SPEIDEL and another, Executors, etc., v. HENRICI and another, Trustees, etc.

120 U.S. 377 (7 S.Ct. 610, 30 L.Ed. 718)

SPEIDEL and another, Executors, etc., v. HENRICI and another, Trustees, etc.1

Decided: March 7, 1887

Statement of Case from pages 377-385 intentionally omitted

Wm. Reinecke, Geo. Hoadly, E. M. Johnson, and Edwd. Colston, for appellants.

George Shiras, Jr., for appellees.

GRAY, J.

This bill was filed against the trustees of the Harmony Society, an unincorporated association of persons living together as a community, by a former member of the society, claiming a share in property in the hands of the trustees. The bill is sought to be maintained on the ground that the trust was not a charity, in the legal sense, and the members of the society were equitable tenants in common of the property held in trust. The learned counsel for the appellants differ in their views of the trust; the one insisting that it was unlawful, because founded in fraud and against public policy, and should therefore be dissolved; and the other contending that it was a lawful and continuing trust. We have not found it necessary to consider which of these is the sound view, because we are of opinion that the plaintiff did not show himself to be entitled to invoke the interposition of a court of equity.

As a general rule, doubtless, length of time is no bar to a trust clearly established, and express trusts are not within the statute of limitations, because the possession of the trustee is presumed to be the possession of his cestui que trust. Prevost v. Gratz, 6 Wheat. 481, 497; Lewis v. Hawkins, 23 Wall. 119, 126; Railroad Co. v. Durant, 95 U. S. 576. But this rule is, in accordance with the reason on which it is founded, and as has been clearly pointed out by Chancellor KENT and Mr. Justice STORY, subject to this qualification: that time begins to run against a trust as soon as it is openly disavowed by the trustee insisting upon an adverse right and interest which is clearly and unequivocally made known to the cestui que trust; as when, for instance, such transactions take place between the trustee and the cestui que trust as would, in case of tenants in common, amount to an ouster of one of them by the other. Kane v. Bloodgood, 7 Johns. Ch. 90, 124; Robinson v. Hook, 4 Mason, 139, 152; Baker v. Whiting, 3 Sum. 475, 486; Oliver v. Piatt, 3 How. 333, 411. This qualification has been often recognized in the opinions of this court, and distinctly affirmed by its latest judgment upon the subject. Willison v. Watsins, 3 Pet. 43, 52; Boone v. Chiles, 10 Pet. 177, 223; Seymour v. Freer, 8 Wall. 202 218; Bacon v. Rives, 106 U. S. 99, 107, 1 Sup. Ct. Rep. 3; Philippi v. Philippe, 115 U. S. 151, 5 Sup. Ct. Rep. 1181. In the case of an implied or constructive trust, unless there has been a fraudulent concealment of the cause of action, lapse of time is as complete a bar in equity as at law. Hovenden v. Annesley, 2 Schoales & L. 607, 634; Beckford v. Wade, 17 Ves. 87. In such a case, Chief Justice MARSHALL repeated and approved the statement of Sir THOMAS PLUMER, M. R., in a most important case in which his decision was affirmed by the house of lords, that, 'both on principle and authority, the laches and non-claim of the rightful owner of an equitable estate, for a period of 20 years, (supposing it the case of one who must within that period have made his claim in a court of law, had it been a legal § tate,) under no disability, and where there has been no fraud, will constitute a bar to equitable relief, by analogy to the statute of limitations, if, during all that period, the possession has been under a claim unequivocally adverse, and without anything having been done or said, directly or indirectly, to recognize the title of such rightful owner by the adverse possessor.' Elmendorf v. Taylor, 10 Wheat. 152, 174; Cholmondeley v. Clinton, 2 Jac. & W. 1, 175, and 4 Bligh, 1. Independently of any statute of limitations, courts of equity uniformly decline to assist a person who has slept upon his rights, and shows no excuse for his laches in asserting them. 'A court of equity,' said Lord CAMDEN, 'has always refused its aid to stale demands, where the party slept upon his rights, and acquiesced for a great length of time. Nothing can call forth this court into activity but conscience, good faith, and reasonable diligence; where these are wanting, the court is passive, and does nothing. Laches and neglect are always discountenanced, and therefore, from the beginning of this jurisdiction, there was always a limitation to suits in this court.' Smith v. Clay, 2 Amb. 645, 3 Brown, Ch. 640, note. This doctrine has been repeatedly recognized and acted on here. Piatt v. Vattier, 9 Pet. 405; McKnight v. Taylor, 1 How. 161; Bowman v. Wathen, 1 How. 189; Wagner v. Baird, 7 How. 234; Badger v. Badger, 2 Wall. 87; Hume v. Beale, 17 Wall. 336; Marsh v. Whitmore, 21 Wall. 178; Sullivan v. Portland & K. R. R., 94 U. S. 806; Godden v. Kimmell, 99 U. S. 201. In Hume v. Beale, the court, in dismissing, because of unexplained delay in suing, a bill by cestuis que trust against a trustee under a deed, observed that it was not important to determine whether he was the trustee of a mere dry legal estate, or whether his duties and responsibilities extended further. 17 Wall. 348. See, also, Bright v. Legerton, 29 Beav. 60, and 2 De Gex, F. & J. 606. When the bill shows upon its face that the plaintiff, by reason of lapse of time and of his own laches, is not entitled to relief, the objection may be taken by demurrer. Maxwell v. Kennedy, 8 How. 210; National Bank v. Carpenter, 101 U. S. 567; Lansdale v. Smith, 106 U. S. 391, 1 Sup. Ct. Rep. 350.

