Independently of any limitation for the guidance of courts of
law, equity, may, in the exercise of its own inherent powers,
refuse relief where it is sought after undue and unexplained delay
and when injustice would be clone in the particular case by
granting the relief asked.
This case is peculiarly suited for the application of this
principle, as the plaintiffs claim that the lands in dispute
became, after the divorce of Elizabeth Abraham from Burnstine, her
legal and statutory, as distinguished from her equitable, separate
estate, and that the trust deed to Norris, by sale under which the
defendant acquired title, was absolutely void, while it appears
that nineteen years elapsed after the execution of that deed before
this suit was brought, that Elizabeth Abraham was divorced from her
second husband thirteen years before the institution of these
proceedings, that she paid interest on the debt secured by the
trust deed for about eight years without protest; that she did not
pretend to have been ignorant of the sale under the trust deed, nor
to have been unaware that the purchaser went into possession
immediately, and continuously thereafter received the rents and
profits, and on these facts, it is held that the plaintiffs and
those under whom they assert title have been guilty of such laches
as to have lost all right to invoke the aid of a court of
The case is stated in the opinion.
Page 158 U. S. 417
MR. JUSTICE HARLAN delivered the opinion of the Court.
On the 22d day of May, 1869, Bernard Burnstine -- his wife
Elizabeth uniting with him in the deed -- conveyed to Levi Abraham
certain real estate in the City of Washington in trust for the sole
and separate use of the wife, with power in her at any time to
dispose of the property in whole or in part or to encumber it by
deed or by will or by other instrument in the nature of a last will
The deed provided that the trustee should permit the wife, her
executors, administrators, and assigns, to have, hold, use,
possess, and enjoy the trust property; to receive its rents,
issues, and profits as if she were a feme sole,
and if she
disposed of it, the trustee was not to be responsible therefor nor
for the application of its proceeds.
The deed upon its face recites that it was made pursuant to a
mutual agreement between the grantors to live separately and apart
from each other during their lives.
Subsequently, on the 10th of May, 1870, Mrs. Burnstine obtained
a divorce, and shortly thereafter, June 24, 1870, married one
On the 24th of September, 1870, Mrs. Caro executed to Harriet
Ordway a promissory note for $3,000, payable in two years from that
date, with interest at ten percent. To secure its payment, Levi
Abraham, the trustee in the Burnstine deed -- Mrs. Caro uniting
with him -- executed to John E. Norris, trustee, a deed covering
the above real estate. This deed recited that the note was given to
secure the just indebtedness of Mrs. Caro to Harriet Ordway. But
the bill alleges and the demurrer admits that it was in fact given
for money borrowed from the payee by Solomon Caro. This last deed
was in trust that Mrs. Caro, her heirs and assigns, should have,
hold, use, and enjoy the premises, and their rents, issues, and
profits to take, receive, and apply to her own use until some
default or failure occurred in the payment of the debt or some part
of the debt due to Mrs. Ordway. It also provided
Page 158 U. S. 418
that, upon the written request of the latter as the legal holder
of the above note, the trustee should proceed to sell and dispose
of the premises, or so much thereof as might be deemed necessary at
public sale to the highest bidder, upon such terms and conditions
as the trustee deemed best for the interest of all parties
concerned, giving due notice of sale.
On the 21st of December, 1874, Elizabeth Caro joined with Levi
Abraham in a deed conveying the real estate in question to
Elizabeth Rebecca Abraham in fee.
Caro having abandoned his wife, she obtained from the Supreme
Court of the District of Columbia, on the 20th of October, 1876, a
decree of divorce and a restoration of her maiden name of Elizabeth
Abraham. The latter paid interest on the above note for about eight
years. But having ceased to make such payments, the property was
sold at public auction on the 6th of January, 1879, pursuant to the
terms of the Norris deed of trust, and on the same day Norris
executed to Mrs. Ordway, the purchaser, a deed conveying to her the
property in fee. After this purchase, Mrs. Ordway took possession
of the property and received the rents and profits thereof.
Elizabeth Rebecca Abraham, the grantee in the deed of December
21, 1874, died August 10, 1886, intestate, leaving the appellants
as her only heirs at law.
Levi Abraham, the trustee, died on the 28th of April, 1876.
Norris died on the 4th day of February, 1887.
