Guarantee Co. of North America v. Mechanics' Sav. Bank & Trust Co. , 183 U.S. 402 ( 1902 )


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  • 183 U.S. 402 (1902)

    GUARANTEE COMPANY OF NORTH AMERICA
    v.
    MECHANICS' SAVINGS BANK AND TRUST COMPANY.

    No. 48.

    Supreme Court of United States.

    Argued April 23, 24, 1901.
    Decided January 6, 1902.
    CERTIORARI TO THE UNITED STATES CIRCUIT COURT OF APPEALS FOR THE SIXTH CIRCUIT.

    *416 Mr. William L. Granbery for petitioner.

    Mr. Edward H. East for respondent.

    MR. CHIEF JUSTICE FULLER, after stating the case as above, delivered the opinion of the court.

    The teller's bond, as originally given, expired January, 1889, and was renewed from year to year. Before each renewal, the bank was informed by the company that it was necessary that a certain certificate by the president or cashier should be furnished, which was done, and stated, among other things, that the accounts of the teller had been examined and verified by the finance committee of the bank. The bond provided that it *417 was issued and renewed "on the express understanding that the employe has not within the knowledge of the said employer at any former period either in this or other employment been guilty of any default or serious dereliction of duty;" "that the employer shall observe, or cause to be observed, all due and customary supervision over the said employe for the prevention of default;" and that there shall be "an inspection or audit of the accounts or books of the employe on behalf of the employer at least once in every twelve months from the date of this bond."

    The company, not unnaturally, contends that as when the bond was renewed in January, 1892, the bank's books showed that the employe was a defaulter in the sum of $19,600 understated liabilities, and of $3765.44 abstracted from bills receivable, both of which could have been detected by the taking of a trial balance as is customary, or a mere comparison between the books kept by Schardt and the individual ledger, and a correct footing of the notes, the bank had not only not complied with its engagements above referred to, and falsely certified to a verification which in fact had not been had, but was guilty of such laches as in itself to defeat a recovery.

    These are matters which, while not controlling our decision, should be considered in connection with that aspect of the case which we regard as decisive.

    In addition to the provisions already mentioned, it was agreed "that the employer shall at once notify the company, on his becoming aware of the said employe being engaged in speculation or gambling, or indulging in any disreputable or unlawful habits or pursuits."

    The legislation of Tennessee and the decisions of its courts placed dealing in futures, when either party did not contemplate delivery, in the category of gambling, and aimed to suppress it. Allen v. Dunham, 92 Tenn. 257; McGrew v. City Produce Exchange, 85 Tenn. 572; Palmer v. State, 88 Tenn. 553; act of March 30, 1883, Acts 1883, c. 251, 331.

    The evidence showed that in the summer or fall of 1892 the cashier of the bank was told that the teller was part owner in a concern engaged in speculative business; he at once informed *418 the president of the bank; and also called Schardt's attention to the matter, who admitted that he had once been engaged in such a concern, but said he had sold out, and also that he had speculated to some extent, but had ceased to do so. The cashier further testified that he afterwards received an anonymous letter that Schardt was speculating, and showed it to the president; that he spoke to Schardt about it; that the latter said he thought he knew the author, and asked for the letter, that he might bring the party before the cashier and make him acknowledge that it was false. The letter was given him but nothing came of it, although he was asked about it more than once. This conversation was reported to the president. A leading director and a member of the finance committee was shown by another director an anonymous letter to him, to the same effect, which was reported to the president. The letter stated that Schardt was in partnership in a bucket shop. Schardt said it was a lie, and brought his partners before the president and the two directors, and they said that they had opened a brokerage association with Schardt, but that Schardt had sold out. This director subsequently heard again that Schardt was speculating and went to Schardt's house and interviewed him, and he said he did not own any stocks at all, he had sold everything he had. He heard this again shortly after the cashier's bond was given, and Schardt again denied it. Complainant did not put the president of the bank on the stand.

    In these circumstances was it the duty of the bank to notify the company of what it had heard?