The allegations of this bill, so far as they are material to the defense of laches, are in substance as follows: The Harmony Society is a voluntary association, formed in 1805 by the plaintiff's parents and other heads of families, who had emigrated from Germany under the leadership of one Rapp, and become subject to his control in both spiritual and temporal affairs. In that year, Rapp, for the purpose of acquiring absolute dominion over their means and mode of living, falsely and fraudulently represented to them that they could not be saved from eternal damnation except by renouncing the plan of a separate home for each family, yielding up all their possessions, as had been done by the early Christians, and laying them at the feet of Rapp as their apostle, to be put into a common fund of the society, and thenceforth living as a community under his control, receiving in return only the necessaries of life; and they, induced by and relying on his false and fraudulent representations, immediately yielded up all their possessions to the common fund of the society, and placed the fund in his keeping as their trustee, and thenceforth lived as a community or common household, submitted themselves and their families to do for the community such work as he directed, allowed the avails thereof to form part of the common fund, and relinquished to him and his successors in the leadership of the community the management of the trust fund and the control of their own persons and those of their wives and children, and received only the necessaries of life in return. Rapp received and accepted the trust fund, and all the accretions to it by the work of the inhabitants of the community or otherwise, not as his own, but in trust for the members of those families and the contributors to the fund, and for their common benefit; and always, up to his death in 1847, recognized and acknowledged said trust, and disclaimed any greater interest in the fund than that of any other contributor, and any other right to its management and control than by virtue of his leadership of the community. In 1807 Rapp obliged his followers to abjure matrimony, and thenceforth did not permit them to marry in the community, and compelled any one about to marry to leave it. The plaintiff was born in the community in 1807, and was reared in and as a part of it, under Rapp's teachings and control, and faithfully worked for it from the age of 12 to the age of 24 years, and allowed the avails of his work to become part of the common fund, and received in return nothing but the necessaries of life, which were of far less value than the avails of his work; and in 1831, being about to marry, had to leave and did leave the community. The trust fund so received and accepted by Rapp, with its profits, interest, and accretions, now amounts to $8,000,000, and yields an annual income of $200,000, and is held by the defendants on the same trust on which Rapp held it in his life-time; and neither Rapp nor the defendants ever rendered any account to the plaintiff or to the beneficiaries of the fund, although the plaintiff, before bringing this suit in May, 1882, demanded of the defendants an account and a settlement of his share. The trust on which Rapp, and the defendants as his successors, held the common fund of the Harmony Society, is described in one place in the bill as 'for the members of said families and the contributors of said fund, and for their common benefit;' that is to say, as is clearly explained by what goes before, in trust for their common benefit as a community, living together in the community, working for the community, subject to the regulations of the community, and supported by the community. This was the 'said trust,' which, as the bill afterwards alleges, Rapp, up to his death, and his successors, until the bringing of this suit, 'always recognized and acknowledged.' The constant avowal of the trustees that they held the trust fund upon such a trust is wholly inconsistent with and adverse to the claim of the plaintiff that they held the fund in trust for the benefit of the same persons as individuals, though withdrawn from the community, living by themselves, and taking no part in its work. The plaintiff, upon his own showing, withdrew from the community in 1831, and never returned to it, and, for more than 50 years, took no step to demand an account of the trustees, or to follow up the rights which he claimed in this bill. If he ever had any rights, he could not assert them after such a delay, —not on the ground of an express and lawful trust, because the express trust stated in the bill, and constantly avowed by the trustees during this long period, was wholly inconsistent with any trust which would sustain his claim; not on the ground that the express trust stated in the bill was unlawful and void, and therefore the trustees held the trust fund for the benefit of all the contributors in proportion to the amounts of their contributions, because that would be an implied or resulting trust, and barred by lapse of time. In any aspect of the case, therefore, if it was not strictly within the statute of limitations, yet the plaintiff showed so little vigilance and so great laches, that the circuit court rightly held that he was not entitled to relief in equity.

It is proper to add that this decision does not rest in any degree upon the judgments of the supreme court of Pennsylvania and of this court, in the cases cited at the bar, in favor of the trustees of the Harmony Society in suits brought against them by other members, because each of those cases differed in its facts, and especially in showing that the society had written articles f association, which are not disclosed by this bill. Schriber v. Rapp, 5 Watts. 351; Baker v. Nachtrieb, 19 How. 126.

Decree affirmed.

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Affirming 15 Fed. Rep. 753.