Goodall v. Bullock
Goodall v. Bullock, Wythe 328 (1798), discussed whether a sheriff could be fined because his deputy did not finish executing a writ, even the person who filed the writ is the person who asked the deputy not to finish executing it. The opinion is notable for Wythe's discussion of the principles underlying a court of equity's powers in which Wythe refers to several classical Greek and Roman sources and stories.
Parke Goodall was Sheriff of Hanover County, and John Clough was one of his deputies.
John Bullock sued his father, who went by the same name, and won a judgment for about £497. Bullock the younger delivered a writ of fieri facias to Clough in May 1792 to be executed against Bullock the elder's property. Clough seized Bullock the elder's entire estate under the writ and sold it to Bullock the younger in June 1792 for about £206.
Clough never returned the writ to court with notations on what actions he had taken using the writ's power - a process called returning the execution. Returning the execution could have led to further court proceedings against Bullock the elder. The reason for this was disputed. Clough said that in 1795 Bullock the younger asked him to delay returning the execution until the court costs were settled. To support Clough's claim, a third-party witness, William L. Thompson, said that they heard Bullock the younger say he wished Clough would not return the execution until the Bullocks settled with each other. Bullock the younger answered that he never asked Clough to delay returning the execution, but rather repeatedly asked Clough to return the execution after he had seized Bullock the elder's property.
Bullock the younger sued Goodall and Clough in Hanover County Court for failure to return the execution of a writ, and on May 7, 1795, the court fined Goodall about £264 to be paid to Bullock the younger, under the authority of a 1791 Virginia statute.
Clough successfully returned the execution in June 1795. Goodall successfully sued Clough to reimburse Goodall for the fine Goodall owed Bullock the younger. Goodall and Clough filed a bill with the High Court of Chancery asking it to permanently enjoin the Hanover County Court's judgment in favor of Bullock the younger, and Goodall agreed to wait to collect on his judgment against Clough until the proceedings in the Chancery Court concluded.
Bullock the younger argued that because the 1791 statute gave the county court discretion in the amount of the fine to award, the Chancery Court would be improperly usurping the court of law's appellate jurisdiction by issuing an injunction. Therefore, Bullock the younger said, the Chancery Court should dismiss Goodall and Clough's case.
The Court's Decision
The High Court of Chancery issued permanent injunctions against Bullock the younger from collecting his judgment against Goodall, and against Goodall from collecting against Clough. The Court said that it was possible for both Thompson's and Bullock the younger's statements to be true. Bullock could have initially asked Clough to return the execution, but then changed his mind three years later when Thompson's testimony took place.
The Chancery Court shot down Bullock the younger's argument that it was usurping legal courts' appellate authority. Chapter 9 of the 1787 Virginia statutes prohibited the Chancery Court from refusing to hear a case due to lack of jurisdiction, or to delay or refuse justice. The Chancery Court noted that when Clough returned the execution in June 1795, he placed all the parties in their proper state, which means there would have been no basis for fining Clough. Since the return happened after the county court issued its judgment, though, there was no way for the county court to alter its opinion to put the parties in their proper state. The Chancery Court concluded that this situation was therefore a fine case for equitable relief.
The Court also noted that, as Bullock the younger admitted, Bullock the elder had no more property to seize to satisfy the rest of the award. Returning the execution and proceeding further in court would likely lead to prison for Bullock the elder, which Bullock the younger said he did not want. Because Bullock the younger had nothing to gain by Clough returning the execution, Bullock the younger could not have been injured by Clough's actions.
The Chancery Court said that fining Goodall would lead to the perverse result of Bullock the younger being in a better position by Clough not returning the execution than by Clough returning it. Moreover, because Thompson's indicated that Bullock the younger told Clough there was no hurry in returning the execution, then sued Clough for not promptly returning it, the Chancery Court found that Bullock the younger was "guilty of a foul fraud. . .venial in the eyes of Edward Coke".
The Chancery Court also said that the county court seemed to be unaware of Bullock the younger's fraud. Even so, the Chancery Court noted that the county court did not make much use of its statutory discretion and hit Goodall with almost the maximum possible fine. The Chancery Court goes into the etymological origins of the word "discretion" to emphasize that even if the county court felt a fine proper, it should have adjusted the fine to fit the harm.
The Court proceeds to review the principles underlying the court of equity's powers to justify its action in this case, even when involving a penalty authorized by statute. The Court calls on humanity's instinct for sympathy and cites the Golden Rule along with a quote from the play Heauton timorumenos: "Homo sum, humani nihil a me alienum puto." ("I am a human being, I consider nothing that is human alien to me.")
The Court's opinion by Wythe proceeds with several hypotheticals involving Agricola selling corn to Mercator to show how one person could technically breach a contract and be subject to a severe penalty, even though that breach might have put the other party in a better position than if the contract had been fulfilled. In such situations, courts of law would traditionally require Agricola to pay Mercator to pay the full penalty for breaching the contract -- even if the breach put Mercator in a better position -- because that was what the law dictated. The Court uses a quote from Livy's Histories to describe the traditional law: leges rem surdam, inexorabilem esse. . .nihil laxamenti nec veniae habere ("the law was a deaf inexorable being. . .admitted of no relaxation or indulgence.") Wythe views the court of equity as an embodiment of justice such as Pallas Athena in Aeschylus's rendering of the tale of Orestes, conjuring a just and fair verdict when the letter of the law might dictate otherwise. This, the Chancery Court says, is why a court of equity such as it has the power to dissolve the injunction Bullock won, whether the injunction was given by the power of a statute or of common law.
- 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), 328.
- A writ of fieri facias orders the sheriff to get goods from a person to satisfy a judgment against that person.
- Terence, "Publii Terentii Afri Comoediae Sex", in Publii Terentii Afri Comoediae Sex (Glasguae: Cura & impensis Roberti Foulis, typis Roberti Urie & soc., 1742).
- These hypotheticals include an interesting footnote (presumably from Wythe) that indicates that the phrase "a penny saved is a penny earned" goes back quite earlier than Poor Richard; it is a translation of Cicero's phrase magnum vectigal fit parsimonia from his Sixth Paradox.
- Livy, Titi Livii Historiarum Quod Extat, Lib. II, Cap. 3 (Amstelodami: Apud D. Elzevirium, 1678). Wythe seems to be guilty of cherry-picking a quote here. He omitted the middle of Levi's phrase, which reads in full, "leges rem surdam, inexorabilem esse, salubriorem melioremque inopi quam potenti; nihil laxamenti nec veniae habere, si modum excesseris" ("the law was a deaf inexorable being, better and more beneficial for the disadvantaged than the powerful, admitted of no relaxation or indulgence.") Livy seemed to view the law's intrangience as a benefit, offering greater equality for the lower classes, while Wythe altered Livy's sentence to show this inexorability as a flaw.