Keller v. Ashford

Decision Date03 March 1890
Citation33 L.Ed. 667,10 S.Ct. 494,133 U.S. 610
CourtU.S. Supreme Court

[Statement of Case from pages 610-612 intentionally omitted] W. D. Davidge, for appellant.

Calderon Carlisle and Geo. F. Appleby, for appellee.

[Citations and Arguments of Counsel from page 614-617 intentionally omitted] Mr. Justice GRAY, after stating the case as above, delivered the opinion of the court.

The motion to dismiss for want of jurisdiction must be denied. This appeal was claimed and allowed February 16, 1885. At that time, Act Feb 25, 1879, c. 99, was in force, which provided that 'the final judgment or decree of the supreme court of the District of Columbia, in any case where the matter in dispute, exclusive of costs, exceeds the value of twenty-five hundred dollars, may be re-examined and reversed or affirmed in the supreme court of the United States upon writ of error or appeal.' 20 St. 321. The case is not affected by Act March 3, 1885, c. 355, § 1, further limiting the appellate jurisdiction of this court, because that act only provides that 'no appeal or writ of error shall hereafter be allowed' from any such judgment or decree unless the matter in dispute, exclusive of costs, exceeds the sum of $5,000. 23 St. 443. The change of phraseology, referring to the time when the appeal or writ of error is allowed, instead of to the time when it is entertained by this court, was evidently intended to prevent cutting off appeals taken and allowed before the passage of the act, as had been held to be the effect of the language used in the act of 1879. Railroad Co. v. Grant, 98 U. S. 398. In a suit founded upon a contract, the sum in dispute at the time of the judgment or decree appealed from, including any interest then accrued, is the test of appellate jurisdiction. diction. Bank v. Daniel, 12 Pet. 32, 52; The Patapsco, 12 Wall. 451; New York El R. Co. v. Fifth Nat. Bank, 118 U. S. 608, 7 Sup. Ct. Rep. 23; Zeckendorf v. Johnson, 123 U. S. 617, 8 Sup. Ct. Rep. 261. By the express terms of the promissory note used on in this case, it bore interest at the rate of 8 per cent. yearly from its date until paid. Computing interest accordingly, the sum in dispute was much more than $2,500 at the time of the decree in general term, which was the decree from which this appeal was taken. In Railroad Co. v. Trook, 100 U. S. 112, cited for the appellee, as in District of Columbia v. Gannon, 130 U. S. 227, 9 Sup. Ct. Rep. 508, the judgment in special term was for damages in an action sounding in tort, which bore no interest, either by the general law, or by the judgment of affirmance in general term.

Nor can the objection of the defendant, that the original deed from Thompson to Ashford was not produced, or its execution proved, be sustained. The deed is admitted to have been duly recorded. There is no presumption that it was in the possession of the plaintiff, who was not a party to it; but it is to be presumed to have been in the possession, either of Ashford, the grantee named in the deed, or of Kelly, who procured the deed to be made, and to whom it was originally delivered. Both of them having failed to produce it upon notice to do so, the recorder's copy was competent and sufficient evidence of the contents of the deed, as between the parties to this suit. Rev. St. D. C. §§ 440, 467; Dick v. Balch, 8 Pet. 30.

