Taney v. Penn National Bank
232 U.S. 174 (1914)

Annotate this Case

U.S. Supreme Court

Taney v. Penn National Bank, 232 U.S. 174 (1914)

Taney v. Penn National Bank of Reading

No. 115

Argued December 9, 10, 1913

Decided January 26, 1914

232 U.S. 174

APPEAL FROM THE CIRCUIT COURT OF APPEALS

FOR THE THIRD CIRCUIT

In determining the relative rights of the trustee in bankruptcy and a secured creditor, the legal effect of the transaction securing the loan depends upon the local law.

The rule that physical retention by the vendor of goods capable of delivery to the vendee is a fraud per se does not apply in Pennsylvania in a transaction the inherent nature of which necessarily precludes delivery, or in which the absence of a physical delivery is excused by the applicable usages of trade.

Page 232 U. S. 175

Under the revenue laws of the United States, the government, although not strictly a bailee, is in complete control of a distillery warehouse which is in effect a bonded warehouse of the United States.

A distiller is not debarred from passing title or creating a special interest by way of pledge in whiskey deposited in his distillery warehouse in conformity with the revenue laws of the United States.

This Court will not condemn honest transactions growing out of the recognized necessities of a lawful business, and so held that the established practice of the distillery business to issue warehouse receipts for whiskey deposited in the distillery warehouse and pledge such receipts as security for loans is not one opposed to public policy.

In Pennsylvania, certificates issued by the owner of a distillery on whiskey in the distillery warehouse represent the property, and the delivery thereof as security for a loan made in good faith and in accordance with the usages of the trade amounts to actual delivery of the property itself.

187 F. 689 affirmed.

The facts, which involve the relative rights of the trustee in bankruptcy, and the holder as security for loans of warehouse receipts for whiskey in a distilling warehouse issued by the distiller, are stated in the opinion.

Page 232 U. S. 179

MR. JUSTICE HUGHES delivered the opinion of the Court.

On February 3, 1908, a petition in bankruptcy was filed against the Miller Pure Rye Distilling Company; it was adjudicated a bankrupt on February 19, 1908, and the appellant was appointed trustee. The Penn National Bank of Reading, Pennsylvania, the appellee, intervened in the bankruptcy proceeding with a petition asking for the delivery to it of 200 barrels of whisky stored in the bonded warehouse of the distilling company upon the ground that the property had been lawfully pledged by the company to the bank. The district court sustained the lien and accordingly held the claimant entitled to the delivery sought (176 F. 606), and, on appeal, this decree was affirmed by the circuit court of appeals (187 F. 689).

The pertinent facts are these: on August 27, 1907, the bank lent to the distilling company $2,500, for which the company gave its four months' note, reciting the deposit with the bank, as collateral security, of "200 bbls. whisky in bonded warehouse at Womelsdorf, Pa. as per Warehouse Rects. gauger's ctf. etc. accompanying." The form of the receipts is shown by the following copy of one of them:

"No. 5454 25 Bbls."

"First District of Pennsylvania"

"United States Internal Revenue Distillery Bonded"

"Warehouse of Miller Pure Rye Distilling Company"

"Ryeland, Berks Co., Pa. August 26th, 1907"

"Received on Storage from Ourselves Twenty-five (25) Barrels of Miller Pure Rye Whiskey Distilled, Marked and Numbered as per Record Attached, Subject to our Order and Risk of Loss or Damage by Fire, The Elements, Leakage, Evaporation or Accident, Deliverable only upon Surrender of this Certificate, Payment of Tax and other

Page 232 U. S. 180

Charges due Thereon, and Storage at the Rate of Five Cents per Barrel per month, from August 26th, 1907."

"Inspection Spring 1907"

"Stored in Warehouse No. 2"

"Serial Nos. of Packages 7964/7988"

"Miller Pure Rye Distilling Co."

"S. v. Nagle, President"

"Address all Communications to Miller Pure Rye Distilling Company, Philadelphia, Pa."

"Special Notice -- Particular care should be taken of this Certificate, as the whisky cannot be delivered without its surrender."

These receipts were indorsed by the company, and, with the gauger's certificates, were delivered to the bank. The whisky itself was not actually delivered, and remained in the bonded warehouse. The note not being paid at maturity, the bank, upon notice, sold the warehouse receipts at public sale on February 5, 1908, and became the purchaser. This sale, however, is not material to the present question, which turns upon the validity of the lien.

There is no doubt as to the intention and actual good faith of the parties. The loan was made in reliance upon the designated security, and the ground of attack is that the lien failed for want of delivery of possession.