The appellants brought this suit upon the theory that, the above
note having been executed by Elizabeth Abraham while she was a
married woman, the wife of Caro, was void; that the deed of trust
to Norris was, for that reason, of no effect as security for its
payment, and that the conveyance by Norris to Mrs. Ordway created a
resulting trust for the benefit of the plaintiffs.
The prayer of the bill was for a decree requiring the defendant
Harriet Ordway to convey all her right, title, and interest in the
estate in question to the plaintiffs, and account to them for rents
The defendants demurred upon the ground that the plaintiffs
Page 158 U. S. 419
did not by their bill present a case entitling them to relief in
a court of equity. The demurrer was sustained, and the bill
dismissed. That decree was affirmed in the general term.
After the decree below was perfected, the defendant Harriet
Ordway died, and the present appellees are her devisees.
Counsel express gratification that an opportunity is presented
in this case for the construction of what is known as the Married
Woman's Act of April 10, 1869, in force in the District of
Columbia, particularly the section providing that
"any married woman may contract and sue, and be sued in her own
name, in all matters having relation to her sole and separate
property, in the same manner as if she were unmarried."
Rev.Stat.Dist.Col. § 729.
We do not deem it necessary at this time to consider the scope
of that act, nor to determine whether it was correctly interpreted
in Schneider v. Garland,
1 Mackey 350. The case can be
disposed of upon a ground that does not involve the construction of
that statute, and which cannot be ignored, whatever conclusion
might be reached as to the power of Elizabeth Abraham, while she
was the wife of Solomon Caro, to charge the estate in question with
the payment of the $3,000 note. That ground is that the plaintiffs,
and those under whom they assert title, have been guilty of such
laches as to have lost all right to invoke the aid of a court of
equity. Nearly nineteen years elapsed after the execution of the
deed to Norris before the present suit was brought. And, although
the plaintiff Elizabeth was the wife of Caro when that deed was
made, she was divorced in 1876, nearly thirteen years before the
institution of these proceedings. She paid interest on the debt of
$3,000 for about eight years without, so far as the bill discloses,
protesting that she was not legally bound to do so. Some of those
payments must have been made after her divorce from Caro and while
she was an unmarried woman. She did not pretend to have been
ignorant of the public sale, under the Norris deed at which Mrs.
Ordway purchased the property at the price of $2,750. Nor did she
pretend to have been unaware,
Page 158 U. S. 420
at the time, of the fact that Mrs. Ordway, after her purchase,
went into possession and continuously received the rents and
profits of the estate.
It appears also upon face of the bill that, in 1874, Levi
Abraham and the plaintiff Elizabeth, then Elizabeth Caro, conveyed
this property to Esther Rebecca Abraham. Whether this deed was
recorded or not the bill does not state. But the grantee in that
deed did not die until August 10, 1886, nearly twelve years after
the conveyance to her, nearly seventeen years after the date of the
deed to Norris, and more than seven years after the sale and
conveyance to Mrs. Ordway under that deed. It does not appear that
Esther Rebecca Abraham, in her lifetime, ever disputed the title
acquired by Mrs. Ordway under the sale made by Norris, trustee. No
explanation is given in the bill of her failure to bring suit.
The property in dispute, it may well be assumed, has greatly
appreciated in value since Mrs. Ordway's purchase, which was more
than ten years prior to this suit. It is now too late to ask
assistance from a court of equity. The relief sought cannot be
given consistently with the principles of justice or without
encouraging such delay in the assertion of rights as ought not to
be tolerated by courts of equity. Whether equity will interfere in
cases of this character must depend upon the special circumstances
of each case. Sometimes the courts act in obedience to statutes of
limitations; sometimes in analogy to them. But it is now well
settled that, independently of any limitation prescribed for the
guidance of courts of law, equity may, in the exercise of its own
inherent powers, refuse relief where it is sought after undue and
unexplained delay and when injustice would be done in the
particular case by granting the relief asked. It will in such cases
decline to extricate the plaintiff from the position in which he
has inexcusably placed himself, and leave him to such remedies as
he may have in a court of law. Wagner v.
7 How. 234, 48 U. S. 238
Harwood v. Railroad
17 Wall. 78, 84 U. S. 81
Sullivan v. Portland &c. Railroad, 94 U. S.
, 94 U. S. 811
Brown v. County of Buena Vista, 95 U. S.
, 95 U. S. 159
Hayward v. National Bank, 96 U. S.
