Erwin v. United States , 97 U.S. 392 ( 1878 )


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  • 97 U.S. 392 (____)

    ERWIN
    v.
    UNITED STATES.

    Supreme Court of United States.

    *394 Mr. John J. Weed and Mr. Enoch Totten for the appellant.

    Mr. Assistant-Attorney-General Smith, contra.

    MR. JUSTICE FIELD, after stating the case, delivered the opinion of the court.

    The purpose of the statute passed for the relief of the appellant, *395 as is manifest on its face, was to remove the bar of the Captured and Abandoned Property Act, which had arisen without his fault, or rather to confer jurisdiction upon the Court of Claims over his case, which otherwise would not have existed. It was not intended to enlarge or affect his title to the claim, or to change his position in court from what it would have been had he instituted his suit within the two years prescribed by that act. His claim must, therefore, be considered like the claims of other suitors, both with respect to its original validity as a demand against the government and with respect to his title. If the proof fail in either of these particulars, no recovery can be had.

    There is no question made as to the appellant's ownership of the cotton at the time of its seizure, or as to its proceeds being in the treasury of the United States; nor is any point raised against his status in court from his former connection with the rebellion as an officer in the Confederate army, the disability thus created having been removed by the President's proclamation of pardon and amnesty.

    The point in dispute relates to the validity of his title. His contention is, 1st, that his claim against the United States for the proceeds of the cotton never passed to the assignee in bankruptcy; and, 2d, that if it did thus pass, he afterwards became the owner of it by purchase of the assets at the sale mentioned.

    Upon the first point, the argument of the appellant is substantially this: That the claim, at the time the petition in bankruptcy was filed, did not constitute an enforceable demand against the government, and was not, therefore, in its nature assignable property; and that if the claim constituted a demand against the government in the nature of property, it was incapable of assignment, under the act of Congress of Feb. 26, 1853 (10 Stat. 170), and the decision of this court in United States v. Gillis, 95 U.S. 407; and that in either view the appellant stands in his original position before proceedings in bankruptcy were instituted, with his rights or equities respecting such claim unaffected by them.

    This argument is unsound. When the appellant filed his petition in bankruptcy, his claim against the government was property, though of uncertain value. It was a claim for the proceeds *396 of goods which once belonged to him, and of the possession of which he has been deprived by the action of the government. Whether this was done rightfully or wrongfully does not affect the character of the claim as property, though it may affect its validity and value. Claims for compensation for the possession, use, or appropriation of tangible property constitute personal estate equally with the property out of which they grow, although the validity of such claims may be denied, and their value may depend upon the uncertainties of litigation, or the doubtful result of an appeal to the legislature. A demand of a bankrupt, which is outlawed, must go to the assignee; for contingencies may arise in many ways which will give value to it. Demands against the government, if based upon considerations which would be valid between individuals, such as services rendered or goods taken, are property, although there be no court to investigate and pass upon their validity, and their recognition and payment may depend upon the caprice or favor of the legislature.

    In Comegys v. Vasse, reported in 1 Peters, this court said, speaking through Mr. Justice Story, that it might, in general, be affirmed that vested rights ad rem and in re, possibilities coupled with an interest, and claims growing out of and adhering to property, will pass by assignment; and it was there held that a claim against the Spanish government, by a bankrupt, for damages arising from the capture of vessels and cargoes, of which he was the underwriter, and which were abandoned to him, passed to his assignee in bankruptcy. "The right," said the court, "to indemnity for an unjust capture, whether against the captors or the sovereign, whether remediable in his own courts, or by his own extraordinary interposition and grants upon private petition, or upon public negotiation, is a right attached to the ownership of the property itself, and passes by cession to the use of the ultimate sufferer;" and is in its nature capable of assignment to others. The Bankrupt Act of 1800, under which the case arose, provided that "all the estate, real and personal, of every nature and description, to which the bankrupt might be entitled, either in law or equity," should go to his assignee; and the court held that the words were broad enough to cover every description of *397 vested right and interest attached to and growing out of property; that under them the whole property of a testator would pass to his devisee, and whatever an administrator could take in case of intestacy would go to him. The language of the act under which the appellant here filed his petition in bankruptcy is equally comprehensive as to the property of a bankrupt which shall go to his assignee. It declares that all his estate, real and personal, and all his rights in equity and choses in action, shall vest in the assignee; and these terms are broad enough to embrace any claim the party may have against the government for property taken belonging to him. Rev.Stat., sects. 5044, 5046.

    The act of Congress of Feb. 26, 1853, to prevent frauds upon the treasury of the United States, which was the subject of consideration in the Gillis Case, applies only to cases of voluntary assignment of demands against the government. It does not embrace cases where there has been a transfer of title by operation of law. The passing of claims to heirs, devisees, or assignees in bankruptcy is not within the evil at which the statute aimed; nor does the construction given by this court deny to such parties a standing in the Court of Claims.

    Upon the second point, that the claim in controversy was purchased by the appellant at the private sale of the assignee, we think the evidence insufficient. It appears from the copy of the schedules of the bankrupts' property, prepared by the register for the use of the assignee, that the sheet showing the claim against the United States for three hundred and eighty-two bales of cotton had, in some unexplained way, been removed, so that he had no knowledge of the existence of the claim when he sold the remaining assets to the appellant. The receipt given by him shows that he considered that he was selling the assets of the firm only, and not of either of the separate partners. We are clear that it was not his intention to sell the claim against the government. There was a want of concurrence of minds to any such transaction, which was essential to give it validity.

    Judgment affirmed.