    In American Surety Company v. Pauly, 170 U.S. 133, 144, which was an action against the maker of a bond given to insure a bank against loss arising from acts of fraud or dishonesty on the part of its cashier, the applicable rule was thus laid down:

    "If, looking at all its provisions, the bond is fairly and reasonably susceptible of two constructions, one favorable to the bank and the other favorable to the surety company, the former, if consistent with the objects for which the bond was given, must be adopted, and this for the reason that the instrument which the court is invited to interpret was drawn by the attorneys, *419 officers or agents of the surety company. This is a well established rule in the law of insurance. . . . As said by Lord St. Leonards in Anderson v. Fitzgerald, 4 H.L. Cas. [*]484, [*]507, `it [a life policy] is of course prepared by the company, and if therefore there should be any ambiguity in it, must be taken, according to law, most strongly against the person who prepared it.' There is no sound reason why this rule should not be applied in the present case. The object of the bond in suit was to indemnify or insure the bank against loss arising from any act of fraud or dishonesty on the part of O'Brien in connection with his duties as cashier, or with the duties to which in the employer's service he might be subsequently appointed. That object should not be defeated by any narrow interpretation of its provisions, nor by adopting a construction favorable to the company if there be another construction equally admissible under the terms of the instrument executed for the protection of the bank."

    But this rule cannot be availed of to refine away terms of a contract expressed with sufficient clearness to convey the plain meaning of the parties, and embodying requirements compliance with which is made the condition to liability thereon.

    Whatever the common law duty on the part of the employer to notify the guarantor of the fraud or dishonesty of the employe, whose fidelity is guaranteed, the parties to this contract undertook to declare the duty of the bank to the company in certain specified particulars. It required that the employe should not have been guilty of previous default or dereliction within the knowledge of the employer. It provided for notification of any act of the employe which might involve a loss with out unreasonable delay after the occurrence of the act came to the knowledge of the employer. And it required immediate notification on the employer becoming aware of the employe being engaged in speculation or gambling. The words, "becoming aware," were manifestly used as expressive of a different meaning from having "knowledge."

    In Pauly's case, where the bond required that the company should be notified in writing "of any act on the part of the employe, which may involve a loss for which the company is *420 responsible hereunder, as soon as practicable after the occurrence of such act may have come to the knowledge of the employer," it was ruled that it had been properly held "that the surety company did not intend to require written notice of any act upon the part of the cashier that might involve loss, unless the bank had knowledge, not simply suspicion, of the existence of such facts as would justify a careful and prudent man in charging another with fraud or dishonesty."

    But the bond before us not only contained that clause but the clause under consideration, which was a different and additional clause intended to secure the safety of prevention through timely warning.

    It seems to us that the obvious meaning of "becoming aware," as used in this bond, is "to be informed of," or, "to be apprised of," or, "to be put on one's guard in respect to," and that no other meaning is equally admissible under the terms of the instrument. These are the definitions of the lexicographers, distinctly deducible from the derivation of the word "aware," and that is the sense in which they are here employed. It is used in the same sense in the cashier's certificate on the renewals of the teller's bond.

    To be aware is not the same as to have knowledge. The bond itself distinguishes between the two phrases and uses them as not synonymous with each other. And, in view of the plain object of the clause, we cannot regard the words equivalent to "becoming satisfied," though perhaps they may be to "having reason to believe." Even then these facts would have demanded investigation or notification, for we think the bank cannot be heard to say it did not have reason to believe that Schardt was speculating when it took his professions of repentance as sufficient assurance that he had ceased speculating, and turned its back on any independent inquiry or investigation. Our understanding of the provision is that what the company stipulated for was prompt notification of information by the bank in regard to speculation or gambling on the part of the employe. It was entitled to exercise its own judgment on that information and had not agreed to rely on the bank's belief in that regard. It had the right to investigate for itself whether *421 the bank did so or not. Notification of the existence of reason for inquiry was exactly what the clause was intended to secure. The bank neither investigated nor gave the company notice of the information it had, and substituted its own judgment as to the value of that information for that of the company. In our view this conduct on its part amounted to a breach of the stipulation.

    The Circuit Judge in his opinion said: "The language of the bond is that the employer shall report `on his becoming aware of the employe being engaged in speculation.' Without now stopping to consider at length the meaning of the terms here used, I am of opinion that, in the absence of fraud or bad faith, the failure to disclose the result of the inquiry made in this instance did not invalidate the bond as to the surety. Certainly, speculation in a reasonable and substantial sense is meant, such in length of time or magnitude as would make it serious. This, when brought to the attention of the bank officials, was a past event, and apparently in itself unimportant. The bank was under no duty by the contract or independently of it to actively institute or prosecute inquiries about Schardt, or to run down loose rumors or anonymous letters." 68 Fed. Rep. 459, 465.

    The Circuit Court of Appeals said: "There is not the least evidence of any bad faith on the part of any of these officers of the bank, including Sykes, the old cashier, in not making a disclosure of what was known, but only of bad judgment in not being more considerably affected by their information." 47 U.S. App. 115.

