Chandler v. Pomeroy/Opinion of the Court

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Opinion of the Court

United States Supreme Court

143 U.S. 318

Chandler  v.  Pomeroy

This case turns solely upon the question whether the settlement or compromise of May 2, 1887, between the sister Julia, her husband, and her sister Josephine, and their brother George P. Pomeroy, was executed under such circumstances as to call upon a court of equity to enforce its specific performance. This involves the subordinate question whether the sisters were imposed upon in giving their assent to this settlement.

Some years before its execution a quarrel had arisen between Edward and his sisters, which had culminated in a suit brought by the latter, in which they had charged their brother with speculating in stocks with the funds derived from their father's estate, and with having made large profits in which they ought to share, and suffering losses with which they ought not to be charged. This suit had intensified the bitterness felt by Edward to such a degree that, in making his will, which was executed October 23, 1886, he left his entire estate, less a few legacies amounting to $6,500, to his brother, George, making him also his sole executor. This will only served to complicate matters still more, as Edward had never settled with his sisters for their share of his father's estate, and was also thought by some to have made a large fortune in speculations in which his sisters would have been entitled to share, in the absence of a will. Their brother George had received under the will of their father only the income of $30,000, with a proviso that at his death the principal should go, not to his children or heirs, but to his younger brother and his sisters,-an inheritance far less than he would have received had no will been made. Thus Edward, in bequeathing to his brother George his interest in his father's estate, gave him but little more than he would have received under the natural laws of inheritance, but in giving him his own estate, which was thought to be very large, he ignored his sisters altogether. Under this state of facts there was nothing unnatural in the suggestion that the estates of the father and Edward should be added together and divided equally among the three surviving children. If it had turned out that Edward had made a large fortune it might have been an advantage to his sisters to share in it; if not, Julia and Josephine would at least have obtained a settlement of their suit with the estate, and have admitted their brother George to his natural inheritable share of his father's estate. From a fraternal point of view it was not an unwise proceeding, although, from a pecuniary stand-point, it was, as characterized by one of the witnesses, 'a leap in the dark.'

Edward died March 6, 1887. His brother was in Europe, and his sisters in New York. The first suggestion of a settlement came immediately after Edward's death, from a Mr. Chapman, who had been a neighbor of George Pomeroy in Morristown, and acquainted with the sisters for 25 years. He went to their hotel the very day of Edward's death, and met the two ladies, Mr. Morrison, and Mr. Cowles, and made a proposition to divide the securities, making no mention in his conversation of the trust funds created by the father's will. His own statement of the proposition is as fallows: "Now,' the proposition is as follows: "Now,' says I, 'I will make a proposition: Let bygones it stands to-day. Put the securities all into a hat, and shake them up, and divide them into three parts,-George one-third, and the girls each one-third. That would settle the whole difficulty. Whatever Ed. has lost, let it come out of the girls' share, if he had lost any,-if he had lost more than he had made; but to settle it up and divide it into three parts, but to start as it stood to-day.' That was the proposition, all I had to say about it. * * * Not a word [was said in regard to trust fund or back charges.] There couldn't have been anything said about back charges, for my proposition was to take the things as they stood then. Let all that Edward lost and all that go, and just start in and take the securities and things as they stood then, and divide it, so there couldn't have been anything said in regard to any back accounts that they had, and as to the trust fund there was no question or nothing. * * * My understanding was that they [the sisters] approved of it, and so did Mr. Cowles.' In narrating a subsequent conversation with Mr. Chandler in regard to this, he testifies: 'I merely said, 'I said nothing when I made the proposition about the trust funds, from the fact that I didn't suppose the girls had any right to the trust funds." He again testifies: 'Every one agreed to it, and, as I say, I thought the girls would be the loser by a small amount, but then I looked upon it that they had better lose a few thousand apiece than to be running after lawyers any longer. They had been hampered with lawyers a good while, and worried to death, and I felt it was better for them.'

