Shevlin-Carpenter Co. v. State of Minn. (1910)

US Criminal Law

Shevlin
‘Fallen Timber’ by Jospeh Laverti

The constitutionality of statute drafted and designed to preserve the interests of a State, coupled with the presumption that such laws are irrelevant to the needs of commerce, provide the basis of a case where those later prosecuted are left arguing that word of mouth is sufficient grounds upon which to acquire property.

Having operated as a timber merchant under State licence, the plaintiff in error corporation found themselves in need of a second licence extension following the recent expiration of their previous reissue, and so instead of applying through the proper channels, chose to rely upon verbal declarations of State officials as to their ability to continue removing trees from government land.

For clarity at the time of the offence, § 7 of the Laws of Minnesota 1895 stated that:

“If any person, firm or corporation, without a valid and existing permit therefor, cuts or employs, or induces any other person, firm or corporation to cut, or assist in cutting any timber of whatsoever description, on state lands, or removes or carries away or employs, or induces or assists any other person, firm or corporation to remove or carry away any such timber, or other property, he shall be liable to the state in treble damages, if such trespass is adjudged to have been willful; but double damages only in case the trespass is adjudged to have been casual and involuntary….”

And so when the plaintiff in error’s activities were discovered, the defendant in error brought charges in the District Court of St. Louis County on grounds of wilful trespass, thus claiming treble damages as prescribed.

Here the court found for the defendant in error and awarded damages of around $44,000, whereupon the plaintiff in error challenged the judgment in the Minnesota Supreme Court, who upheld the judgment, while holding that:

“The Legislature may declare that a willful trespass upon the lands of another shall constitute a criminal offense and fix the limits of punishment therefor, either by fine or imprisonment, or by compensating the injured party in damages to be recovered in a civil action, or by both, as its judgment may dictate.”

After which the plaintiff in error appealed on grounds that it had acted in good faith and reliance upon the statements made by those with apparent authority, while in response the court referred to State v. Shevlin-Carpenter Co., in which it had earlier held that:

“Where the defendant is a willful trespasser, the measure of damages is the full value of the property at the time and place of demand; but, if he is only an unintentional or mistaken trespasser,-that is, where he honestly and reasonably believed that he had a legal right to take the property,-then the measure of damages is the value of the property at the time and place and in the condition it was taken.”

Before partially reversing their previous judgment and remanding the matter back in keeping with a significant reduction in damages, thus the plaintiff in error challenged the decision under writ of error in the U.S. Supreme Court on grounds that the statue was violative of the Fourteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution when denying due process, and that as such, no damages were due.

Having reexamined the facts and constitutional argument, along with the right to protect State property through appropriate statute, the Court reasoned that at no point was the questioned legislation hidden from view, nor remotely difficult to understand, while also noting that contrastingly, at no point in history had trespass ever been considered a harmless act.

In closing the Court also noted that despite the harshness of its construction, the State had proscribed the offence within constitutional bounds, and were therefore sound in their enforcement, after which it upheld the previous judgment in full, while holding that:

“[I]nnocence cannot be asserted of an action which violates existing law, and ignorance of the law will not excuse.”

Greiner v. Greiner (1930)

US Contract Law

Greiner v Greiner
Image: ‘Plaza Lights, Kansas City’ by Thomas Kinkade

Inducement of consideration on the part of a promisee to a contract, whether written or oral, is an action that while not seemingly of benefit to the promisor, requires completion of the gesture by lawful means should natural justice be seen to be done.

In 1926, the appellant inherited a substantial amount of land from one of her sons, after which she aimed to use it to make amends for her late husband’s death, whose own will had disinherited four of his children, while the remaining four became beneficiaries to portions of his estate.

By way of reparation, the appellant sought the counsel of a number of those children, while on a number of occasions, explaining that she intended for the respondent to relocate from his home in Logan County, to a plot estimated at around 80-97 acres in size. This became problematic for the respondent as he was indebted by way of mortgage and could not just ‘up sticks’ and move, at which point the appellant took steps to reassign the mortgage to herself, so as to allow the respondent to take up residence on the land set aside for him.

This was duly executed until around a year later, when the respondent was served with a notice to quit by one of his brothers, whereupon he sought remedy by way of a conveyance from the appellant to support his right to title. Given that the appellant was illiterate, it became apparent that she had not taken the steps needed to complete such a disposition, but had instead relied upon her own insistence that she would bequeath him the land by way of a will, which was yet to be drafted.

When heard at the district court, the judge ruled in favour of the respondent, whereupon the appellant contested it within the Supreme Court of Kansas. Here, reference was made to s.32 of the Restatement Law of Contracts which reads:

“In case of doubt an offer is interpreted as inviting the offeree to accept either by promising to perform what the offer requests or by rendering the performance, as the offeree chooses.”

