Harpending v. Reformed Protestant Church of New York
Annotate this Case
41 U.S. 455 (1842)
U.S. Supreme Court
Harpending v. Reformed Protestant Church of New York, 41 U.S. 16 Pet. 455 455 (1842)
Harpending v. Reformed Protestant Church of New York
41 U.S. (16 Pet.) 455
A bill was filed in the Circuit Court of the Southern District of New York by the heirs of John Haberdinck, claiming certain real estate in the City of New York and an account of the rents and profits thereof, the estate having been devised in 1696, to the Ministers, Elders, and Deacons of the Reformed Protestant Dutch Church of the City of New York. To this bill the respondents, among other matters, pleaded that they bad been in actual adverse possession of the premises for forty years next before the filing of the bill.
If the complainant by his bill, or the respondent by his plea, sets forth facts from which it appears that the complainant, by the statutes of the state, has no standing in court, and for the sake of repose and the common good of society is not permitted to sue his adversary, it is the rule of the court not to proceed further, and dismiss the bill.
In pleading the statute of limitations to a bill in chancery, it is not necessary that there shall be an express reference to the statute of the state in which the proceeding is instituted. The court is judicially bound to take notice of the statutes of limitations when the facts are stated and relied on as a bar to further proceedings, if they are found sufficient.
One tenant in common may hold adversely to and bar his co-tenant.
After the elapse of twenty years from the commencement of adverse possession of the property claimed, the defendants had a title as undoubted as if they had produced a deed in fee simple from the true owners of that date, and all inquiry into their title or its incidents was effectually cut off.
The Supreme Court of the United States is bound to conform to the decisions of the state courts in relation to the construction of the statute of limitations of the state in which the controversy has arisen. Such is the settled doctrine of the supreme court. Cited, Green v. Neal, 6 Pet. 291.
No distinction is made by the courts of the State of New York between a religious corporation claiming to hold under the statute of limitations of the state in regard to capacity to hold by force of the statute; therefore none can be taken by the Supreme Court of the United States.
The statute of New York is in substance the same as that of 21 Jac. 1. That such a possession as is set forth in the plea in this case is protected by the statute has been the settled doctrine of the courts of that state for more than thirty years, if it ever were doubted.
The second part of the plea of the defendants averred that all the parts of the lands sold had been conveyed and the moneys received by the defendants more than forty years before the plea was filed. This is deemed a conclusive bar. The bill seeks the money, and six years barred the relief, this being a concurrent remedy with the action at law.
The defendants had disclaimed the ownership of certain lots which were described in the bill, and of which they were charged with being owners. The circuit court dismissed the bill as to these lots. Held that this was proper. There was no probable cause for retaining this part of the bill, to obtain an account from the respondents. Obviously no claim exists that can be made available for the complainants in regard to this portion of the property.
On 25 March 1839, the appellants filed a bill in the Circuit Court of the United States for the Southern District of New York (they being citizens of other states than the State of New York) stating that prior to September, 1696, John H. Haberdinck, of the City of New York, with four others, was seized in fee of the "Shoemaker's Fields or lands," a tract of about sixteen acres in the City of New York, and that in the same year, partition of the same was made and Haberdinck became seized in severalty of divers parcels of the land described in the bill. Haberdinck died seized of the land in January 1722, leaving a widow, who died in 1723, and John Haberdinck, Junior, of New York, was his only heir, and inherited his lands. The bill stated that the complainants were the heirs of John Haberdinck, Junior, their names having been varied to Haberding. It stated that they are seized, with Peter Haberding, a citizen of New York, of these lands as heirs as aforesaid, and that no sale or devise of the lands has been made by them or by any of their ancestors.
The bill stated that John H. Haberdinck made leases of part of the lands for ninety-nine or more years, and some of the leases so granted did not expire until after 1829. The Dutch Church had, for some time past, had possession of the lands allotted to John H. Haberdinck by the partition, and claimed that they took such possession in virtue of some will or devise of John H. Haberdinck to them. They also obtained possession of the undivided parcel, and alleged title to some shares of it, by deeds from the other tenants in common, and had demised parts of the same &c.
