Hansberry v. Lee
311 U.S. 32 (1940)

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  • Case

U.S. Supreme Court

Hansberry v. Lee, 311 U.S. 32 (1940)

Hansberry v. Lee

No. 29

Argued October 25, 1940

Decided November 12, 1940

311 U.S. 32

Syllabus

Numerous owners of lots in a particular area agreed in writing, each severally with each of the others, that their lots should not be sold to or occupied by Negroes, the effectiveness of the agreement being conditioned, however, upon signing by owners of a specified percentage of the lot frontage. In a case in a state court, tried upon an agreed statement of facts, in which it was stipulated (erroneously) that this condition had been complied with, and in which the issue litigated was whether the agreement had ceased to be enforceable in equity by reason of changes in the restricted area, an owner of one of the lots, suing in behalf of himself and of others in like situation, obtained a decree enjoining violation of the agreement by four individuals, who asserted an interest in the restricted land through another signer of the agreement, but who were not treated by the pleadings or decree as representing others or as foreclosing by their defense the rights of others, and whose interest in defeating the contract did not appear to outweigh their interest in sustaining it.

Held:

1. That others who were privy to the agreement, but not made parties to the litigation, and whose substantial interest was in resisting performance of the agreement, could not be bound by the decree upon the theory that the suit was a class suit in which they were duly represented. Pp. 311 U. S. 39, 311 U. S. 44.

2. That a decree of the state court in a second, similar suit, adjudging such other persons estopped by the former decree as res judicata from defending upon the ground that the condition precedent of the agreement had not been fulfilled, was in violation of the due process clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. Pp. 311 U. S. 40, 311 U. S. 44.

372 Ill. 369; 24 N.E.2d 37, reversed.

Page 311 U. S. 33

Certiorari, 309 U.S. 652, to review the affirmance of a decree in equity enjoining a violation of an agreement of lot owners restricting the sale and use of lots in a particular area.

Page 311 U. S. 37

Primary Holding
If a party is not adequately represented in a class action, the judgment in the case is not binding on that party.
Facts
An African-American man named Hansberry bought property from a person who had signed a restrictive covenant preventing property owners from selling land to African-Americans. Lee, one of its other signers, argued that the covenant should be enforced to enjoin the sale to Hansberry and that it was presumptively valid, based on an earlier case involving a class of landowners associated with the covenant. The document would be found valid only if 95 percent of the property owners signed it, and the trial court in the earlier case had made a finding of fact that the 95 percent requirement had been met. The Illinois Supreme Court found that it had not been met, but it still upheld the decision. Since the earlier case was a class action,the trial court ruled that the prior judgment would bind all members of the class, including the property owner who sold the land to Hansberry.

Opinions

Majority

  • Harlan Fiske Stone (Author)
  • Charles Evans Hughes
  • Hugo Lafayette Black
  • Felix Frankfurter
  • William Orville Douglas
  • Frank Murphy

The general rule is that all of the members of the class are bound by a final judgment in the class action, but this is only if they are adequately represented by members of a class who have a similar interest to them. Otherwise, due process requires them to receive notice and an opportunity to be heard. The defendant in this case did not have a similar interest to the landowners such that he could be considered to be part of the same class. In fact, his interests were diametrically opposed to those of the class members, since he was trying to buy land, while they were seeking to restrict its sale. This clash of interests generally indicates that representation by the class is inadequate. The earlier judgment thus would not be binding.

Concurrence

  • James Clark McReynolds (Author)
  • Owen Josephus Roberts
  • Stanley Forman Reed

Case Commentary

Generally speaking, the party against whom preclusion based on a class action is asserted should have been a member of the class when the original litigation was filed. Otherwise, due process requirements of notice and the opportunity to be heard are probably not satisfied.

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