No. 125.

188 U.S. 646 (1903)


Supreme Court of United States.

Decided February 23, 1903.

Attorney(s) appearing for the Case

Mr. William G. Johnson for appellants.

Mr. M.J. Colbert and Mr. George E. Hamilton for appellee.

MR. JUSTICE PECKHAM, after making the foregoing statement of facts, delivered the opinion of the court.

It is quite plain that a lease containing a covenant to renew at its expiration with similar covenants, terms and conditions contained in the original lease is fully carried out by one renewal without the insertion of another covenant to renew. Otherwise a perpetuity is provided for. Piggot v. Mason, (1829) 1 Paige's Ch. 412; Carr v. Ellison, (1838) 20 Wend. 178; Syms v. Mayor, (1887) 105 N.Y. 153; Cunningham v. Pattee, (1868) 99 Massachusetts, 248; Taylor's Landlord & Tenant, 8th ed. §§ 333, 334.

From the ordinary covenant to renew, a perpetuity will not be regarded as created. There must be some peculiar and plain language before it will be assumed that the parties intended to create it.

There is no question of the validity of the lease of 1888. It was for five years from the first of August of the year 1887, with a covenant of renewal, and that covenant would have been satisfied by giving a lease in 1892 for five years, up to August, 1897, without any covenant therein for a further renewal. In fact, however, the lease was not legally renewed in 1892, because the paper of that year was signed by one trustee only. In our opinion his signature did not make a valid lease. It required the signatures of all the trustees. A deed of land executed by one trustee does not convey his share as in the case of ordinary joint tenants. So where a deed of land was executed by two out of three trustees, the burden is upon the purchaser to prove the third trustee was dead. 1 Perry on Trusts, (2d ed.), sec. 411; 2 Perry on Trusts, secs. 499, 502; 2 Story Eq. Juris. (12th ed.) sec. 1280; Brennan v. Willson, 71 N.Y. 502-507.

The authorities cited by the counsel for the company, to the effect that one of several trustees may, when so authorized by his associates, act with regard to the execution of some portions of the trust, as their agent, and that when not previously so authorized a subsequent ratification of his act by his associates may bind them all, do not embrace the facts in this case. There is no evidence of any authority to one trustee to sign a lease. The granting of a lease was an important and material act in the way of carrying out the trust under the will, requiring an exercise of the judgment and discretion of all the trustees. It was therefore necessary for them all to act in order to make a valid instrument.

That one of several trustees can be entrusted by his associates with the transaction of the business of the trust may be, under certain circumstances, conceded, but those circumstances will not justify the doing of an act by one trustee on his own responsibility which is of a nature to require the deliberate discretion and judgment of all the trustees. In the case of a lease of property, such as is presented herein, the signatures of all are necessary to the validity of the paper.

The case cited of Insurance Company v. Chase, 5 Wall. 509, relates to an insurance effected by one of several trustees, and the question was whether the policy covered the individual interest of the person taking out the insurance or his interest as a trustee; if the former, it was void because he had no interest as an individual, and the policy was therefore one in the nature of a wager. The court in the course of the opinion remarked:

"It is true, that in the administration of the trust, where there is more than one trustee, all must concur, but the entire body can direct one of their number to transact business, which it may be inconvenient for the others to perform, and the acts of the one thus authorized, are the acts of all, and binding on all. The trustee thus acting is to be considered the agent of all the trustees, and not as an individual trustee. If, within the scope of his agency, he procures an insurance, it is for the other trustees, as well as himself. If he does it without authority, still it is a valid contract, which the underwriter cannot dispute, if his co-trustees subsequently ratify it. In fact, so liberal is the rule on this subject, that where a part owner of property effects an insurance for himself and others, without previous authority, the act is sufficiently ratified, where suit is brought on the policy in their names."

The facts in this case do not bring it within the principle mentioned, and it is clear that to render the lease originally valid it must have been signed by all the trustees. Without it the instrument as a lease for five years was void under the statute of frauds. Comp. Stat. D.C. 231, sec. 4.