, 96 U. S. 617
Page 158 U. S. 421
106 U. S. 391
106 U. S. 392
Speidel v. Henrici, 120 U. S. 377
120 U. S. 387
Richards v. Mackall, 124 U. S. 183
124 U. S.
The present suit is peculiarly one for the application of this
principle. The contention of the appellants is that under the
Married Woman's Act of 1869, the lands in question became, after
the divorce of the plaintiff Elizabeth from Burnstine, her legal
and statutory, as distinguished from her equitable, separate,
estate, and that the deed to Norris which secured the $3,000 note
was absolutely void because that note was not given by Mrs. Caro in
respect of any matter "having relation to her sole and separate
property." Rev.Stat.Dist.Col. § 729. It is conceded that if that
note, in fact and within the meaning of that act, had "relation" to
the estate here in dispute, then the Norris deed was valid as
security for the debt evidenced by the note. But whether the debt
was of that character depended -- unless the recitals in the Norris
deed on that point are not in themselves conclusive -- upon such
proof, in respect to the origin of the debt and its relation to the
estate conveyed by that deed, as could be made, after nearly twenty
years had elapsed from the date of the deed and after the death
both of Levi Abraham, the grantor, and of Norris, the grantee. One
of the grounds upon which courts of equity refuse relief where the
plaintiff is guilty of laches is the injustice of imposing upon the
defendant the necessity of making proof of transactions long past,
in order to protect himself in the enjoyment of rights which,
during a considerable period, have passed unchallenged by his
adversary, with full knowledge of all the circumstances. The
principle has been thus stated by this Court:
"Length of time necessarily obscures all human evidence and
deprives parties of the means of ascertaining the nature of
original transactions; it operates by way of presumption in favor
of the party in possession. Long acquiescence and laches by parties
out of possession are productive of much hardship and injustice to
others, and cannot be excused but by showing some actual hindrance
or impediment caused by the fraud or concealment of the party in
possession, which will appeal to the conscience of the
7 How. 258.
Page 158 U. S. 422
The appellants insist that, as this suit relates to land, the
doctrine of laches, as announced in the above cases, has no
application. There is no foundation in the adjudged cases for this
suggestion. It is true, as stated by counsel, that in Wagner v.
just cited, the Court says that in many cases, courts
of equity "act upon the analogy of the limitations at law, as where
a legal title would in ejectment be barred by twenty years' adverse
possession," and "will act upon the like limitation, and apply it
to all cases of relief sought upon equitable titles or claims
touching real estate." But it proceeds to say:
"But there is a defense peculiar to courts of equity, founded on
lapse of time and the staleness of the claim, where no statute of
limitations distinctly governs the case. In such cases, courts of
equity often act upon their own inherent doctrine of discouraging,
for the peace of society, antiquated demands, by refusing to
interfere where there has been gross laches in prosecuting rights,
or long acquiescence in the assertion of adverse rights. 2 Story,
Eq. § 1520. A court of equity will not give relief against
conscience or where a party has slept upon his rights."
Allore v. Jewell, 94 U. S. 506
also cited by appellants. That was a suit to cancel a conveyance of
land upon the ground that the grantor was incapable from mental
weakness of comprehending the nature of the transaction. Six years
elapsed before suit, and it was objected that the suit could not
for that reason be maintained. The Court said that there was no
statutory bar in the case, and the relief asked was granted
because, under the particular circumstances of that case,
application for relief must be held to have been seasonably made,
and because the facts justified the cancellation of the deed.
Counsel rely with some confidence upon the following
observations in Wehrman v. Conklin, 155 U.
, 155 U. S.
"If the plaintiff at law has brought his action within the
period fixed by the statute of limitations, no court can deprive
him of his right to proceed. If the statute limits him to twenty
years, and he brings his action after the lapse of nineteen years
and eleven months, he is as much entitled as matter of law to
maintain it as though he has brought it the day after his
Page 158 U. S. 423
cause of action accrued."
That this Court did not intend to lay down any such rule as the
appellants contend for is quite evident from the following
sentences, not quoted by them, but which immediately precede those
"It is scarcely necessary to say that complainants [in the
equity suit] cannot avail themselves as a matter of law of the
laches of the plaintiff in the ejectment suit. Though a good
defense in equity, laches is no defense at law."
The claim of the appellants is without merit, and the decree