Williams v. Morris,
95 U.S. 444 (1877)

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U.S. Supreme Court

Williams v. Morris, 95 U.S. 444 (1877)

Williams v. Morris

95 U.S. 444


1. Under the laws of Maryland prevailing in the District of Columbia, an interest in lands made by livery and seisin only, or by parol, except leases not exceeding the term of three years, has only the force and effect of an estate at will.

2. The Court applies to this case the doctrines announced in Barry v. Coombe, 1 Pet. 640, and Purcell v. Miner, 4 Wall. 513, as to what must be set forth in a written contract for the sale of lands, and what is sufficient part performance of a parol contract for such sale to take it out of the statute of frauds.

3. There is nothing in this case to bring it by analogy within the statute of limitations which govern courts of law.

In February, 1856, James Williams leased by parol certain land in the City of Washington, the legal title to which stood in his name, to Thomas B. Florence, with the privilege by the latter of purchasing it for $6,000. In the following month, Florence entered into possession as tenant of said James, and made certain improvements. On October, 1856, Florence, having learned that the heirs of John Williams were entitled to an undivided moiety of the land, entered, with the consent of James, into a written contract with them for the purchase of their interest, which by decree was conveyed to him in 1864.

In April, 1853, and April, 1854, the property was sold for taxes. One Ingle purchased it, and, after the period allowed by law for redemption had expired, received deeds therefor from the corporation of Washington, dated June 11, 1857. Florence, after consultation with said James, paid Ingle the amount of the taxes and accrued expenses Dec. 29, 1859, and some months thereafter took from him a quitclaim for the property, which, with the corporation deeds to Ingle, he caused to be recorded. From March 1, 1856, to June, 1861, he remained in the personal occupation of the property. He then rented it to the United States for $175 per month, which rent he received until the commencement of this suit, Aug. 24, 1867, by the complainants, some of whom are minors. They are the heirs-at-law of James Williams, who died intestate Aug. 15, 1862.

Page 95 U. S. 445

The bill, after setting up the lease by James Williams to Florence, alleged, inter alia, that the defendant during his tenancy under the lease suffered by his default the property to be sold for taxes, and, having acquired the tax title, disclaimed his tenancy, and set up an adverse title in himself. It therefore prayed that Florence be decreed to convey to the complainants said tax title, and to account for a moiety of the rents and profits.

The defendant answered, setting up his parol contract with James to purchase, his subsequent discovery of the interest of the heirs of John in a moiety of the property, the fact of his purchase with the consent of James of that moiety, and its conveyance to him, and denied that thereafter he stood in the relation of tenant or paid rent; but, on the contrary, he paid all taxes and charges, and, with the full knowledge and consent of said James, acted generally as owner, and made repairs. He also alleged that said James had, by certain deeds of trust executed in 1843 and 1851, encumbered his moiety; and by another, executed in 1853, the whole property, in a sum beyond the amount of purchase money and more than double the share of James for his moiety. That, notwithstanding said encumbrances, the defendant made various payments to said James, amounting from $1,500 to $2,000, on account of said purchase, but was unable to procure a settlement. The defendant filed with his answer the following receipts:

"Received of Thomas B. Florence forty dollars, to be accounted for in the settlement for the purchase of the property at the corner of Pennsylvania Avenue and 17th Street, now in his occupancy, and sold by me to him."


"WASHINGTON, Jan. 1, 1857"

"WASHINGTON, May 1, 1857"

"Received of Thomas B. Florence one hundred dollars, on account of purchase of building 17th St. & Pa. Av. $100."


He also denied that he had suffered the property to be sold for taxes, but that said sales were for taxes due for the eight years preceding his entry.

On the 11th of March, 1873, the complainants were allowed

Page 95 U. S. 446

to amend their bill by alleging that Florence, in October, 1856, purchased the undivided moiety of the heirs of John Williams, and thereby became tenant in common with James Williams; that, after said relation of tenants in common thus began, Florence purchased from Ingle the outstanding tax title, which was in all respects regular and according to law, and obtained from him a conveyance of the premises and of the full title thereof, which conveyance and title said Florence claimed to hold as his own, to the exclusion of the complainants.

The answer to the amended bill admitted the purchase in October, 1856, of the claim of the heirs of John Williams under the circumstances set forth in the answer to the original bill; denied that such purchase created, or was intended to create, a tenancy in common with James Williams; and averred that after the same, the defendant held and enjoyed the premises as the exclusive and absolute owner. It further denied the validity of the tax title; averred it to be void on its face, and that it was bought, with the knowledge and approval of James Williams, to relieve the property from the outstanding charge for taxes; and that a deed was taken from Ingle, because one to him had been entered on the books of the city; and that the complainants' allegation of the validity of the tax title was simply a pretext whereby to gain some color for the asserted jurisdiction of a court of equity.

At the final hearing in special term, April 8, 1873, the court decreed that the tax title purchased by Florence from Ingle was taken by him in trust for the complainants to the extent of one undivided moiety thereof, that the parol purchase set up by him was void under the statute of frauds, and that, as there was no part performance to take it out of the statute, he should convey to the complainants said tax title to said moiety, and account for rents and profits.

Florence then appealed to the general term, where the decree of the special term was reversed and the bill dismissed. The complainants then brought the case here.

Florence having died pendente lite, Morris, his executor, was substituted in his stead.

The assignment of errors and other facts in the case are set forth in the opinion of court.

Page 95 U. S. 450

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