It is contended that the act of one of the trustees in signing the lease was subsequently ratified by the other by a recognition of its existence by long continued silence, if not by an express ratification. But an express ratification would consist of the signature of the other trustee to the paper, and of that there is no pretense. A ratification of an invalid instrument of this nature by recognition, we do not understand. The instrument was void under the statute of frauds, because of the lack of those signatures which could alone render it valid as a lease for five years. Recognition could not take the place of the absent signature. Whether the conduct of the trustees, or of Mrs. Patterson, amounted to such a part performance of an invalid contract as would take the place of the otherwise necessary signatures is another question. It is difficult to see how there could be any technical ratification of this instrument without a signing thereof by the other trustee.

But assuming that something in the nature of a ratification might be based upon subsequent recognition, yet such recognition or ratification must be shown to have been founded upon a full knowledge of all the facts. There is no evidence of that kind in the case; none that the other trustee even knew of the existence either of the written paper of 1892 or that it contained a covenant to renew at all for any time. The possession by the company and the payment of rent were provided for by the covenant to renew contained in the lease of 1888, and hence there was a justification for that possession and for the payment of the money, which was entirely compatible with the non-existence of any written lease from 1892, or of any covenant to again renew for five years from August 1, 1897. This possession and payment cannot therefore be used as a basis for the presumption of knowledge on the part of the trustee of the existence of the so-called lease of 1892 or of the covenant contained therein.

Regarding the asserted part performance of the alleged contract of lease in 1892, or of the covenant contained in that lease, we think there was none such as to justify the contention that the covenant to renew in 1897 for five years was thereby so far rendered valid as to call for its recognition and enforcement. In this case there was reason, as we have said, without reference to any assumed part performance of, and aside from the alleged covenants in, the paper of 1892, for the possession by the company and for the taking of the rent of the land by the trustees up to 1897. This reason was based upon the obligation which existed under the valid lease of 1888. The remaining in possession from 1892 to 1897 and the payment of the money need not, therefore, be referred to as a part performance of the invalid contract of lease and renewal contained in the paper of 1892. Without any reference to any paper of that character, possession and payment of rent were proper and amounted to nothing more than an acknowledgment of the obligations provided for in the before mentioned lease of 1888.

Acts of part performance which will take a case out of the statute must be referable solely to the contract. Williams v. Morris, 95 U.S. 444, 457; Phillips v. Thompson, 1 Johns. Chy. 131; Byrne v. Romaine, 2 Edwards Chy. 445; Jervis v. Smith, Hoff. Chy. 470; Lord v. Underdunck, 1 Sand. Chy. 46; Wolfe v. Frost, 4 Sand. Chy. 72.

And again, specific performance of a void contract will not be decreed because of part performance, unless fraud and injustice would be done if the contract were held inoperative. Purcell v. Miner, 4 Wall. 513; Williams v. Morris, 95 U.S. 444. Such would not be the result here.

Nor can the receipt of rent in February, 1898, by Mrs. Patterson, under the circumstances detailed in the foregoing statement of facts, amount to such part performance of the invalid covenant to renew as to authorize its enforcement. Neither trustee received the rent. The signing of the name of Mr. Winslow, one of the trustees, on the back of the draft from the company in February, 1898, was without the knowledge of or authority from such trustee, although the endorsement was made in perfect good faith by Fisher & Co., and the money was paid to and received by Mrs. Patterson. That signing was not a part performance of the contract of lease on the part of the trustees or either of them.

Mr. Winslow was at this time absent in Nicarauga. There is no proof in the case that Mrs. Patterson knew there was no valid covenant in existence for the granting of a further five-year lease from August 1, 1897. Her receipt of the money as beneficiary under the will of her mother would not bind the trustees to renew a lease under an invalid covenant to do so, or operate as a part performance of that invalid covenant. Especially would this be so where, as in this case, there had for months, or ever since August 1, 1897, been a substantial refusal by the trustees to renew on the old basis or to sell at the old price, and negotiations were still in progress between the trustees and the company relative to the terms of a continued occupation of the lands. The trustees and the company were alone the parties who could agree upon a lease, and while negotiations were pending on the subject, the receipt, unknown at the time to the trustees, of the money by Mrs. Patterson, as stated, could not be equivalent to a part performance by the trustees or either of them, of an alleged covenant to renew contained in the paper of 1892, the validity of which was at the same time denied.

