Merchants' Bank v. State Bank,
77 U.S. 604 (1870)

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U.S. Supreme Court

Merchants' Bank v. State Bank, 77 U.S. 604 (1870)

Merchants' Bank v. State Bank

77 U.S. (10 Wall.) 604


1. Evidence of powers habitually exercised by a cashier of a bank with its knowledge and acquiescence, defines and establishes, as to the public, those powers, provided that they be such as the directors of the bank may, without violation of its charter, confer on such cashier.

2. Where the authority of the agent is left to be inferred by the public from powers usually exercised by the agent, it is enough if the transaction in question involves precisely the same general powers, though applied to a new subject matter.

Thus, if in the case of a bank having power by its charter to buy and sell exchange, coin and bullion, its cashier have habitually, with the knowledge of the bank, dealt with the public as authorized to buy and sell exchange, then the power to buy and sell coin also (the right to do both being conferred by the same clause of the charter), may be inferred by a jury.

So if a cashier is shown to have frequently pledged in writing the credit of his bank for large amounts in the usual course of business, with the knowledge of the ban -- borrowing and lending its money and buying and selling exchange -- doing all this usually by cashier's checks, though sometimes by certificates of deposit and sometimes by memoranda, the transactions being uniformly made in faith of the implied powers of the cashier, without inquiry as to special authorization, and such is shown to be the usage of other banks as above stated, it is evidence from which a jury may infer that such cashier is authorized to pledge the bank's credit by certifying a check to be "good" this last method being one not distinct in its nature from the others named, but similar

Page 77 U. S. 605

to them, and involving in form and substance the same obligation and consequence to the bank.

3. These principles hold even though it is not shown that any cashier of any bank in the particular place where the transaction which was the subject of the suit arose, ever used his powers to purchase coin, or ever certified a check to be good.

4. The National Currency Act of 1864, authorizing the banks created under it to buy and sell coin, a bank having coin in pledge may sell and assign its special property, in which case the assignee will become vested with the legal rights of the assignor.

5. If a cashier, without authority to buy coin in behalf of his bank, do so buy it, and it goes into the funds of the bank, the bank is liable upon the principle of quantum valebat.

6. The clause of the National Currency Act of 1864, which directs that "the usual business" of the banks created under it shall be transacted "at an office or banking house in the place specified in its organization certificate," does not prevent the purchase of coin by one bank at the banking house of another.

7. The certifying as "good" of checks given in the course of business for convenience, is not within the prohibition of the 23d section of the National Currency Act of 1864, which forbids the issue of post notes or "other notes" to circulate as money, other than the ordinary bank bills authorized by the act.

8. A stamp such as the Internal Revenue Act requires for the acceptance of a draft is not required on the marking of a check "good," "certified checks" being taxed specifically in another way.

Error to the Circuit Court for the District of Massachusetts in a suit by the Merchants' National Bank against the State National Bank upon three checks of Mellen, Ward & Co., on the latter bank, marked "good" by its cashier, and given to the former bank, amounting, the three, to $600,000.

The case, as developed by admitted facts and by the plaintiff's evidence alone, was thus:

Both banks were associations organized under the National Currency Act of 1864; the State Bank with a capital, as its articles of association seemed to show, of $1,800,000, capable of being increased.

Under this National Currency Act, the affairs of "every such association shall be managed by not less than five directors, one of whom shall be president." The directors during their whole term of office must be citizens of the

Page 77 U. S. 606

United States. Three-fourths of them must have resided in the state one year preceding their election and reside there during their continuance in office. Each must own at least ten shares of stock, and as such owner he is personally liable to twice their value. All are to be sworn to the diligent and honest administration of the affairs of the association.

The total liabilities of any person or firm or association to the bank shall never, by section twenty-nine of the act, exceed one-tenth of its capital. Bonds are to be deposited as security for the bills of the bank, which by section twenty-one may never exceed 90 percent of the bonds deposited. Section twenty-three enacts that no bank shall issue post notes or other notes to circulate as money than such as are authorized by the foregoing provisions of the act and by various sections, [Footnote 1] care is taken to restrain the circulation, and to secure its redemption.

The act by its eighth section enacts that each association organized under it may, "by its board of directors appoint a president, vice-president, cashier, and other officers, define their duties," &c. And it authorizes the association to exercise all such incidental powers as shall be necessary to carry on the business of banking by discounting and negotiating promissory notes, drafts, bills of exchange, and other evidences of debt; by receiving deposits; by buying and selling exchange, coin, and bullion &c. The directors are empowered to regulate by bylaws the manner in which its general business shall be conducted. "And its usual business," says the same section, "shall be transacted at an office or banking house located in the place specified in its organization certificate."

