Neale v. Neales/Opinion of the Court

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Opinion of the Court

United States Supreme Court

76 U.S. 1

Neale  v.  Neales


It would seem clear, from the manner in which the court below, of its own motion, and without assigning any reasons for this action, gave the complainants leave to amend their bill, that on the original hearing it was satisfied that the evidence made out a case for relief, but a case different from the one stated in the bill; and, that as the pleadings must correspond with the evidence, it was necessary either to dismiss the bill without prejudice, or to give the leave to amend. The court adopted the latter alternative, doubtless, with a view to save expense to the parties, and because such a course could not, by any possibility, work any harm to the defendant.

It is insisted that this proceeding was erroneous; that after a cause has been heard, the power of allowing amendments ceases, or if it exists at all, it cannot go so far as to authorize a plaintiff to change the framework of his bill, and make an entirely new case, although on the same subject-matter, as, it is contended, was done in this instance under the leave to amend.

This doctrine would deny to a court of equity the power to grant amendments after the cause was heard and before decree was passed, no matter how manifest it was that the purposes of substantial justice required it, and would, if sanctioned, frequently embarrass the court in its efforts to adjust the proper mode and measure of relief. To accomplish the object for which a court of equity was created, it has the power to adapt its proceedings to the exigency of each particular case, but this power would very often be ineffectual for the purpose, unless it also possessed the additional power, after a cause was heard and a case for relief made out, but not the case disclosed by the bill, to allow an alteration of the pleadings on terms, that the party not in fault would have no reasonable ground to object to. That the court has this power and can, upon hearing the cause, if unable to do complete justice by reason of defective pleadings, permit amendments, both of bills and answers, is sustained by the authorities. [2]

Necessarily, in a Federal tribunal the matter of amendment at this stage of the progress of a cause rests in the sound discretion of the court. At an earlier stage, this discretion is controlled by the rules of equity practice adopted by this court, but not so upon the hearing, for there is no rule on the subject of amendments applicable to a cause which has advanced to this point. As, therefore, the leave to amend in this instance was within the discretion of the court, we will proceed to dispose of the case on its merits.

It is unnecessary, in the view we have taken of the power of the court over amendments at the hearing, to discuss the question, whether the amended bill is materially different from the original bill. It is enough to know, if different, that the subject-matter of both bills is the same, and that the contract, consideration, promise, and acts of part performance, stated in the amended bill, are stated with sufficient precision, and, if supported by proof, entitle the complainants to the relief which they seek at the hands of a court of equity. The statute of frauds requires a contract concerning real estate to be in writing, but courts of equity, whether wisely or not it is too late now to inquire, have stepped in and relaxed the rigidity of this rule, and hold that a part performance removes the bar of the statute, on the ground that it is a fraud for the vendor to insist on the absence of a written instrument, when he had permitted the contract to be partly executed. And equity protects a parol gift of land, equally with a parol agreement to sell it, if accompanied by possession, and the donee, induced by the promise to give it, has made valuable improvements on the property. And this is particularly true, where the donor stipulates that the expenditure shall be made, and by doing this makes it the consideration or condition of the gift. [3]