The legal effect of the transaction depends upon the local law. Thompson v. Fairbanks,196 U. S. 516; Humphrey v. Tatman,198 U. S. 91; York Mfg. Co. v. Cassell,201 U. S. 344; Hiscock v. Varick Bank,206 U. S. 28; Security Warehousing Co. v. Hand,206 U. S. 415, 206 U. S. 425; Bryant v. Swofford Bros. Dry Goods Co.,214 U. S. 279. Reviewing the decisions of the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania with respect to sales, the principles of which were deemed to be applicable, the circuit court of appeals reached the following conclusion:

"It suffices to say that the law of

Page 232 U. S. 181

Pennsylvania in respect of the question we are now considering is settled by a line of cases extending through nearly a century. Starting with the policy of the statute of Elizabeth for the circumvention of fraud and deceit in sales of personal property (which nowhere in terms refers to retention of possession by a vendor), it has wisely developed the spirit of that statute and evolved the salutary rule that, where there is nothing in the case but the retention of a physical possession by the vendor, which he is capable of delivering to the vendee, such retention is fraud per se, and not merely evidence of fraud, even though there be nothing inconsistent with the most perfect honesty. But this rule is not applied by the courts of Pennsylvania to cases where the inherent nature of the transaction and the attendant circumstances are such as to preclude the possibility of a delivery by the vendor that would be consistent with the avowed and fair purpose of the sale, or where the absence of a physical delivery is excused by the usages of the trade or business in which the sale was made."

444, 187 F. 689, 696.

We entertain no doubt as to the correctness of this statement (Clow v. Woods, 5 S. & R. 277; Barr v. Reitz, 53 Pa. 256; McKibbin v. Martin, 64 Pa. 352; Crawford v. Davis, 99 Pa. 576; Stephens v. Gifford, 137 Pa. 219; Pressel v. Bice, 142 Pa. 263; Garretson v. Hackenberg, 144 Pa. 107; Barlow v. Fox, 203 Pa. 114; White v. Gunn, 205 Pa. 229), and it was in the light of these principles that the court below held that, considering the situation of the property and the usages of the business, the transaction in question was valid.

To insure collection of the heavy tax that is laid upon distilled spirits, the production is carefully supervised and the product is impounded. Rev.Stat. §§ 3247-3334, as amended; Act of May 28, 1880, c. 108, 21 Stat. 145; Act of August 27, 1894, c. 349, §§ 48-67, 28 Stat. 509, 563-568. Every distiller

Page 232 U. S. 182

is required to provide at his own expense

"a warehouse, to be situated on and to constitute a part of his distillery premises, and to be used only for the storage of distilled spirits of his own manufacture until the tax thereon shall have been paid."

This warehouse, when approved, by the Commissioner of Internal Revenue, is declared by the statute to be "a bonded warehouse of the United States, to be known as a distillery warehouse," and is

"under the direction and control of the collector of the district, and in charge of an internal revenue storekeeper, assigned thereto by the Commissioner"

(§ 3271). While the statute provides that "every distillery warehouse shall be in the joint custody of the storekeeper and the proprietor thereof," the control of the government's representative is made dominant, as, in the nature of the case, it must be in order to fulfill the purposes of the act. The warehouse, the statute continues,

"shall be kept securely locked, and shall at no time be unlocked or opened or remain open unless in the presence of such storekeeper or other person who may be designated to act for him as provided by law, and no articles shall be received in or delivered from such warehouse except on an order or permit addressed to the storekeeper and signed by the collector having control of the warehouse"

(§ 3274). Under the departmental regulations, "the only lock to the warehouse door must be the government lock, the key of which must at all times be in charge of the storekeeper." There must be an immediate removal of the distilled spirits to the distillery warehouse as soon as they are drawn into casks or packages and gauged, proved, and marked, as required, and thereupon the internal revenue gauger

"shall, in the presence of the storekeeper of the warehouse, place upon the head of the cask or package an engraved stamp, which shall be signed by the collector of the district and storekeeper and gauger, and shall have written thereon the number of proof-gallons contained

Page 232 U. S. 183

therein, the name of the distiller, the date of the receipt in the warehouse, and the serial number of each cask or package, in progressive order, as the same are received from the distillery"

