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Burns v. McCormick

    Brief Fact Summary. In June 1918, James Halsey, lived alone in his home. Plaintiffs claim that Halsey promised that the land would be theirs upon his death if they boarded and cared for him during his life. However, at the time of his death, there was nothing to evidence this agreement.

    Synopsis of Rule of Law. Not every act of part performance will move a court of equity, though legal remedies are inadequate, to enforce an oral agreement affecting rights in land. There must be performance unequivocally referable to the agreement.

    Facts. In June 1918, James Halsey, an old man without family or housekeeper, lived alone in his home. He allegedly told the Plaintiffs that if they gave up their business in another town and boarded and cared for him during his life, the house and lot would be theirs upon his death. The Plaintiffs did as Halsey asked, boarding and caring for him until he died about five months after the agreement. However, no deed, will, or memorandum by Halsey exists to authenticate the promise. The Plaintiffs asked for specific performance, and Defendant asserts the defense of the statute of frauds.

    Issue. Are the Plaintiffs entitled to specific performance?

    Held. No. Judgment reversed.
    Not every act of part performance will move a court of equity, though legal remedies are inadequate, to enforce an oral agreement affecting rights in land. There must be performance “unequivocally referable” to the agreement.
    What is done must supply the key to what is promised. The housekeeper who abandons other prospects of establishment in life and renders service without pay upon the oral promise of her employer to give her a life estate in land must find her remedy in an action to recover the value of the service. Maddison v. Alderson, L.R. 8 App.Cas. 467.
    Plaintiffs cannot show that during Halsey’s lifetime they owned the house, nor can they show that they maintained possession of the house. The house was in Halsey’s possession, and those he invited to live with him were merely his servants or his guests. Halsey could have evicted the Plaintiffs and the law would not help the Plaintiffs.
    The acts of part performance are not solely and unequivocally referable to a contract for the sale of land. Therefore, the acts of part performance do not become sufficient because part of Plaintiffs’ loss is without a remedy at law. Inadequacy of legal remedies, without more, does not dispense with the requirement that acts, and not words, shall supply the framework of the promise.
    The court noted that this is not a case of fraud. The law requires a writing to enforce this kind of contract, absent requisite proof of part performance. Plaintiffs could not produce a written agreement.

    Discussion. This case might have been decided differently in other jurisdictions. Here the court pointed out that part performance, if construed liberally, could produce some of the same mischief that the statute of frauds was enacted to prevent.


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