The directors of the State Bank defined the duties of their cashier no otherwise than that by the 1st article of the bylaws he was to notify corporate meetings and act as clerk at them; by article 7th was to be responsible for moneys, funds, and all other valuables of the bank; by article 11th

Page 77 U. S. 607

"was -- either he or the president -- to sign all conveyances of real estate voted by the directors, and by article 17th was -- either he or the president again -- to sign all contracts, checks, drafts, receipts,"

&c., and also all endorsements necessary to be made by the bank.

Evidence, however, showed that as matter of fact the cashier of the Merchants' Bank was entrusted by its directors with large and comprehensive powers in dealing with the funds -- so much so that instead of his transactions going regularly, as they occurred, through the books of the bank and being credited or debited to the accounts to which they severally belonged, there was opened on the books of the bank one general account with the cashier, in which all the debits and the credits arising out of them, were entered to his debit or credit, that these transactions thus entered on the books embraced the giving of checks in lieu of bills where discounts were made, giving checks for the purchase of exchange, giving checks for money borrowed of other banks; that the amount of checks thus given for exchange, and in lieu of bank bills on discounts, during the five months prior to the transaction which was the subject of this suit, was $2,500,000, and in addition, that the amount of such checks given for money borrowed of other banks during the same period was $1,547,000. And that regular printed blank checks were kept by the bank to facilitate these operations of their cashier.

So also evidence derived from the officers of twenty-two banks of Boston, in relation to the dealings of such banks with each other, showed a usage by which, without bylaw or vote, powers were entrusted to cashiers of such banks to borrow and lend the money of their banks of and to each, to buy and sell exchange of and to each other, and in all such transactions to pledge the credit of their respective banks -- usually by cashiers' check, sometimes by certificates of deposit or memoranda; that these transactions were frequent, involving large sums of money, and that they were uniformly conducted in faith of the implied powers of cashiers, without inquiry; but the usage shown with regard to

Page 77 U. S. 608

the powers exercised by the twenty-two cashiers failed wholly to show that any one cashier had ever used his powers to the purchase of gold coin or had ever certified checks to be "good." Nor was it shown that the cashier of the State Bank had, either before or since the transactions on which this suit arose, ever certified as good the check of either depositor or stranger.

In fact, the Supreme Court of Massachusetts had decided in Massey v. Eagle Bank [Footnote 2] that a teller could not so certify checks, placing the decision on grounds that seemed general. Such a power, said the court in that case,

"is in fact a power to pledge the credit of the bank to its customers -- a power which, by the Constitution of a bank, can alone be exercised by its president and directors unless specially delegated by them, and consequently it cannot be implied as a resulting duty or authority in any individual officer."

Touching the matter of usage, the court said:

"But if a usage had been proved of the certifying by the teller that the check is good, to enable the holder to use it afterwards at his pleasure, such a usage would be bad and could not be upheld. It would give to bank checks, which are intended for immediate use and are the substitute for specie, in the ordinary transactions of business, the character of bills of exchange, payable to the bearer, the bank being the acceptor, and payable at an indefinite time. It would lead to loans to favored individuals, without the usual security. It would substitute checks for cash in the hands of tellers who receive them, and would confer the power upon a single officer to pledge the credit of the bank by the mere writing of his name -- a power never contemplated by the legislature nor intended to be conferred by the stockholders."

On the other hand, Congress, by its Internal Revenue Act of June 30, 1864, [Footnote 3] under the head of "Banks and Banking," had laid

"a duty of one-twelfth of one percent each month upon the average amount of circulation issued by any bank &c., including as circulation all certified checks, and all

Page 77 U. S. 609

notes and other obligations, calculated or intended to circulate or to be used as money."

In this state of preexistent laws and usage, or absence of it, the plaintiffs' evidence showed that the Merchants' National Bank of Boston was applied to on the 22d of February, 1867, by Ward, Mellen & Co., brokers, with the statement that they were about to purchase in New York, "for responsible parties," three or four hundred thousand dollars of gold, and with the request that the Merchants' Bank would take and pay for the gold as it came from New York at $1.25 in currency (about 15 percent below the value at that time in currency); that these responsible parties would be prepared to take it in a few days, and that when thus taken away, it would go through probably some other bank, mentioning perhaps the State Bank.

There had been previous transactions in gold between the bank and Mellen, Ward & Co., and the proposition now made was accepted upon the terms previously fixed in them -- viz., that the gold should be a purchase by the bank, with a right of repurchase by Mellen, Ward & Co. on repayment of the cost and a premium "equivalent to interest on the amount invested by the bank on the gold."

