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STEWART v. HOOKS (ET AL. (02/13/53)

February 13, 1953

STEWART
v.
HOOKS (ET AL., APPELLANT)



Appeal, No. 251, Jan. T., 1952, from decree of Court of Common Pleas No. 5, of Philadelphia County, June T., 1951, No. 6369, in case of Reuben Hillyard Stewart v. Mozella Hooks, Exrx., Estate of Daisy Stewart, deceased, and Charles N. Johnson. Decree reversed.

COUNSEL

Perrin C. Hamilton, for appellant.

Abraham Wernick, with him Leonard B. Rosenthal, for appellee.

Before Stern, C.j., Stearne, Jones, Bell, Chidsey, Musmanno and Arnold, JJ.

Author: Stearne

[ 372 Pa. Page 544]

OPINION BY MR. JUSTICE ALLEN M. STEARNE

Does a wife occupy such a confidential relation to her husband that equity will declare her a constructive trustee of land which she receives from him upon her oral promise to reconvey it upon request? The appeal raises for the first time in Pennsylvania this question which may have grave effect on the certainty of recorded titles to real property. The learned chancellor in the court below held the relation to be confidential and imposed a constructive trust in favor of the husband. This appeal questions that ruling.

Reuben Hillyard Stewart filed a complaint in equity against the executrix of the estate of his deceased wife, Daisy Stewart, and her grandson, Charles N. Johnson, alleging that he was the beneficial owner of land which his wife had devised to the grandson. At the trial Mrs. Rebecca McFadden Benson, a conveyancer, testified that the deceased Mrs. Stewart had acquired title under the following circumstances: in March of 1932, the plaintiff and his wife consulted Mrs. Benson's employer, Herbert E. Millen, Esquire, (now Judge of the Municipal Court of Philadelphia) and plaintiff explained that he wanted to transfer certain properties of which he was owner to his wife so that he would no longer be bothered by friends asking him to pledge the properties as bail. Mrs. Benson testified that this explanation was made in the presence of Mrs. Stewart, and that the latter agreed that she would reconvey the property to her husband whenever he desired it. She further testified that Stewart said he was conveying to his wife "because he

[ 372 Pa. Page 545]

    said he had confidence in her and he knew everything would be done as he wanted it."

Plaintiff claims, inter alia, that the oral agreement alleged in his bill of complaint was admitted by defendants in their answer. It is clear that any admission contained in the original answer was repudiated by present counsel soon after his representation of defendants began. He filed an amendment to which plaintiff's counsel agreed by stipulation. Plaintiff contends that even though the statements in the original answer lose their force as pleadings in the case by virtue of the amendment, they nevertheless remain in evidence as admissions. This is undoubtedly the law: Easton School District v. Continental Casualty Co., 304 Pa. 67, 72, 155 A. 93. But, as we there said, such admissions are "capable of explanation..." and "sufficient to make the question... one for the jury." Considered in this light, it is clear that little weight can be given to the admission of an oral agreement which was made in the original answer. In the first place, neither of the defendants has ever claimed any personal knowledge of the circumstances which led up to the conveyance of the property by plaintiff to his wife. On the contrary, they have maintained throughout that, since the death of Daisy Stewart, plaintiff is the only one living who knows what actually happened between plaintiff and his wife in 1932. Defense counsel has repeatedly stated that "the strength of the defense is in the inherent weakness of the plaintiff's case." In view of their avowed ignorance of the facts, defendants' admission carries scant power of persuasion. Furthermore, any common sense appraisal of the defendants' position as revealed by all the pleadings leaves no doubt that it was nothing more than an oversight of counsel which occasioned the admission in the original answer. It would be legal sophistry, reminiscent of an age long past, to

[ 372 Pa. Page 546]

    determine the rights of litigants on such technicalities of pleading. The same may be said of plaintiff's argument that defendants may not rely on the Statute of Frauds because they did not plead it in their original answer although it was ...


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