Mayfield v. Richards
115 U.S. 137 (1885)

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U.S. Supreme Court

Mayfield v. Richards, 115 U.S. 137 (1885)

Mayfield v. Richards

Submitted April 22, 1885

Decided May 4, 1885

115 U.S. 137

Syllabus

The Act of June 11, 1864, 13 Stat. 123,

"That whenever, during the existence of the present rebellion, any action, civil or criminal, shall accrue against any person who, by reason of resistance to the execution of the laws of the United States or the interruption of the ordinary course of judicial proceedings, cannot be served with process, . . . the time during which such person shall so be beyond the reach of legal process shall not be deemed or taken as any part of the time limited by law for the commencement of such action,"

applies to cases in the courts of the states as well as to cases in the courts of the United States, and as thus construed is constitutional.

The facts shown by the record were as follows:

On March 30, 1860, Walter O. Winn, of the parish of Rapides, in the State of Louisiana, made and delivered to the firm of Rotchford, Brown & Co., of the City of New Orleans, his nine promissory notes, each for the payment to their order of $5,000, four of which were to become due and payable on November 10, 1860, and five on December 10, 1860. Winn died in 1861, leaving a last will, which was afterwards duly proven, by which he made his wife, Mary E. Winn, his universal heir and legatee and executrix. As such, she took possession of the estate. The nine notes payable to the order of Rotchford, Brown & Co. were presented to Mrs. Winn, as executrix, for her acknowledgment thereof as a debt against the succession of Winn, and she endorsed on each of them such acknowledgment, with a promise to pay the same in due course of administration. These endorsements all bore date November 1, 1865. Mrs. Winn continued in the office of executrix until September 30, 1873, when, by the order of the District Court for the Parish of Rapides, she was "destituted" -- that is to say, removed -- "from said executorship of the estate of Winn," and J. M. Wells, Jr., appointed dative testamentary executor of said succession.

Page 115 U. S. 138

On July 5, 1880, Wells, as such executor, filed a provisional account of his administration in the District Court for the Parish of Rapides, which had probate jurisdiction. In his account he recognized the nine notes above mentioned, payable to the order of Rotchford, Brown & Co., which, in January, 1866, had been transferred by the payees to the appellant, John S. Mayfield, as valid claims against the succession, and proposed to apply the assets in his hands to their payment. Mrs. Winn, under the name of Mary E. Richards, she having intermarried with A. Keene Richards, filed, with the authorization of her said husband, on January 11, 1881, her opposition to the allowance and payment of the notes, and stated her ground of opposition as follows:

"The notes are prescribed, and were prescribed at the date they were accepted by the executrix, the date of acceptance being written on the back of the notes long before they were accepted by the executrix, and accepted in error."

One John D. Du Bose, a creditor of the succession, also opposed the recognition and payment of the notes because

"said nine notes were all prescribed long before they were pretended to be acknowledged by the executrix, Mrs. Mary E. Winn, and the acknowledgment was made by her in the City of New Orleans, Louisiana, in January or February, 1866, and not on the first day of November, 1865, as it purports."

There was no charge, and no attempt to prove that the antedating of the acknowledgment of the executrix had been fraudulently procured, and if the notes were not prescribed until long after January, 1866, as contended by Mayfield, there was no motive to antedate the acknowledgment and nothing to be gained by so doing.

The contention that these notes were prescribed was based on Article 3540 of the Civil Code of Louisiana, which declares that "Notes payable to order or bearer . . . are prescribed by five years, reckoning from the day when the engagements were payable." Mayfield contended that the notes had been admitted as valid debts against the succession of Winn by the executrix, on November 1, 1865, as appeared by her endorsement thereon, and, as such endorsement was made before the

Page 115 U. S. 139

expiration of five years after the maturity of the notes, it was effectual to suspend prescription, and the notes were therefore not prescribed. Upon the opposition of Mrs. Winn and Du Bose, the question whether the nine notes were prescribed was tried by the judge of the district court in which the opposition was filed. He admitted evidence to show, and upon it decided, that the acknowledgment of Mrs. Winn, as executrix, endorsed upon the notes, and purporting to be dated November 1, 1865, was not in fact made on that day, but sometime between the first and tenth days of January, 1866. As this was more than five years after the maturity of the notes, it was not competent for the executrix to acknowledge them, and they were apparently barred by the prescription of five years provided by the law of the state.

But the appellant, Mayfield, contended that the notes were saved from the prescription of five years by the act of Congress of June 11, 1864, 13 Stat. 123, entitled "An act in relation to the limitation of actions in certain cases," which provided that

"Whenever during the existence of the present rebellion any action, civil or criminal, shall accrue against any person who, by reason of resistance to the execution of the laws of the United States, or the interruption of the ordinary course of judicial proceedings, cannot be served with process, . . . the time during which such person shall so be beyond the reach of legal process shall not be deemed or taken as any part of the time limited by law for the commencement of such action."

To bring the notes in controversy within the terms of this statute, Mayfield offered to the district court evidence tending to show that Rotchford, Brown & Co., the payees, were domiciled in the City of New Orleans, and were doing business there when the city was taken by the federal forces in 1862, and that Shepherd Brown, one of the members of the firm, was in the city in 1864, and that Mayfield, the appellant, was also a resident of New Orleans. He also introduced testimony tending to show that the United States had no jurisdiction over the Parish of Rapides during the war except a military one, and that such military

Page 115 U. S. 140

jurisdiction lasted for but a short time; that the federal troops came to Alexandria, the county seat of Rapides Parish, about March 17, 1864, and remained in possession thereof until about May 15, when they departed; that before leaving, they burned the Town of Alexandria, including the courthouse, after which there was a State of disorganization; there was no court and there were no officers in the parish until after July 9, 1865; that Mrs. Winn, the executrix, had gone as a refugee to Texas, and no service could have been made on her from the time the courthouse was burned until she returned to Rapides Parish in December, 1865. This testimony was uncontradicted.

Upon this evidence, the district court decided that, conceding that the acknowledgment of Mrs. Winn as executrix was not endorsed on the nine notes until some day between the first and tenth of January, 1866, yet the prescription of the notes was suspended by the act of Congress above recited for a period sufficient to save them from the bar of article 3540 of the Code of Louisiana, and thereupon rendered judgment that the claim of Mayfield was a valid and legal debt due from the succession of Winn and was properly placed in the provisional account as an ordinary claim. Mrs. Winn and Du Bose carried this judgment to the Supreme Court of Louisiana for review. That court, assuming that the facts which the evidence introduced in the district court tended to prove were established, reversed the judgment of the district court on the ground that the act of Congress on which Mayfield relied to suspend prescription applied only to causes and proceedings in the courts of the United States, and not to causes and proceedings in the courts of the states, and that the claim of Mayfield was therefore prescribed when Mrs. Winn, the executrix, undertook to acknowledge it in January, 1866. The present writ of error, sued out by Mayfield, brings the judgment of the Supreme Court of Louisiana under review.

Page 115 U. S. 141

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