Brant v. Virginia Coal & Iron Company
93 U.S. 326 (1876)

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U.S. Supreme Court

Brant v. Virginia Coal & Iron Company, 93 U.S. 326 (1876)

Brant v. Virginia Coal and Iron Company

93 U.S. 326

APPEAL FROM THE CIRCUIT COURT OF THE UNITED

STATES FOR THE DISTRICT OF WEST VIRGINIA

Syllabus

1. Where a testator made a bequest to his wife of all his estate, real and personal, "to have and to hold during her life, and to do with as she sees proper before her death," the wife took a life estate in the property, with only such power as a life tenant can have, and her conveyance of the real property passed no greater interest.

2. For the application of the doctrine of equitable estoppel, there must generally be some intended deception in the conduct or declarations of the party to be estopped or such gross negligence on his part as amounts to constructive fraud by which another has been misled to his injury.

3.. Where the estoppel relates to the title of real property, it is essential to the

Page 93 U. S. 327

application of the doctrine that the party claiming to have been influenced by the conduct or declarations of another was himself not only destitute of knowledge of the true state of the title, but also of any convenient and available means of acquiring such knowledge. Where the condition of the title is known to both parties or both have the same means of ascertaining the truth, there is no estoppel.

In April, 1831, Robert Sinclair, of Hampshire County, Va., died leaving a widow and eight surviving children. He was, at the time of his death, possessed of some personal property and the real property in controversy, consisting of one hundred and ten acres. By his last will and testament, he made the following devise:

"I give and bequeath to my beloved wife, Nancy Sinclair, all my estate, both real and personal -- that is to say, all my lands, cattle, horses, sheep, farming utensils, household and kitchen furniture, with everything that I possess, to have and to hold during her life, and to do with as she sees proper before her death."

The will was duly probated in the proper county.

In July, 1839, the widow, for the consideration of $1,100, executed a deed to the Union Potomac Company, a corporation created under the laws of Virginia, of the real property thus devised to her, describing it as the tract or parcel on which she then resided and the same which was conveyed to her "by the last will and testament of her late husband." As security for the payment of the consideration, she took at the time from the company its bond and a mortgage upon the property. The mortgage described the property as the tract of land which had on that day been conveyed by her to the Union Potomac Company.

In 1854, this bond and mortgage were assigned to the complainant and Hector Sinclair, the latter a son of the widow, in consideration of $100 cash, and the yearly payment of the like sum during her life. Previous to this time, Brant and Hector Sinclair had purchased the interest of all the other heirs, except Jane Sinclair, who was at the time, and still is, an idiot or an insane person, and such purchase is recited in the assignment, as is also the previous conveyance of a life interest to the company.

Page 93 U. S. 328

In July, 1857, these parties instituted suit for the foreclosure of the mortgage and sale of the property. The bill described the property as a tract of valuable coal land which the company had purchased of the widow, and prayed for the sale of the estate purchased. Copies of the deed of the widow and of the mortgage of the company were annexed to the bill. In due course of proceedings, a decree was obtained directing a sale, by commissioners appointed for that purpose, of the property, describing it as "the lands in the bill and proceedings mentioned," if certain payments were not made within a designated period. The payments not being made, the commissioners, in December, 1858, sold the mortgaged property to one Patrick Hammill, who thus succeeded to all the rights of the Union Potomac Company.

The defendant corporation, the Virginia Coal and Iron Company, derive their title and interest in the premises by sundry mesne conveyances from Hammill, and in 1867 went into their possession. Since then, it has cut down a large amount of valuable timber and has engaged in mining and extracting coal from the land and disposing of it.

Brant, having acquired the interest of Hector Sinclair, brought the present suit to restrain the company from mining and extracting coal from the land and to compel an accounting for the timber cut and the coal taken and converted to its use.

The court below dismissed the bill, whereupon Brant brought the case here.

Page 93 U. S. 332

MR. JUSTICE FIELD stated the case, and delivered the opinion of the Court.

