Tiffany v. Boatman's Institution , 85 U.S. 375 ( 1874 )

  • 85 U.S. 375 (1873)
    18 Wall. 375


    Supreme Court of United States.

    *382 Messrs. E.R. Hoar and S. Knox, for the assignee in bankruptcy, appellant; Mr. T.T. Gantt, contra.

    Mr. Justice DAVIS delivered the opinion of the court.

    The general statute of Missouri concerning usury allows an individual to receive ten per cent. per annum interest for the loan of money; but, if more be taken and suit is brought to enforce the contract, and the plea of usury be interposed, the whole interest is forfeited to the proper county for the use of schools. The debtor is not released from his obligation to pay, but the interest is diverted from the parties and appropriated for school purposes. If, however, the borrower suffers judgment to go against him, without pleading usury, or if, without suit, he pays the usurious interest, he cannot, either at law or in equity, maintain an action for its repayment. This was settled in Ransom v. Hays,[*] and affirmed in Rutherford v. Williams,[†] and these decisions would be conclusive of this controversy, unless it is affected by the Bankrupt law, if the legislature intended the general provisions *383 of this act to apply to loans by artificial as well as natural persons, although the former might be restricted to a less rate of interest than the latter. It is contended by the defendant that this act was meant to apply to corporations, and that if a bank, discounting a note in the course of business, commits usury, it is subject to precisely the same consequences with an individual. On the other hand, the complainant insists that the legislature did not intend in this matter to place corporations on the same footing with natural persons, and cites in support of this position The Bank of Louisville v. Young.[*] But the facts of that case did not involve the construction of a contract made by a corporation created by an act of the legislature of Missouri. The point decided there was that a note given to secure a loan made in foreign bank notes by a foreign corporation doing business by an agent in St. Louis, contrary to the provisions of an act to prevent illegal banking, was void.

    We have been referred to no case in the courts of Missouri, nor are we aware of any, in which the question has been directly presented whether the general law relating to usury applies to and has the same effect upon a contract made in violation of its charter by a bank as upon a contract made by an individual. The question is one of great importance to the business interests of that State, and may be far-reaching in its consequences, and as it is not necessary to decide it in order to dispose of this case, in accordance with the principle on which the Circuit Court placed its decree we prefer to leave its decision to the State tribunals. Assuming, then, that this defendant is not within the purview of the general usury statute of the State, what are the consequences that must attach to it for taking excessive interest from Darby? The bill proceeds on the idea that the provision of the charter being violated all the loans to Darby were ultra vires and void, and as they were made to him within four and six months of his adjudication as a bankrupt, with the knowledge of the defendant during the whole *384 course of its dealing with him that he was insolvent, the complainant has, in his character of trustee, the right to recover for the use of his trust all the sums of money paid to the defendant by Darby, because paid in fraud of the Bankrupt Act.

    The defendant is by its charter authorized to lend money on interest, but is forbidden to exact more than 8 per cent. for the loan. No penalty is prescribed for transgressing the law, nor does the charter declare what effect shall be given to the usurious contract. This effect must, therefore, be determined by the general rules of law. The modern decisions in this country are not uniform on the question whether, if the bank takes more than the rate prescribed, the contract shall be avoided or not on these general rules; nor is this a matter of surprise if we consider the growing inclination to construe statutes against usury so as not to destroy the contract. It is, however, unnecessary to review these cases, or the earlier ones in England and this country, which uniformly hold that the contract is avoided, because this court has in the case of The Bank of the United States v. Owens,[*] decided the question. The bank in that case brought suit upon a promissory note that was discounted at a higher rate of interest than 6 per cent., which was the limit allowed by its charter upon its loans or discounts. The charter, like that of the Boatman's Institution, did not declare void any contract transcending the permitted limits, nor affix any penalty for the violation of the law. It was contended in that case, as it has been in this, that a mere prohibition to take more than a given per cent. does not avoid a contract reserving a greater rate, and that when a contract is avoided, it is always in consequence of an express provision of law to that effect. But the court held otherwise, and decided that such contracts are void in law upon general principles; "that there can be no civil right where there is no legal remedy, and there can be no legal remedy for that which is illegal." Chief Justice Taney, in the Maryland circuit, as *385 late as 1854, in a similar case, held similar views, and supported them by the decision in this case.[*] It must, therefore, be accepted as the doctrine of this court, that a contract to do an act forbidden by law is void, and cannot be enforced in a court of justice.