Subsequently when drafts were received by the trustees they were not cashed, and when they were finally paid it was under a specific agreement that the payment should not in any way affect the situation between the parties. Hence the receipt of these drafts constituted no part performance upon which to base the recognition of the covenant to renew from August 1, 1897, which was repudiated as invalid by the trustees and which was in fact invalid.

Upon the question of the alleged contract to sell, after carefully examining all the facts, we agree with the Court of Appeals in holding that the company was not entitled to a decree for the specific performance of that alleged contract, and, therefore, specific relief of that nature should be denied. Under the terms of the will it is plain the trustees had no general and absolute power of sale, and the conditions upon which it could be exercised did not exist.

Regarding the other relief, we are of opinion that the portion of the injunction prohibiting the further prosecution of the trustees' action to recover the rental value of the land occupied by the company from August 1, 1897, up to the time mentioned in the complaint in that action, should be dissolved.

As to that part of the injunction which prohibits the further prosecution of the proceedings to recover the possession of the land there is more to be said. We agree with the Court of Appeals upon the subject of ousting the company from such possession. That court held that the evidence showed the company entered upon the use and occupation of the property in controversy with a view to its purchase when it could properly be effected. It was understood by all the parties what the character of the use and occupation of the land by the company was intended to be. Subsequently to its obtaining possession of the land in 1872 the railroad company constructed what is known as its Metropolitan branch, part of a highway between Washington city, the adjoining States and the West. This highway is not a merely private enterprise nor a matter of purely private concern. It is a public road, constructed for public purposes, under the sanction of the public authority, and over which the public have rights which cannot be permitted to be obstructed, much less destroyed, either by the company itself, to which the franchise has been granted as a public trust to construct and operate this road, or by antagonistic parties claiming the ownership of the land upon which it has been permitted to enter without previous payment therefor, or as the result of any private controversy between the railroad company and such parties. The company having entered by the license of the lessors, an action at law for the dispossession of the railroad company cannot be maintained if the company is willing to make compensation for its use and occupation of the land.

These views of the Court of Appeals we concur in, but we do not say that the company can take proceedings in this suit to condemn the land. The proceeding to condemn is otherwise provided for by law, and although the appellants contend that the company has no power under the law to do so, we are of opinion that by virtue of the various acts passed relative to the company, it has such power in this city with reference to this land. The court ought to keep in force for a reasonable time, say six months, that portion of the injunction prohibiting the trustees from continuing their proceeding to dispossess the company from the land, in order to enable it to condemn such land in proper proceedings for that purpose, which cannot be taken in the present suit. If more time is needed, the trial court may upon application, after notice, extend the time as to it may seem reasonably necessary. If no proceedings to condemn are taken within six months from the issuing of the mandate from this court to the court below, then the injunction should be wholly dissolved.

Our judgment, therefore, will be to reverse the judgment of the Court of Appeals of the District of Columbia, with directions to remand the case to the Supreme Court of the District, with directions to that court to refuse specific performance of the alleged contract to sell the land, and to deny enforcement of any alleged covenant to lease the same from August 1, 1897, and also to dissolve that portion of the injunction enjoining the trustees from prosecuting their suit to recover the rental value of the land from August 1, 1897, and to retain that portion which enjoins further action on the part of the trustees to oust the company from the land, for six months from the date of the mandate of this court, and for further time, if the Supreme Court of the District shall be of opinion that it is proper. If no proceedings are taken to condemn the land within six months, then the injunction shall be dissolved. When the condemnation proceedings are concluded, or if not taken within the time stated, then, at the end of that time, application may be made to the trial court, and such judgment then entered as shall be consistent with this opinion, and with such provision in regard to costs incurred, subsequent to the mandate from this court, as shall to that court seem proper.

Reversed and remanded with directions to reverse the decree below and remand the case for further proceedings in conformity to this opinion.


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