But, upon the merits of the case, we are unable to concur with the views expressed by the court below in its opinion reported in 3 Mackey, 455, either as to the effect of the testimony, or as to the rights of the parties. The material facts, as they appear to us upon full examination of the record, have been already stated. It remains to consider the law applicable to those facts. The questions to be decided concern the extent, the obligation, and the enforcement of the agreement created by the clause in the deed of conveyance from Thompson to Ashford of this and three other lots, 'subject, however, to certain incumbrances now resting thereon, payment of which is assumed by said party of the second part.' The five mortgages made by the grantor, namely, the plaintiff's mortgage for $2,000 and a prior mortgage for $1,500, on lot 5, and a mortgage of $2,000 on each of the three other lots, and some unpaid taxes which had been assessed against the grantor, were incumbrances, and were the only incumbrances existing upon the granted premises at the time of the execution of this conveyance. Rawle, Cov. (5th Ed.) § 77. The clause in question, by the words 'certain incumbrances now resting thereon,' designates and comprehends all those mortgages and taxes as clearly as if the words used had been 'the incumbrances' or 'all incumbrances,' or had particularly described each mortgage and each tax. We give no weight to Thompson's testimony as to Kelly's previous conversation with him to the same effect, because that conversation is not shown to have been authorized by, or communicated to, Ashford, and cannot affect the legal construction of the deed as against him. It was argued that, because the deed contains a covenant of special warranty against all persons claiming under the grantor, the words 'certain incumbrances' cannot include the mortgages made by the grantor, but must be limited to the unpaid taxes which, it is said, would not come within the covenant of special warranty. But the answer to this argument is that any person claiming title by virtue of a lien created by taxes assessed against the grantor would claim under the grantor, equally with one claiming by a mortgage from him; and incumbrances expressly assumed by the grantee are necessarily excluded from the covenants of the grantor. Ashford is not shown to have had any knowledge of the conveyance at the time of its execution; and a suggestion was made in argument, based upon some vague expressions in his testimony, that the conveyance was intended to be made to him, by way of mortgage only, to secure him against loss on his previous loans to, and indorsements for, Kelly. But his subsequent acts are quite inconsistent with the theory that the conveyance did not vest the legal estate in him absolutely. Within a month or two after the conveyance, having been told that the four lots had been conveyed to him, and were subject to incumbrances, although perhaps not then informed of the amount of the incumbrances, he entered into possession of the lots, and thenceforth collected the rents; and within nine months after the conveyance he had notice of the clause assuming payment of incumbrances, and was requested to pay the plaintiff's mortgage, and declimed to pay it, or to recognize any personal liability for it; yet he afterwards sold and conveyed away two of the lots, and contiu ed to keep possession, and to collect rents, of the other two. Having thus accepted the benefit of the conveyance, he cannot repudiate the burden imposed upon him by the express agreement therein, and would clearly have been liable to his grantor for any breach of that agreement. Blyer v. Monholland, 2 Sandf. Ch. 478; Coolidge v. Smith, 129 Mass. 554; Locke v. Homer, 131 Mass. 93; Muhlig v. Fiske, Id. 110. The case, therefore, stands just as if Ashford had himself received a deed by which he in terms agreed to pay a mortgage made by the grantor. In such a case, according to the general, not to say uniform, current of American authority, as shown by the cases collected in the briefs of counsel, the mortgagee is entitled in some form to enforce the agreement against the grantee; and much of the argument at the bar was devoted to the question whether his remedy should be at law or in equity.

Upon the question whether the mortgagee could sue at law, there is no occasion to examine the conflicting decisions in the courts of the several states, because it is clearly settled in this court that he could not. This case cannot be distinguished from that of Bank v. Grand Lodge, 98 U. S. 123, and clearly falls within the general rule upon which the judgment in that case was founded. It was there held that a contract by which the grand lodge, for a consideration moving from another corporation, agreed with it to assume the payment of its bonds, would not support an action against the grand lodge by a holder of such bonds; and Mr. Justice STRONG, delivering judgment, after observing that the contract was made between and for the benefit of the two corporations, that the holders of the bonds were not parties to it, and that there was no privity between them and the grand lodge, said: 'We do not propose to enter at large upon a consideration of the inquiry how far privity of contract between a plaintiff and defendant is necessary to the maintenance of an action of assumpsit. The subject has been much debated, and the decisions are not all reconcilable. No doubt, the general rule is that such a privity must exist. But there are, confessedly, many exceptions to it. One of them, and by far the most frequent one, is the case where, under a contract between two persons, assets have come to the promisor's hands, or under his control, which in equity belong to third person. In such a case, it is held that the third person may sue in his own name. But then the suit is founded rather on the implied undertaking the law raises from the possession of the assets, than on the express promise. Another exception is where the plaintiff is the beneficiary solely interested in the promise, as where one person contracts with another to pay money, or deliver some valuable thing to a third. But, where a debt already exists from one person to another, a promise by a third person to pay such debt being primarily for the benefit of the original debtor, and to relieve him from liability to pay it, (there being no novation,) he has a right of action against the promisor for his own indemnity; and, if the original creditor can also sue, the promisor...

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