While s.90 of the same document reads:

“A promise which the promisor should reasonably expect to induce action or forbearance of a definite and substantial character on the part of the promisee and which does induce such action or forbearance, is binding if injustice can be avoided only by enforcement of the promise.”

Which translated that despite a failure to endorse her intentions through written expression, the appellant had by virtue of her repeated declarations, created an enforceable contract of disposition that by extension had led to the relocation of the respondent on the pretence that title was both implied and ultimately due through either deed or testamentary powers. It was this irreversible fact that led the Court to uphold the previous decision and dismiss the appeal outright on grounds that financial remedy would not be sufficient to the cause in hand.

Brokaw v. Fairchild (1929)

US Property Law

Brokaw v Fairchild
Image: ‘Lower Fifth Avenue’ by Frederick Childe Hassam

Life tenancy and title to a freehold estate are two distinct modes of occupation, however the latter is absolute in its effects, while the former includes limitations and covenants where directed by the transferor. On this occasion, a sizeable dwelling in an enviable part of New York was subject to possible demolition plans when the relatives of the new owner challenged it within the courts.

In 1886, the deceased had purchased land in Manhattan for the purposes of building his own private residence. Having designed the home to his own specifications, the property was bequeathed to one of his sons in a will drafted in 1907, which read:

“By the Fourth clause of my Last Will and Testament, dated and executed on the 20th day of April, 1907, upon the death or remarriage of my wife I gave and devised my residence, situated at the northeasterly corner of 79th Street and Fifth Avenue, in the City of New York, to my son, George Tuttle Brokaw…”

However the deceased then further explained that:

“I now hereby modify that provision of my Will and after the death or remarriage of my wife I give and devise my said residence to my son George Tuttle Brokaw for and during the term of his natural life…”

Which in effect reduced the powers granted to the now claimant, to those answerable to the principles of life tenancy as prescribed by state law. Here, it was held that any alteration of a property resided in under inheritance as a life tenant, must be proven as non-injurious to the value and aesthetic appearance of the property when passed to those due under the terms of the original testator.

The issue in hand was one where the claimant had proposed the demolition and rebuilding of the home so as to enjoy increased revenue from the leasing of multiple apartments over that of a single, albeit ornately furnished home. In fierce objection, a number of siblings sought reference to the terms contained within their own terms of inheritance, which while providing clear stipulations as to individual use, were not applicable to the terms in which the claimant had acquired use of this particular home.

Therefore by use of existing precedent, the New York Supreme Court drew attention to Winship v. Pitts, in which Chancellor Walworth remarked:

“I have no hesitation in saying, that by the law of this state, as now understood, it is not waste for the tenant to erect a new edifice upon the demised premises; provided it can be done without destroying or materially injuring the buildings or other improvements already existing thereon. I admit he has no right to pull down valuable buildings, or to make improvements or alterations which will materially and permanently change the nature of the property, so as to render it impossible for him to restore the same premises, substantially, at the expiration of the term.”

And Kidd v. Dennison, in which the court held that:

“[I]f the tenant materially changes the nature and character of the buildings, it is waste, although the value of the property should be enhanced by the alteration. The tenant has no authority to assume the right of judging what may be an improvement to the inheritance. He must confine himself to the conditions of his lease.”

So with an appreciation of not only the financial opportunities but the limitations of the tenancy and wishes of the testator, the Court held that under no circumstances did the claimant have any express rights to enjoy the benefits of his inheritance beyond those powers conferred, and that to do otherwise was abjectly unlawful and subject to obvious penalty.

Krell v Henry (1903)

English Contract Law

Krell v Henry
‘Summer Morning, Pall Mall’ by Bruce Yardley

Performance of a contract since frustrated through unexpected events, lies at the heart of a matter between a landlord and potential tenant, who having secured a room for the purposes of viewing a landmark event, was left unable to realise it when those plans were thwarted through a sudden cancellation.

In 1902, the appellant had negotiated the private use of a room within a property owned by the respondent, who for reasons of convenience, had recently offered the whole property for rent for a six-month period. Having been aware that the King’s Coronation procession was expected to pass along the Pall Mall, the appellant read that the respondent was offering a single room for a fixed time and sum to those wishing to take advantage of the view afforded. By means of letter, the two parties agreed upon the arrangement, after which the appellant paid by cheque, a sum of 25l with a further 50l outstanding.

Unfortunately, the date of the procession was put back, at which point the appellant refused to pay the outstanding 50l, thereby prompting the respondent to seek recovery of the balance owed, while the appellant counter-claimed for the 25l on grounds that the contract was unenforceable and the deposit due for return.

In the fist hearing, the court awarded in favour of the respondent on both counts, relying upon the principle that the contact rested upon the presence of the Coronation procession, which for the reasons stated had not occurred, and so therefore the contract was unable to be completed to the satisfaction of both parties.

