« ForrigeFortsett »
Mr. Henry E. Davis, with whom Mr. Samuel Maddox and Mr. H. Prescott Gatley were on the brief, for appellants.
Mr. John Ridout for appellee.
MR. JUSTICE PITNEY delivered the opinion of the court.
This was an equity action, brought by the appellants against the appellee and others, in the Supreme Court of the District of Columbia, to obtain an injunction restraining the enforcement of a judgment theretofore recovered by the appellee against the appellants in an action for libel. That action was on the law side of the Supreme Court of the District, and resulted in a verdict and judgment for $8,500 damages, which on review was affirmed by the Court of Appeals (28 App. D. C. 498) and by this court (211 U. S. 199).
The present action was commenced after the final affirmance of the judgment at law. Upon the filing of the bill of complaint herein, with accompanying exhibits, the court made a temporary restraining order. This was continued until the final hearing, and that hearing resulted in a decree granting a perpetual injunction against the enforcement of the judgment. The defendants in the equity action, other than the present appellee, were joined for reasons not now. material. He alone appealed from the final decree to the Court of Appeals of the District, which reversed the decree and ordered the cause to be remanded to the court below, with direction to dismiss the bill of complaint (36 App. D. C. 289). From the decree of reversal Pickford and Walter have appealed to this court, thus presenting for our decision the question whether, upon the pleadings and proofs, they are entitled to an injunction restraining the enforcement of Talbott's judgment against them.
The equitable jurisdiction is invoked upon the ground that after the conclusion of the litigation at law the appellants discovered certain evidence which, if known at the time, might and would have enabled them to make a different defense in the court of law, and which it is alleged would assuredly have led to a different result there; it being insisted that the appellants were not at fault in failing to discover the evidence referred to.
A brief history of the controversy between the parties is essential to an understanding of the questions presented.
In the month of March, 1901, while the appellee, Talbott, was State's attorney for Montgomery County, Maryland, an indictment was returned by the grand jury of that county charging Pickford and Walter, the appellants, and two others named in the indictment, with having unlawfully, wilfully and maliciously set fire to and burned a certain untenanted dwelling house, the property of said Pickford and Walter. A dwelling house owned by them, situate in Montgomery County, had in fact been destroyed by fire in the latter part of the year 1897, and the fire insurance companies, after some demur, had paid to the owners sums aggregating $22,500. It is said to have been the purpose of the indictment to attribute to the defendants named therein an attempt to defraud the insurance companies. Three of those defendants (including Walter, but not Pickford), being arrested in the District of Columbia, where they resided, sued out writs of habeas corpus in the District, and were released on the ground that the indictment did not set forth any crime. Pickford surrendered himself in Montgomery County and gave bail to answer the indictment, and his trial was set down for a day in the following November before the Circuit Court. He duly appeared, but Talbott, as State's attorney, asked for a postponement on the ground that he was not ready for trial. The court strongly intimated that there ought to be no postponement, and upon this intimation (and
perhaps partly because of the question that had been raised about the sufficiency of the indictment) Talbott entered a nolle prosequi as to Pickford. Later, he did the same with respect to Walter.
Thereafter, and in the month of December, 1901, Pickford and Walter procured to be published in the columns of a newspaper in Washington an article concerning Talbott which was the ground of his action against them for libel. A copy of the article was included in the declaration in that suit and was attached to and made a part of the bill of complaint herein. Through some inadvertence it was omitted in the printing of the record, but upon the argument we were, by consent of counsel, referred for information as to its contents to the record that was here on the former occasion (211 U. S. 199). The article purported to show “the true inwardness of the criminal scheme that culminated in this nefarious indictment,” and declared that "we shall state the facts as we have learned them after a thorough investigation.” It charged Talbott, as State's attorney, with participation in an alleged conspiracy to force Pickford and Walter, by means of an unfounded indictment, to repay to the insurance companies the moneys that had been paid by them to Pickford and Walter for the fire loss.
The libel suit was commenced in the year 1902. The final affirmance of the judgment therein was on November 30, 1908. The present action was begun in the following month of January.
The bill of complaint avers that at the time of the filing of the declaration in the libel suit the complainants believed it to be true (the ground of that belief is not distinctly averred) that Talbott had caused the indictment to be procured for the purpose of obtaining from the insurance companies certain large sums of money, and had thus used his public office for his personal gain; that they so informed their counsel before the filing of their pleas,
but were advised by counsel that should they attempt to justify the publication of the article by pleading the truth thereof, and fail to make good such plea by evidence to the satisfaction of the court and jury, the attempt at justification would be held to be a repetition and republication of the libel, and would aggravate the damages to be recovered in the action; that they were, on the other hand, advised by their counsel that if they should plead "not guilty” to the declaration they would probably be excluded from endeavoring to prove the truth of the alleged libel; and that the complainants, being unable, after due diligence, to procure and submit to their counsel evidence which in the opinion of counsel might properly and safely be offered on the trial of the action in justification of the alleged libel and in proof of the truth thereof, were compelled to confine, and did confine, their defense to the general issue, and were thereby deprived of the opportunity to offer evidence tending to prove its truth; but that upon the trial they were permitted to introduce, and did introduce (not in justification of the alleged libel nor to prove the truth thereof, but to show absence of malice on their part and thus to mitigate the damages), sundry matters and things which are set forth at great length in the bill, all of which, it is averred, were known to the complainants at and before the composition and publication of the libel.
So far as appears, the matters thus recited furnished the sole basis for their alleged belief that Talbott had prostituted his office in the manner alleged in the newspaper article. Without repeating them here, it is enough to say that it those matters did in fact constitute their whole case against Talbott, their counsel was probably correct in his judgment that a plea of justification, supported by such evidence alone, would be deemed a republication of the libel and a ground for allowing increased damages against them.
The bill of complaint further avers that before pleading
to the declaration the appellants and their counsel diligently inquired of every person believed to have any possible knowledge in the premises, with the view to obtaining and producing testimony tending to support a plea of justification and to prove the truth of the matter alleged as libelous, but without avail.
It also alleges that the like diligent inquiries were continued after the trial of the cause down to the filing of the bill, but wholly without result until the twenty-ninth day of December, 1908, when, in an accidental meeting between one of the counsel for the appellants and Hon. James B. Henderson, one of the judges of the Circuit Court for Montgomery County, who held that office at the time of the indictment referred to, Judge Henderson informed counsel of a conversation said to have taken place between him and Talbott while the indictment was pending, in which conversation Talbott stated to the judge in substance that he was keeping the indictment alive in order to assist the insurance companies in an effort to recover from Pickford and Walter the moneys that had been paid to them for the fire loss; and that he, Talbott, or his firm, would get a large fee out of the business.
The bill rests the prayer for relief against the judgment at law solely upon the ground that the evidence of Judgʻ Henderson, taken in connection with the other matters and things that were given in evidence on the trial of the libel suit as mentioned, would have caused the jury to render a verdict in favor of the defendants, Pickford and Walter.
Talbott answered the bill, fully and specifically denying all allegations thereof that attributed improper conduct to him, and expressly denying the alleged conversation between him and Judge Henderson, and denying that he had kept the indictment alive for personal gain, and every other improper inference deducible from the alleged conversation. The answer called upon complainants to make