The bill alleged that the church was a religious corporation in the City of New York, incorporated under the laws of New York. The complainants had applied to the church for a statement of
the title under which they claimed the property, and for a list of papers, and the inspection of their rent roll, and an account of the rents and profits. In March, 1822, the bill alleged that the defendants returned to the chancellor of New York an inventory, in which they set forth that these lands were held by them as
"sundry lots devised to the church by John Haberdinck, called the Shoemaker's land, as mentioned in a former inventory, situated in the second and third wards of the City of New York,"
and the defendants alleged the said will was valid.
The parts of the will set out in the bill of the complainants relating to the property claimed by the complainants were as follows:
"Item. I, the said John Haberdinck, does hereby give, devise and bequeath unto the minister, elders and deacons of the Reformed Protestant Dutch Church of the City of New York and their successors forever all my [the testator's] right, title and interest, and property in and to an equal fifth part, share and proportion of all that tract or parcel of land situate, lying, and being upon Manhattan Island within the City of New York, called or known by the name of Shoemaker's Field or land, on the north side of Maiden Lane or path, &c., the which tract or parcel of land contains, by estimation, sixteen acres."
The will then described the different lots according to the partition, and proceeded,
"All of which several and respective lots, pieces and parcels of land, I, the said testator, do hereby give, devise, and bequeath unto the said minister, elders and deacons of the Reformed Protestant Dutch Church of the City of New York, and to their lawful successors forever, with all and singular the buildings, messuages, edifices, improvements, emoluments, profits, benefits, reversions, advantages, hereditaments and appurtenances thereunto belonging, or in any wise appertaining or reputed or esteemed as part and belonging to the same, to have and to hold all the aforesaid several and respective lots, pieces, and parcels and land, with the several and respective premises and appurtenances, unto the said minister, elders and deacons of the Reformed Protestant Dutch Church of the City of New York, and their lawful successors, to the sole and only proper use, benefit and behoof of the said minister, elders and deacons of the Reformed Protestant Dutch Church of the City of New York, and their lawful successors forever,
to be received and employed by the said minister, elders. and deacons of the Reformed Protestant Dutch Church of the City of New York immediately after my decease and the decease of my wife Mayken Haberdinck, and only to the proper use, benefit and behoof, and for the payment and satisfaction of the yearly stipend, salary, or maintenance of the respective minister or ministers, which from time to time, and at all times hereafter shall be duly and legally called to the ministry of the said church, and to no other use or uses whatsoever. And I, the said testator, do hereby further order and direct that the sole management, direction, administration and government of the same after my decease and the decease of my wife, Mayken Haberdinck, shall only be and remain in the hands, care, management, direction and administration and government of the elders of the said church for the time being, or whom they shall nominate, constitute, and appoint to act in their stated or place and without being subject or bound to render any account of the same, but only to the minister or ministers, elders, and deacons of the said Reformed Protestant Dutch Church of the City of New York for the time being. Provided always that it shall not be lawful nor in the power of the said minister, elders, and deacons of the Reformed Protestant Dutch Church of the City of New York, nor their successors, nor the said elders or managers for the time being, nor in the power of any other person or persons whatsoever forever hereafter to make sale, dispose, or alienate any part of the said lands and premises, nor any of the profits, benefits, revenues, or advantages accruing or arising out of the same to any use or uses whatsoever but that the same shall be forever and remain to the only proper use, benefit and behoof as is above recited, declared and expressed."
The complainants charged that the will and the devise to the church was, at the date of the will, at the testator's death, and is at this time wholly and absolutely void, illegal and inoperative at law.
"The church could not and did not acquire any right or estate under the will, and the possession of the premises was in subordination to the title of the complainants and their ancestors. The church took possession of five of the lots that were on Broadway, although only a part of two were devised to them."
