Halstead v. Grinnan,
152 U.S. 412 (1894)

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U.S. Supreme Court

Halstead v. Grinnan, 152 U.S. 412 (1894)

Halstead v. Grinnan

No. 128

Argued December 4-5, 1893

Decided March 19, 1894

152 U.S. 412


The facts admitted or proved in this case show that the plaintiff was guilty of laches in failing to file his bills for so long a time, and it is held that they were properly dismissed by the court below.

Laches is an equitable defense, controlled by equitable considerations, and the lapse of time must be so great, and the relations of the defendant to the rights such, that it would be inequitable to permit the plaintiff to assert them where he has had for a considerable period knowledge of their existence, or might have acquainted himself with them by the use of reasonable diligence.

The length of time during which a party neglects the assertion of his rights which must pass in order to show laches varies with the peculiar circumstances of each case, and is not subject to an arbitrary rule.

On January 24, 1885, plaintiff filed in the District Court of the United States for the District of West Virginia his bill of complaint against A. G. Griffinnan, the Forest Hill Mining & Manufacturing Company, Robert Soutter, trustee, William Wyant, and the unknown heirs of William K. Smith, deceased. At that time, there was no circuit court in the district, the district court having the powers of a circuit court, but before the final disposition of this case, a circuit court was established by the Act of Congress of February 6, 1889, c. 113, 25 Stat. 655, and to it the case was transferred. On November 30, 1887, the plaintiff, by leave of court, filed an amended and supplemental bill. Intermediate those dates, and on May 4, 1887, there was filed in that court the records of two cases transferred from the state circuit court of Greenbrier County, entitled, respectively, "A. G. Griffinnan v. S. C. Long et al." and "F. B. Chewning v. J. F. Cowan et al." The plaintiff, Halstead, had been made party defendant in those cases, and notified by publication, and after decrees by default against him, he appeared in each case by petition, praying for an opening of the decree and a rehearing, and, while those applications

Page 152 U. S. 413

were pending, removed the cases, as above stated, to the United States court. To the original and supplemental bills in the case, commenced in the district court, Griffinnan and Wyant duly answered. Proofs were taken, and the three cases being heard together, on May 26, 1888, a final decree was entered as follows:

"John Halstead v. Wm. Wyant and others, in Equity. A. G. Griffinnan v. S. C. Long and others, in Equity. F. B. Chewning v. J. F. Cowan and others, in Equity. (Heard Together.)"

"These causes this day came on to be heard together, and were argued by counsel; whereupon, upon consideration hereof, it is adjudged, ordered, and decreed that the bill and amended and supplemental bill in the first above-mentioned cause be, and the same are hereby, dismissed, and that the defendants therein recover of the complainant, John Halstead, their costs about their defense in that behalf expended."

"And it is further adjudged, ordered, and decreed that the petition for rehearing filed by said Halstead in said second and third suits above mentioned, and the rule awarded said Halstead in said suits against the defendant William Wyant, be each of them, and the same are hereby, dismissed, and it is further adjudged, ordered, and decreed that the defendants in said petition and said rule respectively recover their costs against said Halstead, but in taxing the costs recovered in this decree but one attorney's fee shall be allowed."

A petition for rehearing having been denied, an appeal was taken to this Court.

The burden of this controversy rests in these facts: on June 15, 1859, A. G. Griffinnan, W. K. Smith, and A. G. Griffinnan as

Page 152 U. S. 414

trustee, conveyed to the Forest Hill Mining & Manufacturing Company (hereinafter called the Forest Hill Company) a tract of land in the County of Fayette, in the then State of Virginia (now West Virginia), containing 2,000 acres, more or less, and also another tract and a right of way described in the deed, as follows:

"Also a certain piece or parcel of a certain tract of land known as the Huddleston tract, to be surveyed off the western side of said tract by a line running from the northerly to the southerly side of said tract, to be bounded on the south by the tract hereinabove conveyed, and on the north by the Great Kanawha River, and containing one hundred acres, more or less. Also the perpetual right of way to the said party of the second part their successors and assigns, through a tract of land known as the 'Elk Ridge' tract, lying between the tract of 2,000 acres, hereinabove conveyed, and Armstrong's Creek, with the privilege of the said party of the second part of entering thereupon by their agents and servants, and constructing upon and over the same such roads or railroads as they may deem necessary for convenient access to and from the lands hereby conveyed."

This Huddleston tract was conveyed by Huddleston to Griffinnan by metes and bounds, and in the deed was estimated to contain 200 acres, though in fact it contained nearer 250 acres. It was bounded on the north by the Kanawha River, its west line straight, but its east line quite a zigzag, with considerable frontage on the Kanawha, but narrowing towards the southern end, and for some little distance towards that end bordering on the tract of 2,000 acres previously described in the deed to the Forest Hill Company.

On the same day of the conveyance to it, the Forest Hill Company placed a trust deed upon the property to secure the payment of sixteen promissory notes and eighty bonds. On June 6, 1864, the trustee, in execution of the trust and in consideration of the sum of $3,500, conveyed the property to plaintiff. In this trustee's deed, the description of the Huddleston tract and the right of way is as follows:

"Also a lot, piece, or parcel of land (containing 100 acres,

Page 152 U. S. 415

more or less, provided in said deed to be surveyed off the west side of the tract of land known as the Huddleston tract, as the same was ascertained and bounded by the survey made subsequently to the execution of the said deed, and in pursuance thereof) adjoining the above; also the right of way through and across the Elk Ridge tract, also adjoining the above, which said lands and right of way are more fully described in a deed from William K. Smith and wife and Andrew G. Griffinnan and wife and the said Andrew G. Griffinnan, trustee, to the aforesaid Forest Hill Mining and Manufacturing Company, bearing the same date as the deed or conveyance in trust first above mentioned."

The survey thus referred to was made in the year 1859 by Thomas S. Robson, the County Surveyor of Fayette County. By this survey, a tract of 105 acres was set off to the Forest Hill Company, on the west side of the Huddleston tract, but so surveyed that no part of the land given to the company touched the 2,000-acre tract heretofore referred to. The contention of the plaintiff was that such survey was inaccurate in that the part set off to the Forest Hill Company did not at any point touch the 2,000-acre tract, and therefore did not comply with the terms of the deed, and the prayer was that he be decreed the owner of an undivided one-half interest in the Huddleston tract, and that a partition and new survey be made setting off to him the one-half, so as to connect with the aforesaid tract of 2,000 acres.

The defendant Wyant claimed to have purchased the balance of the Huddleston tract, not set apart to the Forest Hill Company at a judicial sale, in April, 1883 at the price of $60.50 per acre, amounting to over $9,000; that he bought relying upon a map shown at the sale of the commissioner which conformed to the survey made by Robson, and in ignorance of any claim of the plaintiff; that he entered into possession, and had expended about $7,000 in building houses and opening mines. This commissioner's sale was by virtue of a decree rendered in the cases heretofore referred to as transferred from the state court and consolidated with the suit in the district court, and in which cases prior to the decree, plaintiff had been served by publication.

Page 152 U. S. 416

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