Taken to the Court of Appeal, the facts were revisited, along with the earlier facts of Taylor v Caldwell, in which it was remarked:

“[W]here, from the nature of the contract, it appears that the parties must from the beginning have known that it could not be fulfilled unless, when the time for the fulfilment of the contract arrived, some particular specified thing continued to exist, so that when entering into the contract they must have contemplated such continued existence as the foundation of what was to be done; there, in the absence of any express or implied warranty that the thing shall exist, the contract is not to be considered a positive contract, but as subject to an implied condition that the parties shall be excused in case, before breach, performance becomes impossible from the perishing of the thing without default of the contractor.”

It was this approach that gave effect to the cancellation of the Coronation procession as being an event that was, as stated in Baily v De Crespigny:

“[O]f such a character that it cannot reasonably be supposed to have been in the contemplation of the contracting parties when the contract was made, and that they are not to be held bound by general words which, though large enough to include, were not used with reference to the possibility of the particular contingency which afterwards happened.”

While in ‘Taylor on Evidence’ (vol II) it was also stressed that:

“It may be laid down as a broad and distinct rule of law that extrinsic evidence of every material fact which will enable the Court to ascertain the nature and qualities of the subject-matter of the instrument, or, in other words, to identify the persons and things to which the instrument refers, must of necessity be received.”

So it was for these fundamental reasons that the Court agreed with the previous decision, and ruled again in favour of the respondent, while reminding the court that:

“[W]hatever is the suggested implication – be it condition, as in this case, or warranty or representation – one must, in judging whether the implication ought to be made, look not only at the words of the contract, but also at the surrounding facts and the knowledge of the parties of those facts.”

Hasham v Zenab (1960)

English Equity & Trusts

Hasham v Zenab
‘Palace Gate, Udaiper’ by Colin Campbell Cooper

Specific performance and cessation of contract on grounds of mistake, are both viable arguments for either continuation of contractual obligations, or the cessation of a transaction for reasons non-detrimental to both contractees. However, both approaches rely upon the honesty and accountability of at least one party should the courts take a view to upholding either of them.

In this instance, a Gujarati widower entered into an agreement to convey a determinate plot of land for an agreed sum, yet immediately after signing the disposition, she tore up the document and refused to continue with the transaction on grounds that she had been misled as to (i) the size of the plot, and (ii) the identity of the individual to whom the purchaser was planning to sell it to.

During initial litigation in the Supreme Court of Kenya, her argument for the fraudulent misrepresentation was based upon her limited grasp of the English language, and so she had elected a representative to be present with her at the time of signing. However, it was also argued that no mention had been given of the size of the plot, which in the first instance was alleged to be half an acre, and not the two acres contained within the conveyance, a fact discovered only after the signing.

When cross-examined, the respondent was proven to have falsified the statement, and thus her witness was accused of perjury, whereas contrastingly, the appellant contested that during preliminary talks, the proposed plot was described as two acres, and not the half-acre suggested.

The contract itself was signed in the presence of a third party, however the respondent also relied upon the contention that at no point during an earlier meeting did anybody translate the contents of the contract, despite the appellant claiming that not only did he explain it, but that the respondent’s cousin had also clarified its contents to her.

It was likewise argued by the appellant that the respondent tore up the contract, not because of the plot variation, but upon the knowledge that the land was to be resold to an individual she disliked, however this was also proven to be untrue after lengthy cross-examination and questioning of oral evidence.

Upon summation, the trial judge awarded in favour of the appellant, despite reservations around the integrity of both parties, and so when presented to the Court of Appeal of East Africa, the Court took issue with the reliability of the appellant’s statements and proceeded to reexamine the facts, before reaching the same conclusion as the lower court.

Take finally to the House of Lords, it was noted that vol. 2 of ‘Williams on Vendor and Purchaser’ clearly illustrated that:

“[A]s a rule, either party to a contract to sell land is entitled to sue in equity for specific performance of the agreement. This right is, in general, founded on a breach of the contract, but not in the same manner as the right to sue at law. The court has no jurisdiction to award damages at law except in case of a breach of the contract; while the equitable jurisdiction to order an agreement to be specifically performed is not limited to the cases in which at law damages could be recoverable.”

Which translated that when contracting parties hold a good account of themselves throughout their dealings, equity would provide sufficient weight as to instigate specific performance; yet on this occasion, neither party had been anywhere near as truthful as a court would rightfully expect, and so on this principle it was impossible to uphold the appeal, nor enforce the equitable rights of the appellant, or those forwarded by the respondent, thus the appeal was dismissed while the House held that:

“In equity all that is required is to show circumstances which will justify the intervention by a court of equity.”

Healey v Brown (2002)

Succession Law

Healey v Brown
‘The Pact’ by François Bard

As can often result from mutual wills, the overlapping fields of contract law and equity become central to the resolution of this property dispute, after a claimant intervenes in the immoral acquisition of sole title to the matrimonial home of a son’s parents.