The disposition of the case depends upon the construction

Page 93 U. S. 333

given to the devise of Robert Sinclair to his widow and the operation of the foreclosure proceedings as an estoppel upon the complainant from asserting title to the property.

The complainant contends that the widow took a life estate in the property, with only such power as a life tenant can have, and that her conveyance therefore carried no greater interest to the Union Potomac Company. The defendant corporation, on the other hand, insists that, with the life estate, the widow took full power to dispose of the property absolutely, and that her conveyance accordingly passed the fee.

We are of opinion that the position taken by the complainant is the correct one. The interest conveyed by the devise to the widow was only a life estate. The language used admits of no other conclusion, and the accompanying words "to do with as she sees proper before her death" only conferred power to deal with the property in such manner as she might choose, consistently with that estate, and perhaps without liability for waste committed. These words, used in connection with a conveyance of a leasehold estate, would never be understood as conferring a power to sell the property so as to pass a greater estate. Whatever power of disposal the words confer is limited by the estate with which they are connected.

In the case of Bradley v. Westcott, reported in the 13th of Vesey, the testator gave all his personal estate to his wife for her sole use for life, to be at her full, free, and absolute disposal and disposition during life, and the court held that as the testator had given in express terms an interest for life, the ambiguous words afterwards thrown in could not extend that interest to the absolute property. "I must construe," said the Master of the Rolls,

"the subsequent words with reference to the express interest for life previously given, that she is to have as full, free, and absolute disposition as a tenant for life can have."

In Smith v. Bell, reported in the 6th of Peters, the testator gave all his personal estate, after certain payments, to his wife, "to and for her own use and disposal absolutely," with a provision that the remainder after her decease should go to his son. The Court held that the latter clause qualified the former,

Page 93 U. S. 334

and showed that the wife only took a life estate. In construing the language of the devise, Chief Justice Marshall, after observing that the operation of the words "to and for her own use and benefit and disposal absolutely," annexed to the bequest, standing alone, could not be questioned, said,

"But suppose the testator had added the words 'during her natural life,' these words would have restrained those which preceded them and have limited the use and benefit, and the absolute disposal given by the prior words, to the use and benefit and to a disposal for the life of the wife. The words, then, are susceptible of such limitation. It may be imposed on them by other words. Even the words 'disposal absolutely' may have their character qualified by restraining words connected with and explaining them to mean such absolute disposal as a tenant for life may make."

The Chief Justice then proceeded to show that other equivalent words might be used equally manifesting the intent of the testator to restrain the estate of the wife to her life, and that the words, "devising a remainder to the son" were thus equivalent.

In Boyd v. Strahan, 36 Ill. 355, there was a bequest to the wife of all the personal property of the testator not otherwise disposed of, "to be at her own disposal and for her own proper use and benefit during her natural life," and the court held that the words "during her natural life" so qualified the power of disposal as to make it mean such disposal as a tenant for life could make.

Numerous other cases to the same purport might be cited. They all show, that where a power of disposal accompanies a bequest or devise of a life estate, the power is limited to such disposition as a tenant for life can make, unless there are other words clearly indicating that a larger power was intended.

The position that the complainant is estopped, by the proceedings for the foreclosure of the mortgage, from asserting title to the property has less plausibility than the one already considered. There was nothing in the fact that the complainant and Hector Sinclair owned seven-eighths of the reversion, which prevented them from taking a mortgage upon the life estate or

