United States v. Robeson
34 U.S. 319 (1835)

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U.S. Supreme Court

United States v. Robeson, 34 U.S. 9 Pet. 319 319 (1835)

United States v. Robeson

34 U.S. (9 Pet.) 319

Syllabus

Louisiana. An action was instituted on a Treasury transcript for the recovery of the balance stated to be due to the United States by the defendant as Assistant Deputy Quartermaster General. The defendant pleaded as setoff a claim on the United States which had been assigned to him by the owners of a schooner chartered to the united States on a voyage from New Orleans to Appalachicola with troops, &c. This claim was presented to the proper officer of the government and refused. Held: the defendant was not entitled to plead this as a setoff of the claim of the United States.

The rule as to setoff, in questions arising exclusively under the laws of the United States, cannot be influenced by any local law or usage. The rule must be uniform in the different states, for it constituted the law of the courts of the United States in a matter which related to the federal government.

When a defendant has, in his own right, an equitable claim against the government for services rendered or otherwise and has presented it to the proper accounting officer of the government, who has refused to allow it, he may set up the claim as a credit in a suit brought against him for any balance of money claimed to be due by the government, and when the vouchers are not in the power of the defendant before the trial or, from the peculiar circumstances of the case, a presentation of the claim to the Treasury could not be required, the offset may be submitted to the action of the jury. But a claim for unliquidated damages cannot be pleaded by way of setoff in an action between individuals, and the same rule governs in an action brought by the government.

Where the parties in their contract fix on a certain mode by which the amount to be paid shall be ascertained, the party that seeks an enforcement of the agreement must show that he has done everything on his part which could be done to carry it into effect. He cannot compel the payment of the amount claimed unless he shall procure the kind of evidence required by the contract or show that, by time or accident, he is unable to do so.

The United States on 10 January, 1822, instituted a suit by petition in the District Court of the United States in Louisiana against the defendant, William L. Robeson, late Assistant Deputy Quartermaster General in the Army of the United States, claiming to recover the sum of $2,663.61 for the balance of his account as such officer as settled and examined, adjusted, admitted, and certified at said department.

Page 34 U. S. 320

To this petition and the citation issued thereon the defendant answered and pleaded that the United States was indebted to him in the sum of $3,000 for work, labor, attendance, &c., bestowed by him in and about the business of the United States and for the United States at its request and for materials and necessary things by him before the time of action bought, found, and employed in and about the said work and labor, for goods sold and delivered, and for money laid out and expended for the United States at its request, for money due and owing to him and interest thereon, which sums of money exceed the sum claimed by the United States from him, and out of which sum so claimed he is willing and offers to set off and allow to the United States the full amount of their claim.

On the same day this answer and plea were filed, 21 January, 1822, William L. Robeson filed an affidavit sworn to and subscribed in open court stating that he was equitably entitled to credits which had been submitted, previously to the commencement of the suit, to the accounting officers of the Treasury and rejected; that the credits are as follows, viz. the sum of $30 for transportation of officers to Baton Rouge and back to New Orleans, and an amount of $39 for transportation of officers from Pass Christianne to New Orleans. That a claim of $364.50 for transportation of contractors' stores taken from the wreck of the schooner Italian and delivered at Appalachicola in April, 1818; a claim for demurrage at Mobile Point, of the schooner Experiment in a voyage from New Orleans to Appalachicola in 1818, to-wit, $330, were presented to the Quartermaster General's Department and returned.

Issue being joined, and the cause having been brought to trial in December, 1829, a verdict was found for the plaintiff for a less amount than the balance of the account stated at the Treasury of the United States, the verdict being for $1,656.11, instead of $2,663.61. This difference resulted from allowances made by the jury under the ruling and direction of the court upon various points which arose at the trial, in respect to which several bills of exception were filed by the counsel of the United States.

The first bill of exceptions stated that the defendant gave

Page 34 U. S. 321

in evidence certain depositions to prove the amount of loss and damage claimed by Forsyth and Walton and Breedlove, owners of a certain schooner called the Experiment to be due to them by the United States, together with an assignment by the said owners to the defendant, for the consideration of $500, of the whole of the amount so claimed by them under a charter of the Experiment to the defendant, as assistant deputy quartermaster general, to proceed from New Orleans to Appalachicola with stores, their claim being for the transportation by the Experiment of provisions and stores belonging to the United States taken from the wreck of a schooner and carried to Appalachicola, amounting to $364.50, for demurrage of the schooner $330, and for the loss of a cable and anchor $226.20, together $920.70.

The plaintiffs prayed the court to instruct the jury that the defendant could not set off against the demand of the United States a greater sum than that expressed as the consideration of the transfer, viz., $500. The demurrage claimed was for detention of the schooner at Mobile Point, and he proved by the charter party the right of the charterers to the same and his right under the assignment thereof and offered evidence of the detention of the vessel at Mobile Point.

The plaintiffs prayed the court to instruct the jury that evidence of a detention at Mobile Point could not sustain a claim for damage under the charter party and that under the pleading and Treasury report, no offset could be sustained for a detention at Mobile Point, but the court refused so to instruct, and to these refusals the plaintiffs excepted.

The third bill of exceptions relates to the assignment from the owners of the schooner Experiment, mentioned in the first bill. The plaintiffs objected to its admission in evidence because it had been received by the defendant after he had ceased to be in the employ of the United States, and because not offered as proof of payment of a debt due from the United States, but as evidence of the purchase of a claim against the United States, which could not be set off in this action. The court overruled these objections, and the plaintiffs excepted.

The other bills of exception are not inserted, as they were not noticed in the opinion of the Court.

Page 34 U. S. 323

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