It seems that Mr. Cowles, who was the father-in-law of George P. Pomeroy, also advised an ending of the litigation, and a division of whatever was left equally among the three. Mr. Morrison, Julia's husband, testifies: "Whatever was left' we understood as what was left by the father, of the father's estate; also in the sense of what was left from the speculations that Edward had made, perhaps the wreck of the estate; whatever there was, large or small, as matters then stood. * * * Mr. Cowles said that he was going right over to Paris; to London, at least; that he would see George, and urge this upon him.' Very soon after that Mr. Cowles left for Europe. Shortly after the death of Edward, and on March 12th, Julia wrote to her brother, who was abroad, urging him to return home at once and attend to the probating of the will, and watch his own interests. Regarding the proposed settlement, she wrote as follows: 'Now, I have a proposal to make to you. Suppose we do away with all lawyers in the settlement of our affairs, for they expect $50 or $100 every time they look at you. You appoint Frank Chandler, who is unquestionably your friend. We appoint Mr. Morrison, who is undeniably a friend to both parties. Let nothing be binding. Frank and my husband are both capable and honest men. Let them look over the securities together in our presence, and try and settle between yourselves. We will avoid expense by so doing; but this we can discuss when you return. I only speak of it now, so that you can reflect upon it at your leisure. You have, of course, seen and talked with Mr. Cowles by this time, and you know you inherit all of Edward's personal and real estate, excepting a few legacies. My advice is to get your property and enjoy it while you live, and to let all wrangling cease, which diminishes the capital; puts every one in hell,' etc.

The next day Mr. and Mrs. Morrison went to Newport, leaving their sister Josephine in New York. While at Newport a correspondence was opened between Chandler and Mrs. Morrison, which is not all produced, although Mr. Chandler states the substance of his own letters to have been that the three children, Julia, Josephine, and George, were to receive, past, present, and future, exactly the same, and in the adjustment as to the time of receiving to be equalized on a 6 per cent. basis for money.

On April 6th, however, Julia writes to the plaintiff from Newport as follows: 'I am willing to agree to your plan of settlement, and promise you now to do so. But how about the trust fund? Do you mean to cancel that and George's thirty thousand trust fund too, and lump all together? This we would prefer, as our trust fund will only yield each $1,500 or $1,800 a year. George gets more on his $30,000 than we would on $50,000. I am afraid that Mr. Mills will not let us relinquish this in behalf of the estate. He wants his commission. What are we to do about this?' A few days afterwards, on April 13th, she writes him as follows: 'Josephine and I are willing to settle this matter as you propose, unless we find there is but a small estate left. In that case I think we should be allowed to keep the trust fund in excess in order to make up in a measure for Edward's speculative transactions with our money. This, I am sure, you will consider fair. If the estate is large, as it ought to be, we can lump all together and share alike.' About the same date Josephine writes a letter to her aunt, Mrs. Van Aulen, which contains the following: 'I am awfully afraid Edward was poor; but if we are willing to sign this agreement, so as to stop all litigation, we will not go back on it. Why should George wish to be richer than we, or we wish to be richer than him?' The plaintiff also had some correspondence with Josephine. Before going to New York, and in pursuance of this correspondence, Mr. Chandler had the proposed settlement drawn up in the form in which it was afterwards signed, by one Gill, a lawyer of Chicago. It was drawn up in triplicate on the 7th or 8th of April, and dated the 13th, though it was not actually signed until May 2d. Upon his arrival in New York, which was on April 11th, he called upon the sisters at a house upon Madison avenue, and testifies as follows regarding the interview: 'I requested that they should take that agreement to their counsel who was couducting the litigation against their brother Edward. They consented to do so. The next day, after our first interview, they were to go with me to see Hill, Wing & Shoudy, their attorneys in William street, and consult with them. I told them they should not under any circumstances settle the suit against Edward without consulting with their counsel in regard thereto, or to sign this agreement that I proposed.' He further swears that, the ladies being ill, he went to Mr. Shoudy's alone, and showed him the document; that he read it over, and said he would like to retain it over night, and the next day he would be able to tell Mrs. Morrison what she had better do; that Mrs. Morrison went down with him the next day, and found Mr. Shoudy in the office. Leaving Mrs. Morrison there, he went out for a short time, and soon returned, and asked what the result of the consultation was. To use his own language: 'Mrs. Morrison spoke up, and said: 'Mr. Shoudy says we are taking a great leap in the dark, but nevertheless we will settle. We will carry it out. We will make the settlement.' At that time Mrs. Morrison gave her acquiescence in my plan of settlement, and Josephine, whom we saw afterwards, approved of it also. The difficulty then was to get their brother George to give his consent. Although I had authority to act generally for him, I did not feel that I could sign such an important settlement, which involved a very large sum of money, without positive and direct instructions.' Josephine says of the interview on Madison avenue, before the visit to Shoudy's office: 'Mr. Chandler called one morning with my aunt, Mrs. Van Aulen. * * * After that Mr. Chandler took out a paper from his pocket,-I think about two sheets,-and said he wanted to read us a few lines of what he had jotted down on his way from Chicago,-his plan of settlement or proposal. I told him I was too ill to listen to him. I could scarcely sit up,-upon my head upon,-but he insisted on my staying. So we listened to him reading it through, and it was very ambiguous; and when he finished I said, 'Frank, I don't understand that.' It was very ambiguous. Then my sister said, 'Does it mean to divide up what is left?' He said, 'Yes; it means that.' That was all that was said on the subject of business at that interview.'