    But it does not follow in cases of usury, if the contract be executed, that a court of chancery, on application of the debtor, will assist him to recover back both principal and interest. To do this would be to aid one party to an illegal transaction and to deny redress to the other. Courts of equity have a discretion on this subject, and have prescribed the terms on which their powers can be brought into activity. They will give no relief to the borrower if the contract be executory, except on the condition that he pay to the lender the money lent with legal interest. Nor, if the contract be executed, will they enable him to recover any more than the excess he has paid over the legal interest.[†] In recognition of this doctrine the court below rendered a decree for the excess of interest over 8 per cent. per annum exacted of Darby on the note for $135,000, and dismissed the bill as to all other claims.

    The six accommodation notes, which the defendant alleges were purchased from note brokers, were really taken on loans to Darby, and the illegal interest received above 8 per cent. on them should, on the principle of that decree, be refunded, as much as that upon the larger note. It is true that usury is only predicable of an actual loan of money, and equally true that a negotiable promissory note, if a real transaction between the parties to it, can be sold in the market like any other commodity. The real test of the salability of such paper is whether the payee could sue the maker upon it when due. He could do this if it was a valid contract when made, otherwise not. Mere accommodation paper can have no effective or legal existence until it is transferred to a bonâ fide holder. It follows, then, that the *386 discounting by a bank at a higher rate of interest than the law allows of paper of this character, made and given to the holder for the purpose of raising money upon it, in its origin only a nominal contract, on which no action could be maintained by any of the parties to it if it had not been discounted, is usurious, and not defensible as a purchase. The point was decided in New York at an early day,[*] and this decision recognized and approved by this court in Nichols v. Fearson,[†] and the general current of decision is in the same direction.[‡]

    There are cases which hold that the purchaser of such paper is protected, if he took it in good faith of the holder, without knowledge of its origin, and in the belief that it was created in the regular course of business.[§] Whether this limitation of the rule be correct or not, it is not important to inquire, as the decision of the question under consideration does not rest upon it.

    The six notes which are the basis of the transaction complained of, were executed by Darby, solely for the purpose of raising money upon them, indorsed by Brotherton & Knox for his accommodation, and delivered by him to Stagg and other street brokers to be negotiated. This negotiation was effected with the Boatman's Institution, and it is perfectly manifest that the cashier, in purchasing the paper, did not suppose he was advancing the money for the benefit of the brokers who held them, or of Brotherton & Knox, who indorsed them. They were doubtless purchased because the security was deemed sufficient, but it is impossible to conceive that the cashier did not know the paper to be of that class called accommodation, as it is conceded that Brotherton & Knox were gentlemen of large pecuniary ability, and had no occasion to go upon the street to get paper held *387 by them bonâ fide, against Darby or any one else, discounted. Indeed, Stagg says the notes were negotiated for Darby s benefit, and explains in some instances how it was done. Darby would apply to him for money on his paper, and he would go to the Boatman's Institution to see if the cashier would take it, and if the reply was in the affirmative, the paper would be made, taken to the bank, and the money obtained on it. Can any rational person suppose, in the absence of any direct evidence, that the cashier in dealing with Stagg thought he was dealing with the owner of the notes? The presumption is that street brokers act for others, not themselves, and that the cashier was well acquainted with this course of business. If so, he knew, or ought to have known, that Darby wanted the money, and that the paper was made to enable him to get it, and for no other purpose. This being the case, the transaction can be viewed in no other light than as a loan of money directly to Darby, and as he paid more than 8 per cent. for its use, the Circuit Court erred in not ordering the excess to be refunded.

