Yates v. Salle
Yates v. Salle, Wythe 163 (1792), rev'd in part and remanded in part, Sallee v. Yates, 1 Va. (1 Wash.) 226 (1793), discussed whether an heir's guardian and the executors of a person's estate breached their duty to that heir and to the will's author.
Benjamin Harris I had six daughters (Mary, Hinson, Phoebe, Edith, Sarah, and Nancy) and two sons (Benjamin II and William). In his will, Benjamin I left each of his daughters £100 payable within twelve months of the daughter turning eighteen or marrying, plus £200 payable when it "could be conveniently raised from the profits of his estate, to be paid at the discretion of his executors." Benjamin I died in September 1776. Defendants Abraham Salle, Edward Moseley, and Bernard Markham were named executors of Benjamin I's estate.
In 1777, Virginia paper currency entered a period of large and rapid devaluation that lasted several years.
On September 12, 1778, Moseley and Markham offered Salle £100 in Virginia paper currency for the first part of Sarah's inheritance. On August 31, 1779, Moseley and Markham offered Salle £200 in Virginia paper currency to settle the final part of Sarah's inheritance. Salle initially resisted the payment, since rapid devaluation meant that the paper currency payment would be practically worthless. In the end, though, Salle believed himself legally required to accept the payment in Virginia paper and did so. None of Sarah's siblings had their inheritances likewise devalued.
When Sarah turned 21 in 1781, Salle offered her the £300, but she refused to accept it. Sarah filed a bill with the High Court of Chancery asking it to make Benjamin I's estate pay her the true value of her inheritance (i.e., the monetary equivalent of £300 from the time of Benjamin I's death).
In their answer to Sarah's bill, Moseley and Markham said they felt duty-bound to pay Sarah her inheritance as soon as the estate had enough money to do so, and that by now they had already given most of the estate's property to the other heirs. Markam added that he had advised Sarah not to take her inheritance, but she said she wanted to so that she could begin earning interest on it.
Benjamin II and William were also named as defendants, and in their answer they said that the payments to Sarah were proper because Benjamin I's estate suffered monetary losses from taking payments in Virginia paper currency while selling its property.
The Chancery Court's Decision
On September 26, 1792, Wythe issued a decree ordering Salle, Moseley, and Markham to pay Sarah the true value of her £300 inheritance plus interest from the time Sarah was entitled to it, minus the payments already made to Salle as Sarah's guardian.
Wythe said that Benjamin I's will makes it obvious that he meant for Sarah's inheritance to have the value it did when he wrote the will. There was no way Benjamin I could know that the value of Virginia paper money would plummet after he died. Benjamin I's will included methods for adjusting the inheritances' value: Mary received a bed and furniture or ten pounds, and Benjamin II was supposed to pay William £300 if Benjamin II's inheritance ended up being worth more than William's. On top of that, Benjamin I's will said the inheritance should be paid when it "could be CONVENIENTLY raised from the profits of his estate, to be paid at the DISCRETION of his executors." (caps Wythe's) By paying Sarah's inheritance as soon as possible without raising funds to give her its true value (e.g., by selling property from the estate), Moseley and Markham did not properly carry out Benjamin I's will.
Wythe noted that Salle and Markham obviously knew that Sarah would lose a lot of money if her inheritance were paid in Virginia paper money during 1778-79; Salle was reluctant to accept the payment, and Markham warned Sarah against taking her inheritance then. A witness said that Moseley arranged some of the daughters' payments so that the sons would get as much of Benjamin I's estate as possible. Moseley's actions flew in the face of the maxim from Justinian's Digest that no one should profit by harming someone else.
As executors, Salle, Markham, and Moseley's duties were to treat all the heirs equally. Wythe said what Moseley did would be even more distasteful if he were Hinson's husband (which had been alleged but apparently not proven to Wythe's satisfaction). Hinson received her inheritance in 1776, before Virginia paper currency took a nosedive in value. Wythe wished that Salle, Markham, or Moseley had shown the same dedication Nancy's guardian Thomas Harris did. Salle, Markham, and Moseley tried to force Harris to accept Nancy's payment in devalued paper money as well, but Harris refused and held out until the executors paid him the true value of Nancy's inheritance. Restoring Sarah's situation to where it would have been had Salle, Markham, and Moseley been more diligent in their duties, Wythe said, was one of the main reasons for equity's existence, especially if fraud was involved.
Wythe dismissed Salle's excuse that he was compelled to accept the paper money as payment for Sarah's inheritance. The Virginia Assembly did pass a law in 1777 requiring people to accept devalued paper money as payment, but the only penalty for demanding payment for the debt's original value was that the creditor could not get interest on the original debt. If Moseley and Markham forced Salle to accept the devalued paper money, then they breached their duty as executors, and were also favoring some heirs over others; they agreed to give Nancy the true value of her inheritance after initially trying to make her accept devalued paper money as payment.
Wythe also recognizes that the Virginia Assembly passed a law in 1781 requiring the holders of debts, contracts, and obligations to accept devalued Virginia paper money as payment in full. However, Wythe believed that the 1781 Act did not apply in this situation because an inheritance is not a debt, contract, or obligation; an inheritance is merely a benevolent gift. If a testator (the person who dies and leaves property to someone in a will) creates a will giving someone property, the testator is under no obligation to maintain that gift, because they can change their gifts as many times as they like before dying. There is no obligation, so there is not contract. Once a testator dies, they are no longer legally competent to create a debt, obligation, or contract. In the headnotes preceding the case, Wythe also emphasizes that this law was passed after Moseley and Markham made their full payment to Salle.
