Armstrong v. Ashley/Opinion of the Court

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Opinion of the Court

United States Supreme Court

204 U.S. 272

Armstrong  v.  Ashley

 Argued: December 7, 10, 1906. --- Decided: January 21, 1907

The foregoing facts show that Bradshaw, if he were plaintiff, would have no cause of action against the defendants, based upon any allegation that he was permitted by them to build on what he thought was his own land, while the defendants stood by and did not interfere to prevent it, although knowing that the land was not his, and claiming title themselves. At all times Bradshaw had knowledge that not only was his title denied, but that these defendants were asserting, to the best of their ability, in actions of ejectment against him, the right to the possession of, and title to, the property in question. Under such circumstances it would simply be at his own risk that he expended money on what might turn out to be other people's property, and which he knew was so claimed. His attitude in the matter would seem to have been that, if he could successfully defend the ejectment actions, he could then pay the loan he had obtained from the company; while, if he should prove unsuccessful in the defense, it would be the company's misfortune.

The company now insists that the money was obtained from it through the fraud of Bradshaw and others, as stated. But before coming to the question of what duty the defendants owed to the company, it may be well to examine for a moment the position of the company in the transaction leading up to its loan to Bradshaw. It is true, the company asserts that it has acted in good faith throughout the whole matter. Upon examining its position one fact is apparent and uncontradicted: Befroe the execution of the deed of trust, and, of course, before the advance of any of the moneys by the company to Bradshaw, the company was aware, through its general attorney in New Orleans, that a suit in equity had been commenced about March 1, 1890, by the Ashleys against Bradshaw and others, wherein they alleged their claim of ownership of the property, which included the lots in question in this case, and in which the plaintiffs sought to enjoin the defendants from setting up any title thereto. It appeared that there was a common source of title to all the lots mentioned in the bill. The bill charged fraudulent and illegal acts on the part of Bradshaw, Walter, and other confederates, in undertaking to seize possession of the lots there claimed to belong to the plaintiffs therein (the defendants in this suit), and specifically described the status of the parties then existing, and denied to Walter and Bradshaw any ownership or right to the possession of the lots. The facts regarding this equity suit were presented by the general attorney for the company, in New Orleans, to the local attorney of the company in this District, and the fact that the bill had been dismissed only for want of prosecution, and without prejudice, was specially called to the attention of the local attorney. No action seems to have been taken regarding the contents of that letter by the local attorney after its receipt other than to certify to the title, nor does the general attorney seem to have inquired further about the facts. The bill was, of course, on file in the clerk's office, and it showed the contention as to the title between these defendants and Bradshaw and his associates. With this knowledge, therefore, it is impossible to say that the company was ignorant of the fact of the existence of a question as to the title of Bradshaw to the premises on which he was seeking to obtain this loan. The dismissal of the bill without prejudice, for want of prosecution, would not be evidence that the title of Bradshaw was good or that the controversy had been settled. It certainly was a warning of the existence of a question as to the title, and it was, at any rate, notice enough to start the company upon some investigation of the facts as to the actual condition of the controversy respecting it. And at this time the ejectment actions had been brought and were pending. The declarations in those actions were then on file in the clerk's office of the supreme court of the District, and showed the actions were originally brought to recover possession of 'ink-lot' 1. It is true that while that particular lot did not include the premises upon which the buildings were subsequently erected, yet the source of title to all the lots was the same. Some months before the deed of trust was executed amendments to these declarations, which did include those lots, had been made and were on file in the clerk's office among the papers in those actions.

Actual knowledge of the fact of the existence of the ejectment actions in regard to ink-lot 1 is, however, denied by the company, and a like denial is made in regard to the amendments to the declarations. The local attorney had knowledge of them, or ought to have had. But, so long as the company had knowledge of the equity suit and the contents of the bill therein, there was enough to put the company on inquiry as to the state of the title. If, under such facts, the company loaned the money, it showed its willingness to take the risk of the validity and sufficiency of the title of Bradshaw.

The company denied knowledge of the amended declarations because of the alleged defect in the manner of keeping the books in the clerk's office, wherein the ejectment actions were entered, but no statement was made on the page of the docket devoted to those actions of the existence of amendments to the declarations. The amendments were, however, duly filed in the clerk's office, and the alleged failure of the clerk to properly index the amendments was no answer to the failure on the part of the searcher to examine the files for the purpose of seeing the papers in existence in the actions. In this matter we agree with the opinion of the court of appeals, in holding that the respondents here were in nowise responsible for the alleged failure of the clerk to make additions to the docket or index book. Nor is there any evidence that the persons acting for the company were in any way misled by such failure, to the company's detriment.

The company also insists that it ought not to be charged with any knowledge of any fact which was known only by Walter and the local attorney. The company asserts, first, that Walter and the local attorney were not its agents; and, in any event, by reason of their fraud, knowledge by the company should not be imputed to it because of the knowledge of its agents. The company asserts that Walter was simply the president of its local board, composed of the stockholders in the company residing or to be found in Washington, and that his action was not the action of an agent under such circumstances. It also asserts the same thing in regard to the local attorney, and denies liability for their acts. We think the position cannot be maintained. The president and attorney were directors of the local board and had to be directors before they could hold either office, and the local directors had to be approved by the board of the main office. It was to this local board that the application was first to be made for a loan, and it was to be approved by it and transmitted at once to the main office, signed by the president, secretary, and attorney of the local board on a form furnished by the association to applicants for a loan. Transactions of a local nature were put in charge of the local attorney, who represented the company at his locality, and loans were consummated by him and papers sent to him by the company for such action as was necessary for the completion of a loan. The knowledge of the attorney and of the president of the board in regard to a matter coming within the sphere of their duty, and acquired while acting in regard to the same, and sending to the company in New Orleans their report which it was their duty to make, must be imputed to the company. The fact that those agents committed a fraud cannot alter the legal effect of their acts or of their knowledge with respect to the company in regard to third parties who had no connection whatever with them in relation to the perpetration of the fraud, and no knowledge that any such fraud had been perpetrated. There is no pretense of any evidence that the defendants had any connection with these alleged frauds, and no pretense that they had any knowledge of their existence, if they did exist. In such case the rule imputing knowledge to the company by reason of the knowledge of its agent remains.