(§ 3287; act of May 28, 1880, 21 Stat. 147, c. 108, § 6). The spirits must be entered for deposit in the warehouse under the regulations prescribed by the commissioner, and bond must be given for the payment of the tax. The statute gives the form of the entry which, made in triplicate and duly verified, must set forth the name of the person making it, the designation of the warehouse, the specification of the spirits deposited, with the marks and serial numbers of the packages, etc., and a statement of the amount of tax. Withdrawal may be made on payment of the tax -- which is payable within eight years -- by application to the collector in charge of the warehouse, and the making of a withdrawal entry (§§ 3293, 3294, Act of May 28, 1880, 21 Stat. 145, 146, c. 108, §§ 4, 5; Act of August 27, 1894, 28 Stat. 563, c. 349, § 49). Provision is made for regauging and for an allowance for loss from leakage or evaporation (id., § 50; Act of March 3, 1899, c. 435, 30 Stat. 1349; Act of Jan. 13, 1903, c. 134, 32 Stat. 770), and, after four years, the spirits may be bottled in bond, in a separate portion of the warehouse set apart for that purpose, under the supervision of the government official (Act of March 3, 1897, c. 379, 29 Stat. 626). The storekeeper is to keep "a warehouse book" in which all deposits and deliveries are to be entered with appropriate description, including marks and serial numbers (§ 3301). And the removal "of and distilled spirits from a distillery warehouse . . . in any manner other than is provided by law" is punishable by fine and imprisonment (§ 3296).

The minute regulations of the statute, and the provision for prolonged governmental control, proceed upon a recognition of the exigencies of the business. It is a

Page 232 U. S. 184

matter of common knowledge that the product is not ready to be marketed for consumption when it is drawn from the still. It must undergo an aging process, and for this purpose it is kept in store for several years. In laying the tax, Congress has taken this necessity into consideration, permitting a long postponement of the required payment, the spirits meanwhile being held in charge of the government's representative. It is, however, a matter of obvious business importance that the distiller should be able to release the capital represented in the cost of production of the spirits in store, and to make it available for further production, and hence the practice is well established to deal with the product in the bonded warehouse by sale or pledge, storage certificate suitably identifying the property being delivered in lieu of the actual transfer of possession. The district court found as a fact that it is

"the unbroken custom of the trade to treat storage receipts for spirits as completely equivalent to the spirits themselves, and to sell or pledge them freely without question."

This finding is approved by the circuit court of appeals, and the fact that this custom exists we understand to be undisputed.

It is argued for the appellant that one cannot make himself a warehouseman of his own goods, and issue so-called receipts to take the place of the delivery which the law requires to give effect to his sale or pledge (Security Warehousing Co. v. Hand,206 U. S. 415, 206 U. S. 422; Bank v. Jagode, 186 Pa. 556). The argument ignores the special circumstances of the case and the restrictions imposed by law upon the distiller. The building is his, but the government is in complete control. The spirits are his, but he is subject to fine and imprisonment if he attempts to remove them. It is undoubtedly true that the government is not strictly a bailee. It assumes no responsibility to the distiller for the safekeeping of the goods (United States v. Witten,143 U. S. 76, 143 U. S. 78). But the immunity

Page 232 U. S. 185

which is incident to the exercise of governmental power in no way limits its effect upon the distiller's relation to the goods. They are effectually taken out of his power, so that he is absolutely unable to make a physical delivery of them until the tax is paid. On the other hand, to pay the tax and remove the property before the aging process is completed would defeat the object of the deposit for which the statute provides, and would frustrate the purpose of a transfer of spirits in bond, which is an entirely lawful transaction. In these circumstances, the certificates -- such as were here used -- appropriately represent the property.

It is said that the distiller need not use his own warehouse, but may place the goods in one of he general bonded warehouses established under the Act of 1894 (28 Stat. 564, 565). The appellee asserts that this would be impracticable; that no general bonded warehouse had been established in the collection district in question; that there are only twelve in the entire country, with a capacity that is extremely small in comparison with the output of the distilleries. But, aside from this, the distillery warehouse is equally recognized by law; it is "a bonded warehouse of the United States." If it is a fit place for storage, the distiller is not obliged to remove the spirits elsewhere. And while they are thus deposited in conformity with law, he is not debarred from passing title or creating a special interest by way of pledge.

The fundamental objection is that the custom, to which the entire trade is adjusted, is opposed to public policy. But we know of no ground for thus condemning honest transactions which grow out of the recognized necessities of a lawful business. The case is not one where credit may be assumed to be given upon the faith of the ostensible ownership of goods in the debtor's possession. Everyone dealing with distillers is familiar with the established practice in accordance with which spirits are held in store,

Page 232 U. S. 186

under governmental control, and are transferred by the delivery of such documents as we have here. There is no warrant for saying that creditors are misled by delusive appearances. The usage serves a fair purpose, and there is no public policy which requires that the trade should be thrown into disorder by a refusal to uphold it. It is urged that frauds may be perpetrated by the duplication of such documents; but the present dispute does not call for the determination of the equities as between two innocent purchasers. We are concerned here simply with the rights of creditors represented by a trustee in bankruptcy, and we agree with the court below in its conclusion that, in the circumstances disclosed, his right is inferior to that of the appellee.

The decree is affirmed.

Affirmed.

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