    The remaining question to be considered is, whether, in this case, the rights of the trustee are greater than those of Darby. It is certainly true, in very many cases, he can do what the bankrupt could not, because he represents the creditors of the insolvent. If, for instance, the bankrupt should create a trust which was designed to conceal his property from creditors, although equity would not lend its aid to him to enforce the trust, it would to his assignee for the benefit of creditors.[*] And many other examples might be cited in illustration of the rule, but it would be a waste of labor to do so. The point is whether, under the facts of this case, the bill will lie to recover back both principal and interest paid on the loans by Darby, when, as we have seen, if he had not been declared a bankrupt, and had filed it in his own behalf he could have only recovered the excess of interest paid beyond the charter rate.

    It is very clear if the loans in controversy had been made *388 at legal rates, and were not fraudulent in fact, they could not be impeached. There is nothing in the Bankrupt law which interdicts the lending of money to a man in Darby's condition, if the purpose be honest and the object not fraudulent. And it makes no difference that the lender had good reason to believe the borrower to be insolvent if the loan was made in good faith, without any intention to defeat the provisions of the Bankrupt Act. It is not difficult to see that in a season of pressure the power to raise ready money may be of immense value to a man in embarrassed circumstances. With it he might be saved from bankruptcy, and without it financial ruin would be inevitable. If the struggle to continue his business be an honest one, and not for the fraudulent purpose of diminishing his assets, it is not only not forbidden, but is commendable, for every one is interested that his business should be preserved. In the nature of things he cannot borrow money without giving security for its repayment, and this security is usually in the shape of collaterals. Neither the terms nor policy of the Bankrupt Act are violated if these collaterals be taken at the time the debt is incurred. His estate is not impaired or diminished in consequence, as he gets a present equivalent for the securities he pledges for the repayment of the money borrowed. Nor in doing this does he prefer one creditor over another, which it is one of the great objects of the Bankrupt law to prevent. The preference at which this law is directed can only arise in case of an antecedent debt. To secure such a debt would be a fraud on the act, as it would work an unequal distribution of the bankrupt's property, and, therefore, the debtor and creditor are alike prohibited from giving or receiving any security whatever for a debt already incurred if the creditor had good reason to believe the debtor to be insolvent. But the giving securities when the debt is created is not within the law, and if the transaction be free from fraud in fact, the party who loans the money can retain them until the debt is paid. In the administration of the bankrupt law in England this subject has frequently come before the courts, who have uniformly held that advances *389 may be made in good faith to a debtor to carry on his business, no matter what his condition may be, and that the party making these advances can lawfully take securities at the time for their repayment. And the decisions in this country are to the same effect.[*] Testing this case by this rule, there is no difficulty about it on the theory that the loans were not made in excess of lawful interest.

    There is nothing to invalidate the jail-bond transaction. If it was unwise in Darby to purchase these bonds the defendant did not advise it, and is not, therefore, chargeable with the fictitious credit which, it is alleged, he obtained by reason of the purchase. So far as the evidence shows the purchase was accomplished before the defendant knew of it. It is a fair inference of fact that the National Bank of Missouri was tired of carrying the loan which Darby made of it in order to buy the bonds, and that the effect of the loan from this defendant was to prevent their sacrifice. At any rate the creditors of Darby were not harmed by the transaction, for the bonds when sold realized more than they cost; nor was any wrong intended by Darby. The money was not borrowed to conceal it from creditors, but to take valuable securities out of pledge. This Darby had the right to do, and the defendant in helping him to do it was guilty of no fraud on creditors, nor was any contemplated. On the contrary, so far as we can see, the creditors were benefited by the substitution of the Boatman's Institution for the National Bank of Missouri. At all events Darby's estate was in no wise impaired by the transaction. The securities were valid in the hands of the defendant, and Darby could lawfully apply the proceeds arising from their sale to repay the advances made by it.