Page 93 U. S. 335

purchasing one already executed. There was no misrepresentation of the character of the title which they sought to subject to sale by the foreclosure suit. The bill of complaint in the suit referred to the deed from the widow to the Union Potomac Company and to the mortgage executed to secure the consideration, and copies were annexed. The deed described the property sold as the tract conveyed to the widow by the last will and testament of her late husband. The mortgage described the property as the tract of land conveyed on the same day to the mortgagor. The decree ordering the sale described the property as "the lands in the bill and proceedings mentioned." The purchaser was bound to take notice of the title. He was directed to its source by the pleadings in the case. The doctrine of caveat emptor applies to all judicial sales of this character; the purchaser takes only the title which the mortgagor possessed. And here, as a matter of fact, he knew that he was obtaining only a life estate by his purchase. He so stated at the sale and frequently afterwards. There is no evidence that either the complainant or Hector Sinclair ever made any representations to the defendant corporation to induce it to buy the property from the purchaser at the sale, or that they made any representations to anyone respecting the title, inconsistent with the fact, but, on the contrary, it is abundantly established by the evidence in the record, that from the time they took from the widow the assignment of the bond and mortgage of the Union Potomac Company in 1854, they always claimed to own seven-eighths of the reversion. The assignment itself recited that the widow had owned and had sold to that company a life interest in the property, and that they had acquired the interest of the heirs.

It is difficult to see where the doctrine of equitable estoppel comes in here. For the application of that doctrine there must generally be some intended deception in the conduct or declarations of the party to be estopped or such gross negligence on his part as to amount to constructive fraud by which another has been misled to his injury. "In all this class of cases," says Story,

"the doctrine proceeds upon the ground of constructive fraud or of gross negligence, which in effect implies fraud.

Page 93 U. S. 336

And therefore, when the circumstances of the case repel any such inference, although there may be some degree of negligence, yet courts of equity will not grant relief. It has been accordingly laid down by a very learned judge that the cases on this subject go to this result only, that there must be positive fraud or concealment, or negligence so gross as to amount to constructive fraud."

1 Story's Eq. 391. To the same purport is the language of the adjudged cases. Thus it is said by the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania that

"the primary ground of the doctrine is that it would be a fraud in a party to assert what his previous conduct had denied when on the faith of that denial others have acted. The element of fraud is essential either in the intention of the party estopped or in the effect of the evidence which he attempts to set up."

Hill v. Eppley, 31 Penn.St. 334; Henshaw v. Bissell, 18 Wall. 271; Biddle Boggs v. Merced Mining Company, 14 Cal. 368; Davis v. Davis, 26 id. 23; Commonwealth v. Moltz, 10 Barr, 531; Copeland v. Copeland, 28 Me. 539; Delaplaine v. Hitchcock, 6 Hill, 616; Havis v. Marchant, 1 Curt.C.C. 136; Zuchtmann v. Robert, 109 Mass. 53. And it would seem that to the enforcement of an estoppel of this character with respect to the title of property such as will prevent a party from asserting his legal rights, and the effect of which will be to transfer the enjoyment of the property to another, the intention to deceive and mislead, or negligence so gross as to be culpable, should be clearly established.

There are undoubtedly cases where a party may be concluded from asserting his original rights to property in consequence of his acts or conduct, in which the presence of fraud, actual or constructive, is wanting, as where one of two innocent parties must suffer from the negligence of another, he through whose agency the negligence was occasioned will be held to bear the loss, and where one has received the fruits of a transaction, he is not permitted to deny its validity whilst retaining its benefits. But such cases are generally referable to other principles than that of equitable estoppel, although the same result is produced; thus, the first case here mentioned is the affixing of liability upon the party who from negligence indirectly occasioned the injury, and the second is the application of the doctrine of

Page 93 U. S. 337

ratification or election. Be this as it may, the general ground of the application of the principle of equitable estoppel is as we have stated.

It is also essential for its application with respect to the title of real property that the party claiming to have been influenced by the conduct or declarations of another to his injury was himself not only destitute of knowledge of the true state of the title, but also of any convenient and available means of acquiring such knowledge. Where the condition of the title is known to both parties or both have the same means of ascertaining the truth, there can be no estoppel. Crest v. Jack, 3 Watts 240; Knouff v. Thompson, 4 Harris 361.

Tested by these views, the defense of estoppel set up in this case entirely fails.

The decree of the circuit court must be reversed and the cause remanded for further proceedings in accordance with this opinion, and it is

So ordered.

MR. JUSTICE SWAYNE and MR. JUSTICE DAVIS dissented.

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