Chandler remained in New York for a week, seeing the sisters almost daily, and, in order to obtain the consent of George, who was then in Europe, made use of the cable, and the following telegrams passed between the parties. As these telegrams constitute an important part of the correspondence, they are reproduced in full:

'New York, April 15, 1887.

'To Chandler, sixty-three Pierre Charrou, Paris: Power received. Doubtful value. Have George sign cablegram himself, authorizing settlement equal division father's, brother's estate, including the trusts, and renouncing executorship, if necessary. Mary and I advise settlement before Edward's condition known. None seeking advantages, but peace, equality. No confidence in us; get somebody else.

[Signed] 'FRANK.'

Chandler, who produced this cablegram, explained the address as meaning his family's apartment in Paris, where Mr. Cowles and Pomeroy then were, and the contents of the telegram by saying that the settlement was based upon a principle, and not upon a result. 'I felt that if Edward's estate proved very small the sisters would not settle; if it proved very large, the brother would not settle.' It is, at least, doubtful whether the sisters ever saw the telegram. To this telegram the following answer was received:

'Paris, 4, 17, 1887.

'To Frank Chandler, St. James Hotel, New York. No litigation. Will allow sisters just rights on arrival thirtieth. Please arrange all other important business. Address American Exchange, London.


'To Pomeroy: Dispatch unsatisfactory. You don't understand situation. Return Chicago, Tuesday. Henceforth manage your own affairs.


On April 19th Pomeroy telegraphed from London to his aunt, Mrs. Van Aulen, as follows:

'London, April 19, 1887.

'To Van Aulen, 675 Fifth Avenue, New York: I accept proposition to share equally with sisters in father's and Edward's estates, including all trust funds. Legal expenses both sides, and Edward's debts to be paid out of joint estate.'

Upon the same day the three ladies cabled Mr. Cowles as follows:

'Edwin Cowles, American Exchange, London, Eng.: Proposition accepted by us, but George must come home immediately. Frank cannot act without him; losing money.


Upon the same day Mr. Cowles cabled as follows to Mrs. Van Aulen:

'George cables acceptance proposition. I have a duplicate with his signature. He will act good faith. He is ill, not fit to travel alone; cannot he wait till I sail, May 7th? wants to finish medical treatment; answer immediately American Exchange, as he leaves morning Germanic.

[Signed] 'COWLES.'

Upon the same day Julia also telegraphed to Mr. Chandler, who had returned to Chicago, as follows: Street, Chicago, Ill., George accepted

'To Frank B. Chandler, 110 Dearborn Street, Chicago, Ill.. George accepted terms; he arrives next week; will write you in full.'