The drafting of mutual individual wills reflected that upon death, the surviving spouse became under law, the sole beneficiary of that person’s equitable and legal interest in the property occupied at the time of death. Where neither party were survivable, the individual wills stated that the wife’s niece was to become the beneficiary of the equally held share of the leasehold, and that the father’s son would inherit the remainder of the estate.

Following the death of the wife, the husband took the liberty of transferring his now sole title to that of a shared (or joint) title to the property with his son; an act that in and of itself, contravened the earlier agreement within their final (and irrevocable by declaration) wills. This transgression had remained unaddressed until the death of the father, preceding a naturally vehement claim by the niece that the transfer of title constituted fraud, and that under those circumstances, the son now held both parents’ share of the property upon trust for her, and that despite any contractual arrangements made between the father and son, the binding nature of the mutual wills superseded any administrative effects constructed under the laws of property.

Despite drawing argument against mutual testation under the property doctrine of survivorship, it remained evident that the father was acting within a fiduciary capacity when surviving his wife’s death, and so by avoiding the duties prescribed him, he breached that obligation in favour of his son’s expectation to benefit.

Again, as with the rules of equity and proscription of contract law, there appeared to be a lack of clarity surrounding the written intentions of the testator and testatrix, while the basis for this opposition relied upon s.2 of the Law Reform (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act 1989, where the disposition of land requires a single co-signed document containing the terms of the arrangement (or at the very least an exchange of those documents) as proof of intention; yet as the mutual wills were never signed by their respective partners, any desire to enforce their bequests became invalid under the Act itself. This essentially meant that:

“No disposition of land can be challenged unless done so with a written and signed document contrary to the one drafted by the person charged.”

Sadly, the nature of the wills were such that neither party co-signed the others wills prior to their deaths, which thereby prevented a contract of sorts to exist, so on this occasion the judges decided that instead of the property now becoming the sole title to the claimant, as was the design of the mutually drafted wills, the home was now held in equal shares for both parties to enjoy, albeit through the framework of a constructive trust.

Specific Performance

Insight | May 2017

Specific Performance
Image: ‘The Contract’ by Fritz Wagner

Under the law of contract there are times when two parties can no longer honour their agreement and at which point one of them is left wanting. In some instances the award of monetary damages is enough to provide remedy, however there are also those where the loss is irreplaceable. On those occasions the court can legally impose a duty on those no longer willing (or seemingly able) to perform the task they originally contracted to undertake. While in certain cases the source of non-performance can also stem from frustration the criteria here is one of general breakdown of communication or even unresolvable conflict that while perhaps entirely warranted on the part of the negator, leaves the claimant with no other option than to sue.

Once agreed upon, an order for specific performance will comprise two elements (i) declaration of the order and (ii) provision of consequential detections to that effect. It is also important to note that where a contractual breach is only anticipated the court can still require specific performance or provide injunctive measures, as was outlined by Lord Tucker in Hasham v Zenab:

“In equity all that is required is to show circumstances which will justify the intervention by a court of equity. The purchaser has an equitable interest in the land and could get an injunction to prevent the vendor disposing of the property.”

On this occasion the potential vendor immediately tore up a signed contract for sale of land after learning that the acreage was greater in the conveyance than as she had orally agreed. The language barrier between the two parties thus prevented clear understanding of what was at stake; and so left with a collapsed purchase the buyer sought specific performance prior to the completion date, upon which the court pondered its feasibility before dismissing the claim upon grounds of falsified evidence on both sides.

A positive example of specific performance can however be found in Rosesilver v Paton where a purchaser entered into a contract to acquire residential property, after which the vendor argued that the terms of the agreement relied on reimbursement of the part-purchase payments upon winning their two pending litigation cases, therefore the intention to sell was implied at the outset. Having examined the inconsistency of the vendor’s argument the judge dismissed additional claims of fiduciary breach and undue influence on a lack of cohesive evidence before ruling that the sale must now be completed. When reaching summary judgement Mann J concluded:

“I do not consider that Mr Paton has advanced a sufficiently clear and plausible case for saying that there was any form of binding (in any sense) arrangement, contemporaneously with the contract and its variation, which would restrict or restrain the enforcement of the contract.”

There are of course a number of factors that can hinder the ability to undertake a contract of engagement and these can range from disability and illness, personal conflict, mistrust based upon recent behaviour and costly supervision to enforce the performance. Likewise a failure to seek remedy for a protracted period can also work against a claimant as the negator could claim estoppel under the doctrine of laches. Ultimately though the choice to pursue specific performance will always run with an attached risk of further complications, as the inherent trust between contracting parties will have been irreversibly eroded once litigation commences; therefore financial damages should never be ruled out unless all other options have been exhausted.