact considered, passed upon, and included in judgment by the trial court, and until that should be done said court could not duly adjudge or determine whether any error had been committed in such determination upon said issues."

"Nevertheless, said court at said general term did not so require or order, but by various fictions of law imputed to said trial term and court below that it had determined said issues and had decided in favor of the plaintiffs in said action upon such determination, contrary to the truth and fact, and thereupon pretended to adjudge and determine, as such court for the correction of errors, that there was not sufficient preponderance of evidence to support the asserted invalidity of said releases to render such imputed determination of said trial court erroneous as matter of law, but that such imputed determination was supported by evidence sufficient to relieve the same from the assignment of error in so deciding."

"It was not competent for said general term to have exercised an original jurisdiction, and to have adjudged said issues,

Page 195 U. S. 287

and thereupon to have modified said judgment so as to include the actual determination thereof, and said general term did not exercise such power, but confined its action wholly to the consideration of errors in the record."

"Thereupon said judgment was by appeals taken from the judgment of affirmance so rendered, in which appeals these complainants were respondents as well as appellants, and reviewed by the Court of Appeals of the State of New York."

"Said court determined that these complainants had no standing to be heard or to have their rights determined by said Court of Appeals, because the limitations imposed by statute upon the jurisdiction of said court precluded any inquiry into the facts, the proof, or the merits of the said issues, but the said court was bound by the formal record procured as aforesaid, and by the fictions thereby adjudged as aforesaid, and had no power to review the same."

"During the pendency of the appeals aforesaid, the control of the several courts below over said action, and the trial thereof, and the correction of any injustice arising as aforesaid, was suspended, and upon the affirmance of said judgment of affirmance, by the statutes of the State of New York any correction of the injustice arising as aforesaid was placed beyond the power of any court of said state, except as the Court of Appeals should, by its remittitur, confer power upon said subordinate courts to entertain and try the said issues."

"Thereupon these complainants duly made application to said Court of Appeals so to frame its said remittitur as to permit said subordinate courts to entertain and try the said issues, which application said court denied."

To these bills, the defendants filed pleas of res judicata, claiming that the controversy between the parties was finally settled by the decision of the state court. These pleas were accompanied by an answer, denying the allegations of fraud. The circuit court sustained the pleas, and dismissed the bill and cross bill on the ground that the cause of action set forth

Page 195 U. S. 288

in them was barred by the prior judgment of the state court. From this decree of dismissal the plaintiffs appealed directly to this Court.

Page 195 U. S. 297

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