    The quotations show that the Circuit Court of Appeals and the Circuit Court concurred in the opinion that if the president and directors had such confidence in Schardt that they did not feel called upon to make any investigation in view of the information that they had received, or to notify the company of that information, and were not guilty of intentional bad faith, then the bank could not be held to have violated the stipulations of the bond on its part.

    As will have been seen, we are unable to accept this conclusion. The company's defence did not rest on the duty of diligence growing out of the relation of the parties, but on the *422 breach of one of the stipulations entered into between them. The question was not merely whether the conduct of the bank was contrary to the nature of the contract, but whether it was not contrary to its terms. Engagement in speculation or gambling was what the company sought to guard against because experience had admonished it of the probability that speculation or gambling would lead to acts involving loss for which it would be responsible. Bad faith in the view of the courts below would not exist if the bank had such confidence in Schardt's integrity that it accepted his bare statement that he was not speculating as overcoming the weight of his admission that he had been. How anything but such a denial could be expected it is not easy to see, nor how careful and prudent men could have been justified in omitting independent inquiry.

    The truth is that in spite of strict supervision and the pursuit of the best systems of keeping accounts, there is always a risk of defalcation. The prevention of defaults or their detection at the earliest possible moment are of even more vital importance to financial institutions than to the guarantors of the fidelity of their employes. The provisions intended to protect the company in this case were not in themselves unreasonable and so far as they operated to compel the bank to exercise due supervision and examination, and due vigilance, were consistent with sound public policy. We think it was the duty of this bank to have made prompt investigation, or at all events to have notified the company at once of the information that it had, and we decline to hold that the bank's misplaced confidence in Schardt affords sufficient ground for enforcing the liability of the surety company on the theory of good faith.

    Our conclusion is that the failure of the bank in the particulars adverted to defeats a recovery on the teller's bond for defalcation after information of Schardt being engaged in speculation was received.

    It also results that there can be no recovery at all on the cashier's bond. If the bank had observed the stipulation in the teller's bond to which we have referred, it is obvious that *423 there would have been no cashier's bond, and the question would not have arisen. But this it did not do, and the bond was given. The bond provided that the company covenanted with the bank in reliance on the statement and declaration of the president on behalf of the bank, and on the bank's strict observance of the contract; that any misstatement of a material fact in the declaration should invalidate the bond; that the bank should use "all due and customary diligence in the supervision of said employe for the prevention of default;" "that any written answers or statements made by or on behalf of said employer in regard to or in connection with the conduct, duties, accounts or methods of supervision of the said employe delivered to the company either prior to the issue of this bond, or to any renewal thereof, or at any time during its currency, shall be held to be a warranty thereof, and form a basis of this guarantee, or of its continuance."

    Two of the questions and answers in the declaration were as follows:

    "Q. Have you known or heard anything unfavorable as to his habits or associations, past or present? A. No.

    "Q. Or of any matters concerning him about which you deem it advisable for the company to make inquiry? A. No."

    In Pauly's Case, the president and the cashier were confederates in the dishonesty of the cashier, for the purpose of defrauding the bank; and also it was held no part of the duties of the president under the circumstances there disclosed to certify to the integrity of the cashier as he did. In this case the dishonesty was that of the cashier alone; the statements were required to be and were made on behalf of the bank, and the president acted for the bank in so doing; and the bonds were procured by the bank, and the bank paid the premiums. There can be no doubt that the bank was responsible for the representations of its cashier in the one instance and its president in the other in procuring these contracts of indemnity. The representations made in the declaration on which the cashier's bond was issued were clearly misrepresentations. The teller's bond required notification if the bank were informed of speculation on Schardt's part. The president had heard of such speculation, *424 and knew that speculating was something unfavorable as to Schardt's habits; and the president of course knew that the matters concerning him, of which he had heard, were such as it was advisable for the company to make inquiry about. True, the second question was if he had heard of matters about which he deemed it advisable for the company to inquire and the word "deem" might be said to give a considerable discretion, but it was not a discretion to be abused. That the company would consider it advisable to make inquiry is too plain for argument. The whole tenor of the bond renders any other conclusion impossible.

    We cannot regard the representations of the president as consistent with good faith, and he was not even called as a witness by the bank to explain his conduct, if he could have done so.

    The decrees of both courts are reversed, and the cause remanded to the Circuit Court for further proceedings consistent with this opinion.

Document Info

DocketNumber: 48

Citation Numbers: 183 U.S. 402, 22 S. Ct. 124, 46 L. Ed. 253, 1902 U.S. LEXIS 723

Judges: Fuller, After Stating the Case as Above

Filed Date: 1/6/1902

Precedential Status: Precedential

Modified Date: 4/15/2017

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