Was this gift in question made to Mary H. Neale and her children, and has the condition on which it was given been performed so as to make it inequitable for the donor to escape from his engagement? We do not propose to discuss the evidence at length, in order to vindicate the conclusion we have reached in regard to it. It is in many respects conflicting and contradictory, and it is to be regretted that the contest over this property, like all contests between near relations, has elements of bitterness in it. It is enough to say, for the purposes of this suit, that on the whole evidence it is reasonably certain that John E. Neale agreed to give to Mary Hamilton, who was about to marry his son, in furtherance of the marriage, the lot in controversy, for the benefit of herself and children, and for a home for the family, if, with her means, a suitable dwelling-house was erected on it, and that this has been done. On no other theory of this case are the undisputed facts reconcilable with the conduct of the parties. There is no dispute that the husband, before and after marriage, was of dissipated habits; that the father knew it, and had but little confidence in his ability to manage money with judgment, and was desirous that the property of the wife should not be embarked in the husband's business. What so natural as that a father, having a son of this character about to marry a lady of property, should wish to have her property secured against the consequences of her husband's improvidence and dissipation. This could not be done, as he had a lot to give on the occurrence of the marriage, by agreeing to give it to the son if he improved it with his wife's means, because he might sell it and waste the money, or become involved in debt and lose it in that way. Indeed, we are assured from the father's own estimate of his son's character, he feared the happening of one or the other of these events in case he donated the lot to the son, and, to avoid placing his own gift and the wife's inheritance in equal peril, he did what any other parent under like circumstances would have done, gave the lot to the wife, so that, if improved by her, it would be safe at all times from the effects of the husband's folly, and be a secure home for the family. It is true, the declarations of the father on the subject, are, literally taken, contradictory, but we place but little reliance as evidence on his statements made to some witnesses, that the gift was to the son, because they are in conflict with statements frequently made at different times to other persons, that the gift was to the wife, and are inconsistent with his conduct and motives fairly deducible from the other evidence in the case. Besides, in one sense, it is true the gift was to the son, as it was for his benefit, and would not have been made if he had remained single, and in this sense the father doubtless meant his declarations on the subject to be received.

As, therefore, the gift was to the wife, and in fee simple, for a less estate would not secure the object the father had in view, it remains to be seen what was done with the property after the intermarriage of the parties. And here the character of the evidence, and its effect on the issue we are considering, cannot be misapprehended. It appears that shortly after the marriage the house was built with money belonging to the wife, and with the knowledge of the appellant, who lived on an adjoining lot and acted, according to one witness, as general supervisor in the matter. It further appears that on the completion of the house the newly married couple lived in it, for a season, and afterwards rented it, and that during their absence on a casual visit to Maryland in 1861, it having become temporarily vacant by the withdrawal of the tenant, the appellant, without their knowledge and consent, moved into it and still retains posession of it. It is impossible, in view of these facts, which prove that the condition of the gift had been performed, to escape the conclusion that the father at the outset was satisfied with the arrangement, and that his subsequent conduct, tending to show that he had disavowed it, was an afterthought.

It is insisted that a part of the money used in building the house was advanced by the father, who, in conjunction with the son, borrowed it from Mrs. Sears, and that, therefore, the consideration, pro tanto, for the gift has failed. It is clear that the husband received from the wife's guardian more money than was required to build the house, and had agreed with her to devote enough of it to this purpose, but, instead of doing this, unfortunately, he employed a portion of it in his store, which rendered necessary the Sears loan. This loan, secured by the father on the property in controversy, stood on the books of the son as a confidential debt due his wife, and when he failed and assigned his property, he recognized it as such and preferred it over all other debts. There was certainly nothing wrong in this provision, which relieved the property of the wife of an incumbrance created because the husband had misappropriated her money, and, as the father accepted the trust under the assignment, with this debt thus preferred, and at the same time received sufficient property to pay it, it is hard to see wherein he has cause of complaint in this matter, or how he can truthfully say he paid any part of the money that went into the house. In any proper sense the house was built with the wife's money, and equity will give her the benefit of it in this controversy with the father.

As before remarked, the case as stated is made out with reasonable certainty, which is all that is required. [4] Any other degree of certainty in a case of this character is unattainable.

Damages will not compensate for the breach of this contract, nor answer the intention of the parties to it, and a specific performance is therefore essential to the complete ends of justice.

DECREE AFFIRMED.

Notes[edit]

^2  Mitford's Chancery Pleading, 326, 331; Story's Equity Pleading, §§ 904 and 905; Daniel's Chancery Practice and Pleading, 463, 466; Smith v. Babcock, 3 Sumner, 583; McArtee v. Engart, 13 Illinois, 242.

^3  1 Leading Cases in Equity, American note to Lester v. Foxcroft, 625.

^4  1 Leading Cases in Equity, American note to Lester v. Foxcroft, supra; Mundy v. Jolliffe, 5 Mylne & Craig, p. 177.

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).