Jeannie Wilson v. Adam Iseminger

Decision Date07 April 1902
Docket NumberNo. 193,193
Citation185 U.S. 55,46 L.Ed. 804,22 S.Ct. 573
PartiesJEANNIE M. WILSON, Administratrix of the Estate of Alexander Osbourne, Deceased, Plff. in Err. , v. ADAM ISEMINGER and Elmer H. Rogers
CourtU.S. Supreme Court

This was an action of assumpsit brought December, 1896, in the court of common pleas, No. 1, of Philadelphia county, by Harvey G. Clay, administrator of the estate of Alexander Osbourne, deceased, against Adam Iseminger, for recovery of arrears of ground rent due on a ground-rent deed between Alexander Osbourne and Jennie M., his wife, and the said Adam Iseminger, dated January 4, 1854. The statement of particulars claimed arrears of ground rent due, under the stipulations of said deed, for the years 1887 to 1896, both inclusive, with interest on each arrear.

On January 27, 1897, one Elmer H. Rogers, having been permitted, as terre-tenant and owner in fee of the lot of ground deseribed in the ground-rent deed, to intervene and defend pro interesse suo, filed, under the rules of the court, an affidavit of defense to the whole of the plaintiff's claim, averring that no payment, claim, or demand had been made by anyone on account of or for any ground rent on the premises described in the said deed, or from any owner of said premises, or any part thereof, for more than twenty-one years prior to the bringing of the suit; that no declaration or acknowledgment of the existence thereof, or of the right to collect said ground rent thereon, had been made within that period by or for any owner of said premises, or any part thereof, and that neither he nor they or any of them within that period ever executed any declaration of no set-off in reference to said ground rent, or recognized its existence in any way, manner, shape, or form.

This defense was based on the 7th section of an act of the commonwealth of Pennsylvania of April 27, 1855, in terms as follows:

'That in all cases where no payment, claim, or demand shall have been made on account of or for any ground rent, annuity, or other charge upon real estate for twenty-one years, or no declaration or acknowledgment of the existence thereof shall have been made within that period by the owner of the premises subject to such ground rent, annuity, or charge, a release or extinguishment thereof shall be presumed, and such ground rent, annuity, or charge shall thereafter be irrecoverable: Provided, That the evidence of such payment may be perpetuated by recording in the recorder of deeds' office of the proper county the duplicate of any receipt therefor, proved by oath or affirmation, to be a true copy of that signed and delivered in the presence of the payer and witnessed at the time by the deponent, which recorded duplicate or the exemplification of the record thereof, shall be evidence until disproved, and the evidence of any such claim or demand may be perpetuated by the record of any judgment recovered for such rent, annuity, or charge in any court of record, or the transcript therein filed of any recovery thereof by judgment before any alderman or justice of the peace, which records and judgments shall be duly indexed: Provided, That this section shall not go into effect until three years from the passage of this act.'

Thereupon the plaintiff took out a rule on the defendant to show cause why judgment should not be entered against him for want of a sufficient affidavit of defense, assigning as a reason why such rule should be made absolute that the said 7th section of the act of April 27, 1855, was unconstitutional within the 10th section of article 1 of the Constitution of the United States, forbidding any state from passing any law impairing the obligation of contracts.

After a hearing the court discharged the said rule for judgment; a bill of exceptions was signed and sealed, and the cause was then taken to the supreme court of Pennsylvania, where the judgment of the court of common pleas was affirmed. 187 Pa. 108, 41 Atl. 38.

Thereafter the case came on for trial before the court and a jury. The plaintiff offered evidence tending to show that the ground rent in question had never been paid off and extinguished. This offer was objected to as immaterial and irrelevant. The objection was sustained, and an exception was taken by the plaintiff. The court was asked to instruct the jury that the 7th section of the act of April 27, 1855, was unconstitutional, because it impairs the contract reserving the rent, and was inhibited by the 10th section of article 1 of the Constitution of the United States, which forbids the states from passing any law impairing the obligation of contracts. The request so to charge was refused by the trial judge. The defendants asked the court to charge that the verdict should be for the defendants. This request was granted. A bill of exceptions to the action of the court in rejecting the plaintiff's offer of evidence, in declining to charge as requested by the plaintiff, and in charging as requested by the defendant, was signed and sealed by the trial court. A verdict and judgment in favor of the defendants was then entered. The cause was then taken a second time to the supreme court of Pennsylvania, where on April 3, 1899, the judgment of the court of common pleas was affirmed.

Mr. George Henderson for plaintiff in error.

Messrs. Ira Jewell Williams and Alex. Simpson, Jr., for defendant in error.

Mr. Justice Shiras delivered the opinion of the court:

The question for determination in this case is whether the 7th section of the act of assembly of the commonwealth of Pennsylvania of April 27, 1855, the terms of which appear in the foregoing statement, is an act or law impairing the obligation of contracts within the meaning of the Constitution of the United States.

The peculiar character, under the laws of the state of Penn- sylvania, of irredeemable ground rents, must first receive our notice.

It is defined to be a rent reserved to himself and his heirs by the grantor of land, out of the land itself. It is not granted like an annuity or rent charge, but is reserved out of a conveyance of the land in fee. It is a separate estate from the ownership of the ground, and is held to be real estate, with the usual characteristics of an estate in fee simple, descendible, devisable, alienable. Bosler v. Kuhn, 8 Watts & S. 185; Wallace v. Harmstad, 44 Pa. 495; McQuigg v. Morton, 39 Pa. 31.

It may be well to quote the language of the deed reserving the ground rent in question, which is that usually employed in the creation of such estates. The tenendum clause is in the usual form: 'To have and to hold the said described lot or piece of ground, hereditaments, and premises hereby granted with the appurtenances unto the said Adam Iseminger, his heirs and assigns, to the only proper use and behoof of the said Adam Iseminger, his heirs and assigns forever.' Then comes the reservation, as follows:

'Yielding and paying therefor and thereout to unto the said Alexander Osbourne, his heirs and assigns, the yearly rent or sum of seventy-two dollars, lawful money of the United States, in half-yearly payments on the 1st day of April and October every year hereafter forever, without any deduction, defalcation, or abatement for any taxes, charges, or assessments whatsoever to be assessed as well on the said hereby-granted premises as on the said yearly rent hereby and thereout reserved. The first half-yearly payment thereof to be made on the 1st day of October, 1854, and, on default of paying the said yearly rent on the days and time and in manner aforesaid, it shall and may be lawful for the said Alexander Osbourne, his heirs and assigns, to enter into and upon the said hereby-granted premises or any part thereof, and into the buildings thereon to be erected, and to distrain for the said yearly rent so in arrears and unpaid, without any exemption whatsoever, any law to the contrary thereof in anywise notwithstanding, and to proceed with and sell such distrained goods and effects, according to the usual course of distresses, for rent charges. But if sufficient distress cannot be found upon the said hereby-granted premises to satisfy the said yearly rent in arrear and the charges of levying the same, then and in such case it shall and may be lawful for the said Alexander Osbourne, his heirs and assigns, into and upon the said hereby-granted lot and improvements wholly to re-enter, and the same to have again, repossess, and enjoy as in his and their first and former estate and title in the same and as though this indenture had never been made,' etc.

It appears in the Pennsylvania cases hereinbefore and hereafter cited, that this form of estate was, in the early history of the commonwealth, a favorite form of investment; but that eventually great inconveniences arose from the existence of ancient ground rents, which the owners and occupants of the land never heard of, but of whose extinguishment the...

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