    If the six accommodation notes had been discounted at *390 legal rates the loan would have been equally unimpeachable. Conceding that the bank had good reason to believe Darby to be insolvent, the proceeding, as we have seen, was not necessarily fraudulent as a matter of law, and there is nothing in the evidence to show that it was fraudulent in fact. The loans were not made to defeat creditors or delay them, or to conceal property from them, nor was such their effect. The paper on which they were based was taken as other paper with good indorsers is taken in the regular course of business. There is no evidence that the money was used improperly, or that the bank supposed it would be. Darby, doubtless, raised the money hoping to be able to go on with his business; not to defeat his creditors, but to pay them.

    If it were clear at the time to his mind that he could overcome his difficulties (as we think it was), notwithstanding the real state of his affairs did not justify the belief, his conduct was not in fact fraudulent, nor is it condemned by any provision of the Bankrupt law.

    Does the fact, then, that the interest reserved on the notes in controversy exceeded the charter rate, change these transactions, which were lawful if not tainted with usury, so that the trustee can recover back the whole sum; when, as we have seen, Darby, if suing personally, could only recover the excess? We think not. The trustee in this matter has no larger interest than the bankrupt. The estate of Darby is diminished, by reason of his dealings with this defendant, to no greater extent than the usurious interest which he has paid. This the trustee should obtain as proper assets to be administered, but to allow him to get what he asks, would be to transfer to the creditors of Darby, a sum of money exceeding $150,000, which he never owned, by way of punishment of the bank for taking excessive interest. A court of equity does not deal with contracts affected with usury in this way. The relief it gives is always based on the idea that the money borrowed with legal interest shall be paid.[*]

    We have not considered the point raised about the exclusion *391 of evidence, because, at the most, the evidence, if admitted, would only have been cumulative on the subject of Darby's insolvency and the defendant's knowledge; and we have treated the case on the theory that the officers of the institution knew, when they made the loans and received payment of them, that Darby was insolvent.

    The case will have to go back for the purpose of enabling the Circuit Court to ascertain in some proper way the excess of interest over the charter rate paid on the six accommodation notes, and to enlarge the decree so as to cover that sum. In all other respects the disposition of this case by the Circuit Court was correct.

    DECREE REVERSED, and the cause remanded with directions to proceed



    [*] 39 Missouri, 448.

    [†] 42 Id. 35.

    [*] 37 Missouri, 406.

    [*] 2 Peters, 527.

    [*] Dill v. Ellicott, Taney's Circuit Court Decisions, 233.

    [†] Story's Equity Jurisprudence, 1 vol., 10th edition by Redfleld, §§ 300, 301, 302.

    [*] Munn v. Commission Co., 15 Johnson, 55.

    [†] 7 Peters, 109.

    [‡] Munn v. Commission Co., 15 Johnson, 55; Powell v. Waters, 17 Id. 176; Wheaton v. Hillard, 20 Id. 289; Powell v. Waters, 8 Cowen, 669; Corcoran & Riggs v. Powers, 6 Ohio State, 37; 3 Parsons on Contracts, 6th ed., p. 144, and cases cited in note S.

    [§] 3 Parsons on Contracts, p. 145, and cases cited in the note on that page.

    [*] Carr v. Hilton, 1 Curtis, 285.

    [*] Hilliard on Bankruptcy, ch. 10, p. 333, § 10; Hutton v. Cruttwell, 1 Ellis & Blackburn, 15; Bittlestone v. Cooke, 6 Id. 296; Harris v. Rickett, 4 Hurlstone & Norman, 1; Bell v. Simpson, 2 Id. 410; Lee v. Hart, 34 English Law and Equity, 569; Hunt v. Mortimer, 10 Barnewall & Cresswell, 44; Ex parte Shouse, Crabbe, 482; Wadsworth v. Tyler, 2 Bankrupt Register, 101.

    [*] 1 Story's Equity, §§ 301-302.