But, even if it be assumed that the company had no more than a knowledge of the equity suit and its dismissal without prejudice, it simply shows that the company was willing to take the risk of the title, although confessedly questionable

Upon these facts we cannot see that the defendants can be held liable to the plaintiff on account of any failure of duty on defendants' part. If the buildings were being erected by Bradshaw, there was certainly no duty on the part of defendants to notify him of their title to the property, and we cannot see that there was any such duty resting upon the defendants to endeavor to find out through what sources Bradshaw obtained the money to erect the buildings, and to inform the person who was loaning the money that the defendants claimed the property as theirs.

Assuming, even, that the company made the loan in the bona fide belief that Bradshaw had title, and that the claims of the defendants to the ownership of the lots were not well founded, and also that no knowledge of the agents of the company in Washington could properly be imputed to it, and we still have the fact that the company loaned its money with knowledge of the equity suit and of the allegations of the bill therein regarding the title of the defendants and the lack of any title in Bradshaw. Imputing no knowledge to the company other than it actually possessed, the same course should be taken with the defendants. In that case we have their sworn denial, unaffected with any proof to the contrary, that they had any actual knowledge of the existence of the deed of trust or of any connection of the company with Bradshaw, or of any advances made by it to Bradshaw, until February, 1895 (long after all the moneys had been advanced), and, even in regard to Bradshaw himself, they notified the contractor early in January, 1894, that they owned the property and they would not be responsible for any expenditures made by Bradshaw, and that if the contractor went on he would be regarded as a trespasser.

There is no finding that Bradshaw was insolvent, or that the defendants had any knowledge of it if he were insolvent, and hence there is nothing to lead to the assumption that the defendants knew the buildings could only be erected by Bradshaw with borrowed money, and nothing to show any duty on the part of defendants to take active steps and make a search to endeavor to find out who was loaning him money, and on what security. And this is the contention on the part of the complainant. We think it must be regarded as an extraordinary contention and an unreasonable application of the doctrine of constructive notice. This is the language used by the court of appeals, and it properly describes the situation. Certainly constructive notice cannot be applied to the owner of property in regard to the existence of a mortgage thereon, placed there by someone who did not own such property. The owner of real estate is under no obligation whatever to watch the records to see whether someone who does not own his property has assumed to place a mortgage upon it or convey it by deed to some third person. The defendants knew Bradshaw was in possession and they saw buildings being erected on the lots. Were they to assume that Bradshaw was borrowing the money, and that they must, therefore, go to work to find out from whom he was borrowing, and notify him of the facts? They in fact knew nothing of the deed of trust, but, by imputing knowledge, the claim is made that a duty founded upon such imputed, but not upon any actual, knowledge, rested upon defendants, for the failure to discharge which the defendants ought to be held liable.

No case has been called to our attention which in any degree resembles the claim made by the company herein. The man who actually erected the buildings knew all about the state of the title, and that it was contested by the defendants in the most earnest and emphatic manner in their actions of ejectment to recover the lots. The evidence fails to show that the company was, before the money was advanced, entirely innocent of any knowledge on its part which would lead to doubt as to the ownership of the property by Bradshaw. But, even its actual good faith, in the popular sense, cannot charge the defendants with the duty of active investigation to discover from what source Bradshaw obtained the money to build. The simple facts are that the defendants were in possession of the property when this suit was commenced, and they ask no aid from a court of equity to place them in possession. They had recovered it in their actions at law, and a court of equity will not, even in the case of a bona fide improver, grant active relief in such a case. 2 Story, Eq. Jur. 12th ed. §§ 1237, 1238; Williams v. Gibbes, 20 How. 535-538, 15 L. ed. 1013, 1014; Anderson v. Reid, 14 D. C. App. 54; Canal Bank v. Hudson, 111 U.S. 66, 79, 28 L. ed. 354, 358, 4 Sup. Ct. Rep. 303; Searl v. School Dist. No. 2, 133 U.S. 553, 561, 33 L. ed. 740, 745, 10 Sup. Ct. Rep. 374, and other cases, cited by the trial judge in his opinion, and in the opinion of the court of appeals. The case of the company is not strengthened by its knowledge that the title of Bradshaw was questionable.

Morgan v. Chicago & A. R. Co. 96 U.S. 716, 720, 24 L. ed. 743, 744, cited, among other cases, by the appellant, has no application. The facts are so wholly different in their nature as to present a case which does not touch the principle decided herein. There was conduct on the part of the appellant which was such as to amount to fraud or misrepresentation, leading appellee to believe the existence of a fact upon the existence of which appellee acted. We find no cases in opposition to the result we have arrived at.

The decree of the court below is affirmed.


This work is in the public domain in the United States because it is a work of the United States federal government (see 17 U.S.C. 105).