She also wrote him a letter of same date, inclosing copies of the telegrams from Cowles and George P. Pomeroy and the replies to them. About the 30th of April, Mr. Chandler returned from Chicago to New York, and went a day or two afterwards to Morristown, where he met George P. Pomeroy, who in the mean time had returned from Europe, and the sisters. They went directly to the office of Mr. Halsey, an attorney at that place, where the agreement was signed. At the same time the will of Edward Pomeroy was admitted and proved. George P. Pomeroy renounced the executorship, and Mr. Chandler qualified as administrator with the will annexed. In the interview at Mr. Halsey's office something seems to have been said to the effect that the trust funds could not be touched. But it seems to have been only an incidental remark, not assented to by Mr. Chandler, probably not heard by him, as he was deaf, and not made the subject of discussion. That evening there was a meeting of the parties at their house in Morristown, when the agreement was read, its contents explained by Mr. Chandler, and, as the sisters now claim, the agreement with regard to the back charges and trust fund was first called to their attention. The interview was evidently a stormy one, the sisters threatening to repudiate the agreement, and insisting that they were dividing up what was left; that if he ever attempted to force this he could only do it by law through the courts; and that they did not know it was in the agreement, or anything about it. Mr. Chandler insisted that, as they had signed it, they were bound by it. He claims, however, that the only dispute was with regard to the interest and the method of making an accounting, and it is proven that the following memorandum was made and handed to him that evening or soon after:

'To F. B. Chandler-Sir: In figuring interest on the accounts in accordance with the agreement of April 13th, 1887, it is understood that interest shall be figured to May 1, 1887, and all sums that come between the 1st and 15th of any month shall be called to the first of that month, and between the 15th and 30th of any month, then to the 1st of the following month.'

This was signed by George P. Pomeroy and the sisters.

Conceding that the sisters had not read the agreement or demanded that it be read to them before they signed it, as they were bound to do, and that their counsel, Mr. Shoudy, had not informed them of its terms as fully as he might have done, it is difficult to see how, in view of the telegrams between the parties in New York and those in Europe, and their own letters, they could have understood that the trust funds were not included, if they understood the force of language. Not only did George's telegram, a copy of which Julia inclosed in her letter of April 19th to Mr. Chandler, expressly mention 'all trust funds,' but it was also mentioned in the original telegram from Chandler to Mr. Cowles of April 13th, of which she probably knew the contents, and her reference to it in her two letters from Newport of April 6th and April 13th puts it beyond controversy that the propriety of including the trust funds was made a matter of discussion. Their conduct subsequent to the agreement tends strongly to show their acquiescence in it. On the 9th of May they executed a power of attorney to Chandler to settle and dismiss their suits in Missouri, and to take charge of their property there. Upon the same day they executed a bond reciting their authorization to him to make a distribution of the estate of Edward Pomeroy, and to pay it to the legatees and devisees named in his will, and agreed to indemnify him against any debts which should be recovered against the estate. On the following day Mrs. Morrison writes to her aunt, Mrs. Buckingham, expressing her pleasure at the settlement of their troubles, 'since we have signed an agreement to wipe out all wills, and divide what is left, share and share alike. Frank will charge us with all our personal expenses since father's death, which is perfectly proper, but he only proposes to charge George with what he received from the trust fund left him by father, and not one cent of all the surplus he got out of mother and of you for mother's effects.'

During the summer an active correspondence was carried on between Mr. Chandler and the two sisters with relation to the settlement of the estates upon the basis of their agreement, in which repeated allusion was made to the trust fund and to an equal division of the income of the same, and no suggestion on the part of either party that they were not understood to be included. Julia repeatedly expressed her pleasure that the settlement had been effected, and at the manner in which Mr. Chandler was proceeding to wind up the estates. Not only this, but the parties proceeded so far in the execution of the settlement that the two ladies turned over to the plaintiff securities to the amount of $109,153.33, to which were added the estate of Edward Pomeroy, ($190,000,) that of George Pomeroy, ($119,000,) and the insurance upon the life of Edward in the amount of $8,000, and a dividend declared in securities of $73,896.67 to each of the defendants, in addition to a cash dividend of $54,000 to each. The defendants also received from Mr. Chandler two-thirds of the income collected July 1, 1887, from the life insurance and trust company on the $30,000 trust fund of George P. Pomeroy, i.e., that proportion dating from May 1st, according to the agreement of settlement. They also paid over to him one-third of the income for the same period of their own trust fund of $100,000. Indeed, their relations seem to have been of the most friendly description until the death of George, in November. When the contents of his will were made known this controversy arose.