Even if an inheritance were considered a debt, obligation, or contract, the 1781 Act would not cover it because this payment was fraudulently submitted by the executors to enrich other heirs and illegitimately accepted by Salle out of fear.
The defendants appealed Wythe's decree to the Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals.
The Supreme Court of Appeals's Decision
The Supreme Court reversed Wythe. The bills against Markham, Moseley, Benjamin II, and William were dismissed, and Salle was ordered to account for the money he had already received as Sarah's guardian, then pay that money to Sarah. The court ordered Sarah to pay Markham, Moseley, Salle, Benjamin II, and William the costs of appealing the decision in the Supreme Court, and each side to pay its own costs in the Chancery Court.
Supreme Court President Edmund Pendleton said that "this is certainly a very hard case", but that the 1781 Act meant that Sarah had to accept the devalued Virginia paper currency as payment in full for her inheritance. Even a court in equity, Pendleton said, is bound by this Act.
Wythe appeared extremely irate over the Supreme Court's reversal. He said that he thought his decree would hold up in the court of Minos, a reference to the supreme judge of the underworld in Dante's Inferno, but instead the Supreme Court announced its "damnation".
Early on, he states that he did not issue his decree "as hath been supposed, by compassion for an orphan CONFESSED to have been INJURED by those who ought to have protected her", (caps Wythe's) adding in a footnote that "(t)his motive was ascribed to him when the decree was condemned."
Works Cited or Referenced by Wythe
Quotation in Wythe's opinion:
...which design was contrary to the maxim iure naturae aequum est, neminem, cum alterius detrimento et iniuria, fieri locupletiorem, (Dig. Lib. L tit. XVII. Reg. CCVI)... Translation: [B]y the law of nature it is just that no one be made wealthy with the detriment and injury of another.
For this quotation, Wythe most likely used his copy of the Corpus Juris Civilis which includes the Digest of Justinian.
Quotation in Wythe's opinion:
Upon these considerations, the decree was thought to be so righteous a sentence as that it would be approved, even in that tribunal where a Quaesitor Minos urnam movet... Translation: Judge Minos shakes the urn. In the Aeneid, Minos was the judge of those who were given the death penalty on a false charge. Minos resided in the underworld, with a gigantic urn, and decided whether a soul should go to Elysium or Tartarus.
- George Wythe, Decisions of Cases in Virginia by the High Court of Chancery with Remarks upon Decrees by the Court of Appeals, Reversing Some of Those Decisions, 2nd ed., ed. B.B. Minor (Richmond: J.W. Randolph, 1852): 163.
- Bushrod Washington, Reports of Cases Argued and Determined in the Court of Appeals of Virginia, (Richmond: T. Nicolson, 1799), 1:226.
- See Emory G. Evans, "Private Indebtedness and the Revolution in Virginia, 1776 to 1796", William and Mary Quarterly 3d 28(3): 352 (1971).
- During Wythe's time, a woman's legal identity merged with her husband's upon marriage. William Blackstone and St. George Tucker, Blackstone's with Notes of Reference to the Constitution and Laws of the Federal Government of the United States and of Virginia, (Philadelphia: Wm. Young Birch and Abraham Small, 1803): Vol. 2, p. 441.
- Virginia paper money by this point was worth roughly 1/1000 of its value from when Benjamin I died. Sallee v. Yates, 1 Va. (1 Wash.) 226 (1793).
- The "full age" (age of majority) in Virginia then was 21. Blackstone and Tucker (1803): Vol. 2, p. 463. Before then, the child's father or appointed guardian still had power over the child's property. Blackstone and Tucker (1803): Vol. 2, p. 453.
- George Wythe, Between William Yates and Sarah his Wife, Plaintiffs, and Abraham Salle, Bernard Markham, Edward Moseley, Benjamin Harris, and William Wager Harris, Defendents [sic], (Richmond, VA: Thomas Nicolson, 1796?).
- Charles Evans, American Bibliography, vol. 11 (1942), 122.
- Wythe uses ALL CAPS several times in this opinion for emphasis and to illustrate terms he finds especially important.
- jure naturae aequum est, neminem, cum alterius detrimento et injuria, fieri locupletiorem ("it is just and in accordance with natural law that no one can enrich themselves by injuring or causing detriment to another.") Just. Dig. 50.27.206.
- Wythe does not specify, but he seems to be referring to Ch. 8, 9 Hening 297 (May 1777 Session).
- Ch. 8, Sec. 4, 9 Hening at 298.
- Ch. 22, 10 Hening 471 (Nov. 1781 Session).
- Sallee v. Yates, 1 Va. (1 Wash.) 226 (1793).
- Apparently even Pendleton's biographer thought that the Supreme Court reached the wrong result here. Robert B. Kirtland, George Wythe: Lawyer, Revolutionary, Judge: 263 (1986), citing David J. Mays, Edmund Pendleton, 1721-1803 (Cambridge, MA, 1952): Vol. 2, p. 293.
- "so righteous a sentence as that it would be approved, even in that tribunal where Quaesitor Minos urnam movet ("someone who seeks to shake Minos's urn")." Wythe 171, citing Dante, Inferno, Circle 2, Canto 5. In the Inferno, Minos was charged with ensuring that a soul's account of its life matched up with the record in his urn, which listed all human destinies. Minos would shake his urn to summon the jury that would reveal the actions that soul had taken during its lifetime. See Danteworlds.
- Wythe 166. Other than a comment about "having maturely considered" the case and noting that their decision would harm Sarah, there does not seem to be anything in the Supreme Court's opinion that says or implies this. Perhaps other words were spoken or published out of court?
- Ibid, 168.
- Ibid, 171.