The bill further stated that the church was incorporated on 11
May 1696, then having a church in Garden Street and certain tracts of ground, and were authorized "to have, take, acquire and purchase" lands, &c., and not exceeding the yearly value of two hundred pounds, New York currency, equal to $500. That the property held by them was considerable, and had ever since been actually, and for twenty years past has been worth, at least $10,000. The yearly value of the lands devised by Haberdinck had ever since greatly exceeded the amount which the church was, from time to time, by law authorize to hold; from 1780 to 1800, the yearly value thereof was $10,000; from 1800 to 1820, at least $20,000; and to this time, at least $30,000. In order to keep down the "annual income," the church had given leases for long terms at a low rent, and then sold such terms, for large sums, and sued the money to buy other lands for other purposes.
The church had always held those lots under claim of title subordinate to the title of the complainants and their ancestor; it was always incapable in law of acquiring or holding a valid title thereto by adverse possession, and was, at the time of Haberdinck's death, incapable in law of acquiring and holding the lands by devise. If it should appear that the lands were actually devised to the church by the will, yet such devise would appear to have been made on the "express condition" that the lands were to be held by the church for the payment and satisfying the yearly stipend, salary, or maintenance of the respective minister or ministers which should be from time to time duly and lawfully called to the ministry of the said church, and to no other use whatever, and on the express condition that it should not be lawful for the ministers, elders, and deacons to sell or dispose of any part of the property or to apply any of the profits, revenue, &c., to any use whatever other than those mentioned. At the time of the making of his will by Haberdinck, the only church was in Garden Street; they had since built two others and abandoned that as a place of worship. The income of the church from these lands had annually, for fifty years, greatly exceeded the yearly salaries paid or which could be paid to their ministers, and they had used the large surplus annually for other purposes, &c.
The bill prays for a discovery whether the church held under the will of Haberdinck, and if so a full account of the same and of all matters relating to the property, and for an account, &c.
The defendants, after various exceptions to the bill of the complainants and to the relief sought in the same and the denial of many of the allegations in the bill, and disclaiming the ownership of certain lots described in the bill and in the answer filed, said:
"These defendants do plead in bar, and by was of plea say that for all the time commencing forty years prior to the filing of the bill of complaint, namely, commencing on 25 March, in the year of our Lord 1799, until and at the time of the filing of this plea, these defendants were and have been, and are, by themselves and tenants holding under them, in the sole and exclusive possession of all and singular the lands in the bill of complaint mentioned (excepting the lands above described as hereinafter disclaimed), during all which time of possession, all and singular the said lands have been improve by buildings, and enclosed with a substantial enclosure, excepting that the land twenty-five feet in width from John Street, to Fair Street, now Fulton Street, between the side of lots 84 and 86, and a continuation thereof, having been during all that time enjoyed as a public street for access to the lands upon the same, and as a public street then, ever since, and now used by all good citizens of this state as a public street and highway, without rents, issues or profits thence accruing, and excepting a piece of land twenty-five feet in width, extending from the rear of lot 62, in the said bill mentioned, seventy-five feet along the rear of lots 41, 42 and 44, and excepting the two pieces of land, the one extending along the southwesterly side of lot No. 68, and the rears of lots 77, 78, 79 and 80; the other extending along the northeasterly side of lot 66, and the rears of lots 32, 33, 34 and 35, from Nassau Street to the rear of the said lots, and during all that time these defendants have, by themselves and their tenants holding under them, actually occupied and possessed all and singular the said lands, claiming and enjoying the same during all the time aforesaid as being seized thereof in their demesne as of fee, in severalty, and in their own sole and exclusive right, as the sole and exclusive owners thereof, in their own right, in fee simple, and to their own sole and
exclusive use, and not otherwise, and during all that time these defendants have been in the sole and exclusive receipt and enjoyment of the rents, issues, profits, avails and proceeds thereof, to the sole and exclusive use of the said corporation, claiming the right to receive and enjoy the same to their own use, and not otherwise. "
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