Under this arrangement, the Merchants' Bank, on notice from Mellen, Ward & Co., on the 26th and 27th of February, took from the Second National Bank, and paid that bank for the same, $400,000 gold certificates, which, so far as appeared, had never been in the hands of or owned by Mellen, Ward & Co., and added the same to the gold of the bank. No obligation, note or memorandum accompanied the transaction as made, it being, as the direct testimony of the cashier and teller of the Merchants' Bank stated and so far as the transaction appeared on its face, a sale of gold with a right to repurchase, although both the officers named, in written instruments, spoke of it as a loan.

On the 28th of February, Smith, the cashier of the State Bank, came to the Merchants' Bank in company with Carter,

Page 77 U. S. 610

one of the firm of Mellen, Ward & Co., and said to the cashier there, "We have come in to get an amount of gold," and that he "would pay for the gold by certifying the checks when he saw that the gold was all right." The coin certificates to the amount of $400,000 were by the cashier of the Merchants' Bank, "passed out to Mr. Smith, cashier of the State Bank." He counted them, and then handed to the cashier of the Merchants' Bank the two checks of Mellen, Ward & Co. on the State Bank, certified "Good, C. H. Smith, cashier." These checks were certified not at the State Bank, but in the Merchants' Bank, "on the spot," and after it was ascertained that the gold certificates received corresponded with the amount for which the checks had been drawn. They had no stamp on them, but the usual two cent bank check stamp -- that is to say, no such stamp as the law requires for an acceptance. On the same day, Smith, the cashier of the State Bank (Carter accompanying him) applied to and received from the teller of the Merchants' Bank $60,000 more of gold, which the bank had previously purchased at the request of Mellen, Ward & Co. upon the same terms as above stated. The cashier was absent, and the teller took from Smith in payment a check for $75,000, similar to ones already mentioned, for the reason, as he says, that "I delivered the gold to the cashier of the State Bank." Although it appeared that Mellen, Ward & Co. had been somewhat speculating in a copper stock, and had once obtained a loan on it from the Merchants' Bank, and that the cashier of the bank had a small interest with them in the stock, there seemed to be no proof in the case as it stood before this Court -- that is to say as it was presented by the plaintiff's evidence alone -- that the cashier of the Merchants' Bank, in the delivery of the gold or the cashier of the State Bank in certifying the checks in payment for it acted otherwise than with good faith.

On or before the 1st of February following, Ward, Mellen & Co. failed. The subsequent history of the checks was thus given by Mr. Haven, the president of the plaintiff or Merchants' Bank.

Page 77 U. S. 611

"The first time I saw these checks was a little after twelve o'clock, on Friday, the 1st day of March, 1867. I took the checks in may hand a little after one o'clock, on that day and presented them to the cashier of the State Bank. I said to him, 'I thought you were coming in to pay the money for these checks early this morning.' The cashier replied, 'Yes, I am going out now to attend to it, and get the money.' 'Get the money?' said I; 'didn't you have the money -- the gold? were not the gold certificates delivered to you?' 'Yes,' said he; 'I had them here, but they are not here now. I am going out to get it, and will come in and attend to it.' I spoke rather abruptly, and said that he should do it immediately. He looked up and said, 'You hold the State Bank.' I came back and laid the checks on the desk of the teller. About a quarter before two o'clock, I took the checks into the directors' room of the State Bank. There were three or four gentlemen present. Either Mr. McGregor (who was a former president of the bank) or Mr. Dana introduced me to the president of the bank, Mr. Stetson. I presented the checks to Mr. Stetson, the president. Mr. Stetson took the checks and deliberately read them, one by one, aloud to his directors and those gentlemen who were present. He then said to me that they had not authorized their cashier to certify checks. He turned to Mr. McGregor and said, 'Have we, Mr. McGregor?' Mr. McGregor made no reply. I then said, 'He has certified checks, and those checks were given to the cashier of the Merchants' Bank for gold delivered to him, the property of the Merchants' Bank, and I want payment for that gold.' The gentlemen were considerably excited, and I wanted action. I said to them,"

"I have just heard that there is trouble at the sub-treasury. I think you had better go down there; perhaps you will find your gold there, and if you wish it, I will go with you."

"The gentlemen went, two of them, Mr. Stetson, the president of the bank, and Mr. McGregor, the ex-president, and we entered the room of the assistant treasurer. I think I introduced them, saying to the assistant treasurer, 'These gentlemen have come in to see if there has not been a large amount of gold placed to the credit of the State Bank.'"

Farther than as it was to be inferred from this testimony, it did not appear whether the State Bank had or had not

Page 77 U. S. 612

got the use of the gold. No proof was given that it did not go to that bank. However that particular fact might have been, the State Bank refused to pay the checks of Mellen, Ward & Co., certified "good" by Smith, its cashier, and the Merchants' Bank sued in assumpsit for the amount, some of the counts being special on the transaction, others on a quantum valebat, money had and received, &c.

Page 77 U. S. 637

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