U.S. Supreme Court WEITZELL'S LESSEE v. FRY, 4 U.S. 218 (1800)
4 U.S. 218 (Dall.)
The Lessee of Weitzell et al.
Supreme Court of Pennsylvania.
December Term, 1800
EJECTMENT for 306 acres of land in Northumberland county. The case was this: On the 13th of September 1774, John Read, being seised in fee, mortgaged the premises, mentioned in the declaration, to 'The trustees of the general loan office of the province of Pennsylvania,' incorporated under the act of the 26th of February 1773. 1 State Laws, 644. Dall.
edit. After various successive modifications of this trust,1 the powers and duties of the trustees were transferred to, and vested in, the treasurer of the state, by an act of the 1st of April 1790. 2 State Laws, 792. s. [ Footnote 2 ] The sheriff of the county, in his evidence on the trial, stated, 'that he had received a precept, dated in September 1792, for selling the lands, under Reed's mortgage, from the office of Mr. Febeiger, the state treasurer; that the precept, he believed, was signed by Mr. Febeiger, and attested by Mr. Ingersoll, the attorney-general; that he delivered the precept to Mr. Febeiger's clerk (who, it appeared, had left the country) indorsed, he believed, (though he was not positive) with a written return, as it was his practice to make such indorsements; that he thought he had put up printed advertisements of the time and place of sale; and that he made the sale on the premises.' It was proved, however, that, on a strict search of the loan office papers, no precept, in the present case, could be found, except one, which had no date, and which was not signed by Mr. Febeiger. And an advertisement of the sale, to be made on the 11th of December 1792, was read from the Sunbury, and Northumberland, gazettes, dated the 6th of October preceding. At the sale, Thomas Reese became the purchaser, to whom the sheriff made a deed, on the 22d of February 1793, for the consideration of 189l. 7s. 6d. and, on the 20th of March 1793, Reese conveyed to the lessors of the plaintiff, for the consideration of 160l. But, it was alleged by the defendants, and evidence was given tending to show, that Reese had been collusively employed by Richeson, one of the lessors of the plaintiff (the others being totally ignorant of this part of the transaction) to make the purchase for him, while, at the time of the sale, he set up a title to the premises, producing a deed from the county commissioners, dated the 26th of November 1792, when the land had been sold for taxes; menacing any purchaser with a law suit; and, in fact, prevented several persons from bidding, who had attended for that purpose; and some of whom avowed, that they would give 350l. for only 200 acres of the land.
On these facts, the defendant contended, 1st. That the authority of the state treasurer, was a special authority, and ought to be strictly pursued: whereas there was no official precept, as required by the act, to justify the sheriff's sale; nor any proof of advertisements put up at public places. 2d. That the fraud committed by Richeson at the time of sale, vitiated the whole proceedings; particularly, when connected with the inadequacy
of the price. Cowp. 26. Hal. Hist. Com. Law, 49. Cowp. 434. 2 Pow. Cont. 144. 163. 1 Br. Chan. 163. The plaintiffs answered, that the weight of the evidence was in favour of the regular advetisement of the sale; that the blank precept, now produced, could not have been the precept, under which the sheriff acted, as he swears that his precept was signed by the treasurer, and attested by the attorney-general; that the loss of the precept being evident, its existence and regularity are legally proved by the sheriff; that it might, perhaps, be contended, that the production of a written precept was not indispensable in this case; 1 Ld. Raym. 166. 5 Mod. 387. 2 Salk. 467. that Richeson was bound to give notice of the commissioners' deed, whatever effect it produced on the sale; that this was the only ground to impeach the sale; and that fraud ought not to be presumed.
SHIPPEN, Chief Justice. There are two points of inquiry before the Court and jury: 1st. Whether the proceedings upon the sale have been regular? 2d. Was there such an act of fraud, unfairness, or contrivance, at the time of the sale, as ought to vitiate the whole transaction? 1st. It is alleged, on the first point, that there was no precept authorising the sale; and it is proved, that, on search, a regular precept has not been found in the treasurer's office. We think, that a precept was necessary to support the sale; and that the paper, which has been produced, was not a regular precept. But, on the other hand, the sheriff swears, that he received a precept signed by the treasurer; and it is not probable, that he would have sold an estate under a blank form. As, therefore, the party has not the custody of the precept, and ought not to be made responsible for its loss; the jury will consider, whether there is not sufficient evidence, to presume the existence of a regular precept, at the time of the sale. It has, also, been urged, that there is no proof, that advertisements of the sale were posted up at public places; but, if the sale was a fair one, we regard this, as a very feeble objection. The act of making such advertisements, is the duty of the sheriff; it is a matter merely directory; and, unless an actual injury has been sustained by an omission, it would be hard, indeed, that it should affect the title of a bon a fide purchaser. 2d. The chief ground of defence, however, is the allegation of fraud at the sale; and if Richeson did then attempt to get the land unfairly, he ought not to be allowed to benefit by his iniquity. It is always a mark, prima facie, of unfairness, when a man, who forbids a sale, or slanders a title, becomes himself the purchaser of the land. It is true, that Richeson might be bound to give notice of the commissioners' deed; but did he confine himself to giving a fair notice of the claim, without any sinister design,
or conversation, or action, to depreciate the estate, and to secure it for himself at an undervalue? No: he employed another person, secretly, to bid for him, while he deceitfully threatened his own bidder, and seriously threatened every other bidder, with a law suit. And, wherever there is an appearance of fraud, the inadequacy of price, though not conclusive in itself to avoid a sale, affords an argument of great weight against a purchaser, to whom the fraud is imputed.
Here, then, it is important to remark, that from the special nature of the proceeding under the treasurer's precept, the defendant had no opportunity of applying to any Court, for immediate relief: but we do not hesitate to declare, that if a case were brought before us, under such circumstances, we should certainly set aside the sale.
It now, however, becomes the province of the jury to decide upon the evidence, whether Richeson's conduct was fair and proper; without a sinister view to get the land at an under price. If they think it was, the verdict will be in his favour. If they think otherwise, the defendant must prevail.
Verdict for the defendant. [ Footnote 3 ] Footnotes
Footnote 1 See the note (h) subjoined to the act above cited. 1 vol. 644.
Footnote 2 By an act of the 11th of April 1793, a grant was made to th e Pennsylvania hospital, payable out of the money due to the loan office; and the managers of the hospital were constituted trustees, for the purpose of collection. 3 State Laws, 379. Dall. edit.
Footnote 3 Tried in the Circuit Court, Northumberland county, on the 17th of Oct. 1800, before SHIPPEN, C. J., and BRACKENRIDGE, J.