Thompson v. Fairbanks,
196 U.S. 516 (1905)

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U.S. Supreme Court

Thompson v. Fairbanks, 196 U.S. 516 (1905)

Thompson v. Fairbanks

No. 114

Submitted January 6, 1905

Decided February 20, 1905

196 U.S. 516


Whether, and to what extent, a chattel mortgage, which includes after-acquired property, is valid is a local, and not a federal, question, and in such a case, this Court will follow the decisions of the state court.

The enforcement of a lien by the mortgagee's taking possession, with the consent of the mortgagor, of after-acquired property covered by a valid mortgage made and recorded prior to the passage of the act is not a conveyance or transfer under the Bankrupt Act, and, where it does not appear that it was done to hinder, delay or defraud creditors, it does not constitute a preference under the act, although, at the time of the enforcement, the mortgagee may have known that the mortgagor was insolvent and considering going into bankruptcy and the petition was filed within four months thereafter.

The plaintiff in error, by this writ, seeks to review a judgment of the Supreme Court of the State of Vermont in favor of the defendant in error. 75 Vt. 361. The facts upon

Page 196 U. S. 517

which the judgment rests are as follows: on the thirtieth day of June, 1900, Herbert E. Moore, of St. Johnsbury, in the State of Vermont, filed his voluntary petition in bankruptcy in the United States District Court for the District of Vermont, and on the third day of July, 1900, Moore was by the court duly adjudged a bankrupt, and on the fifteenth of September, 1900, the plaintiff in error was appointed a trustee in bankruptcy of Moore's estate, and duly qualified. He commenced this action in the County Court of Caledonia County, in the State of Vermont, on the first Tuesday of June, 1901, against the defendant Fairbanks to recover from him the value of certain personal property alleged to have belonged to the bankrupt Moore on the sixteenth day of May, 1900, and which was, as alleged, sold and converted by Fairbanks, on that day, to his own use, the value of the property being $1,500, as averred in the declaration. The defendant filed his plea and gave notice that, upon the trial of the case he would give in evidence and rely upon, in defense of the action, certain special matters set up in the plea. The case was, by order of the county court, and by the consent of the parties, referred to a referee to hear the cause and report to the court. It was subsequently heard before the referee, who filed his report, finding the facts upon which the decision of the case must rest. He found that, before June, 1886, the bankrupt Moore bought a livery stock and business in St. Johnsbury Village, in the State of Vermont. At the time of this purchase, the defendant was the lessor of the buildings in which the business was conducted, and it continued to be carried on in those buildings. Moore, in making the purchase, had assumed a mortgage then outstanding on the property, and a short time before March 1, 1888, the defendant assisted him to pay this mortgage by signing a note with him for $1,425, payable to the Passumpsic Savings Bank of St. Johnsbury. Subsequently defendant signed notes which, with accrued interest, were merged in one, dated March 1, 1900, for $2,510.75, due on demand to said savings bank, signed by the bankrupt

Page 196 U. S. 518

and by the defendant as his surety. This note had not been paid when the case was referred to the referee. The defendant also signed other notes payable to the First National Bank of St. Johnsbury, which were merged into one, and, by various payments made by Moore, it was reduced to $525, and on June 4, 1900, it was paid by the defendant. All these notes had been signed by the defendant to assist Moore in carrying on, building up, and equipping his livery stable and livery business, and as between them, the notes belonged to Moore to pay. On April 15, 1891, Moore gave the defendant a chattel mortgage on the livery property to secure him for these and other debts and liabilities. The property was described in the mortgage as follows:

"All my livery property, consisting of horses, wagons, sleighs, vehicles, harnesses, robes, blankets, etc., also all horses and other livery property that I may purchase in my business or acquire by exchange."

The condition contained in the mortgage was, that, if Moore should

"well and truly pay, or cause to be paid, to the said Henry Fairbanks all that I now owe him, or may owe him hereafter by note, book account, or in any other manner, and shall well and truly save the said Henry Fairbanks harmless, and indemnify him from paying any commercial paper on which he has become or may hereafter become holden in any manner for my benefit as surety, indorser, or otherwise, then this deed shall be void; otherwise of force."

This mortgage was acknowledged, and the affidavit, as provided by the Vermont statute, was appended, showing the justice of the debt and the liability contemplated to be secured by the mortgage, and the mortgage was duly recorded on the eighteenth day of April, 1891, in the St. Johnsbury clerk's office, by the town clerk thereof. On March 5, 1900, Moore gave the defendant another chattel mortgage on this livery stock, which, on March 23, 1900, defendant assigned to the Passumpsic Savings Bank, and that bank has ever since been its holder and owner. This mortgage was given to secure defendant against all his liabilities for Moore.

Page 196 U. S. 519

On the seventh of May, one John Ryan sued out a writ in assumpsit against Moore to recover some $500, and an attachment on the livery stock was levied in that suit by the deputy sheriff. This attachment remained in force until dissolved by the bankruptcy proceedings, and the suit is still pending in the state court of Vermont.

Under the agreement contained in the chattel mortgage of April, 1891, Moore made sales, purchases, and exchanges of livery stock to such an extent that, on March 5, 1900, there only remained of the livery property on hand April 15, 1891, two horses. These sales, exchanges, and purchases were sometimes made by Moore without communication with or advice from the defendant, and frequently after consultation with him. The livery stock, as it existed on May 16, 1900, was all acquired by exchange of the original stock, or with the avails of the old stock, or from the money derived from the business. Some years after the execution of the chattel mortgage of April 15, 1891, Moore became embarrassed, and finally, shortly prior to March 5, 1900, he became and continued wholly insolvent. On May 16, 1900, the defendant, acting under the advice of counsel and with the consent of Moore, took possession, under the mortgage of April 15, 1891, of all the livery property then on hand, and on June 11, 1900, caused the same to be sold at public auction by the sheriff. If is for the net avails of this sale, amounting to $922.08, which the sheriff paid over to the defendant, that this suit is brought. The Passumpsic Savings Bank on September 15, 1900, proved its note of $2,510.75 as an unsecured claim against the bankrupt estate of Moore, as the mortgage held by the bank as security had been given by Moore in March, 1900, to defendant, and by him assigned to the bank within four months of the filing of the petition in bankruptcy.

For the purpose of defeating the effect of the defendant's taking possession of the livery property under his chattel mortgage of April, 1891, the trustee in bankruptcy presented a petition to the United States District Court of Vermont for

Page 196 U. S. 520

leave to intervene as plaintiff in the Ryan attachment suit, and to have the lien of Ryan's attachment preserved for the benefit of the general creditors. This petition was dismissed by that court. The referee found that the defendant and his counsel knew, when he took possession of the livery property under his mortgage, that Moore was insolvent, and was considering going into bankruptcy. The referee also found that he did not intend to perpetrate any actual fraud on the other creditors, or any of them, but he did intend thereby to perfect his lien on the livery property and make it available for the payment of his debt before other complications by way of attachment or bankruptcy arose, and he understood at that time that it was probable that the Ryan attachment would hold good as against his mortgage. All the property of which defendant took possession was acquired by Moore with the full understanding and intent that it should be covered by the defendant's mortgage of April 15, 1891.

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