We have searched the record in this case in vain for evidence that the plaintiff brought about this settlement by any fraud, misrepresentation, or undue influence. Undoubtedly the defendants had confidence in Mr. Chandler's integrity, his knowledge of business, and his acquaintance with these estates. It is possible that he was better informed of the amount of Edward's estate than they, but there is nothing to indicate that he made use of this information to deceive them as to its value. Their motive in entering into this agreement was doubtless an honorable one. They had been engaged in a long and apparently bitter quarrel with their brother Edward over the supposed misappropriation of their father's estate. George had been, to use Mr. Morrison's own language, 'practically disinherited by the father. His sisters had not broken the father's will, and reinstated him. This had made George very sore. The aunt and uncle suggested and pressed upon the ladies the fact that they then had the opportunity to bring about a perfect reconciliation and peace with their brother; that if litigation was stopped, and all that there was divided up equally among the three,-what was left,-that this desirable result would probably be accomplished.' The sisters had themselves been excluded from Edward's will, and there was at least a possibility that his estate would be large enough to make an equal division of both estates advantageous to them. Under these circumstances, and for the sake of peace, they agreed to the settlement. If equality be equity, we see no reason why it should be disturbed. From a financial point of view, the agreement may have been a mistake. They acted, however, not without deliberation, and with at least an opportunity of consulting with counsel and with Mr. Morrison, in whom they seem to have perfect confidence. But if the venture turned out unfortunately for them, it is difficult to see in what particular plaintiff was to blame.

Much stress was laid by the court below upon the fact that Mr. Chandler advised the sisters not to consult with a lawyer with regard to the proposed settlement. This was strenuously denied by Chandler; but, whether this be so or not, it is evident that the first proposal not to consult with a lawyer came from Julia herself in her letter of March 12th to her brother George, in which she makes the distinct proposal to 'do away with all lawyers.' But, at any rate, the fact is indisputable that they did consult their counsel, Mr. Shoudy; and that the plaintiff accompanied them to his office, and handed him a copy of the agreement, which he retained over night, although Mr. Shoudy testifies that his advice was not sought as to the propriety or advisability of the agreement. He seems, however, to have made no objection beyond the suggestion 'that it was a leap in the dark,' and if the defendants had any doubts themselves about its propriety, they should have consulted him upon the subject.

Reliance is also placed upon the frequent use, both in the correspondence and in the oral testimony, of the words 'dividing up what was left.' These words are, however, susceptible of two constructions. They may refer, as contended by the defendants, to the residue of the estates after laying aside the trust funds; or they may refer to what was left over and above what the children had spent of Edward had lost, if any, in speculation. Indeed, these words are so ambiguous as to be an unsafe guide in ascertaining the actual intent of the parties.

In order to justify the court in refusing to enforce a family settlement of this kind upon the ground that it was obtained by an active or covert misrepresentation, or that if failed to express the real intent of the parties, the testimony should establish the fact clearly and satisfactorily. In this case, however, all or nearly all the written testimony tends to corroborate rather than to impeach the agreement, and it is only by resort to oral evidence of facts asserted by one party, and denied by the other, than any doubt whatever is thrown upon the intent of the parties. That Mr. Cowles, who was one of the first to talk with the sisters regarding the settlement, did not suppose the trust funds were to be excluded, is manifest from a letter written by him to George P. Pomeroy, March 18th, before he left for Europe, in which he says: 'The girls have made this proposition in order to settle the litigation: That you give up your claim to the annuity you have, they give up their claim to the special legacy of $100,000 left them in your father's will, and that all property, landed and personal, be divided equally among all three of you.' It was apparently upon the basis of this letter, and his subsequent conversations with Mr. Cowles, that Pomeroy cabled his acceptance of the proposition. The letter was written after his interview with the sisters, and in all probability he stated the agreement as he understood it from them. He would scarcely have ventured to impose upon George by manufacturing a different story. Under the circumstances, it seems to us very improbable that the parties could have contemplated that securities to the amount of $130,000, worth $142,000, should be withdrawn, and not taken into account in the division, or that George would ever have consented to the agreement with that reservation.

We do not find it necessary upon this appeal to put a construction upon this agreement, to determine whether it applies to the principal as well as the income of the trust funds, or whether in this suit the court may proceed to a partition of the real estate. These questions will arise more properly upon the settlement and enforcement of the decree. It is sufficient for the purposes of this case to hold, as we do, that the settlement was a valid one, and that the defendants should be required to account under the written agreement so to be construed.

The decree of the court below will be reversed, and the case remanded, with instructions to enter a decree for the plaintiff, and for further proceedings in conformity with this opinion.


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).