United States v. Child & Co.
Annotate this Case
79 U.S. 232 (1870)
U.S. Supreme Court
United States v. Child & Co., 79 U.S. 12 Wall. 232 232 (1870)
United States v. Child & Co.
79 U.S. (12 Wall.) 232
1. The doctrine of the case of <|7 Wall. 463|>United States v. Adams, 7 Wall. 463, affirmed and held to govern the case.
2. Neither in that case nor in this was the voluntary submission of a claim against the government to the special commission appointed to investigate such claims essential to bar a recovery against the United States.
3. The bar in both cases rested upon the voluntary acceptance by the claimants of a smaller sum than their claim as a full satisfaction of the whole, and acknowledging this in a receipt for the amount paid, the demand having been disputed for a long time by the government, and the smaller sum accepted without objection or protest.
4. Such acceptance being without force or intimidation and with a full knowledge of all the circumstances, the fact that the sum was so large that the claimants were induced by their want of the money to accept the less sum in full is not duress.
Appeal from the Court of Claims on a claim by Child & Co., merchants of St. Louis, against the United States for $163,111 as a balance due on a sale of military stores.
The Court of Claims found a case which in the parts material was thus:
1st. In the autumn of 1861 and before the 14th of October of that year, the City of St. Louis being the headquarters of the Department of the West, Major McKinstry, chief quartermaster of the department, under the express orders of Major General
Fremont, commanding the department, purchased stores of the claimants, the fair value of which was $478,119.62, the price charged by the claimants.
The payment of the quartermaster vouchers held by the claimants was suspended by the Secretary of War, in common with all others issued before the 14th October, 1861, by reason of suspected frauds, extravagance, and irregularities in the Department of the West.
On the 25th October, 1861, a military commission, consisting of the Honorable David Davis, of Illinois, the Honorable Joseph Holt, of Kentucky, and Mr. Hugh Campbell, was appointed by the Secretary of War, whose powers and duties were defined to be to report upon all unsettled claims against the military Department of the West that might have originated prior to the 14th of October, 1861.
After the committee had entered upon its investigations, the provost-guard of St. Louis forcibly entered the office of the claimants, and against their consent seized and carried before the commission their vouchers, business papers, and private books of account. The commission examined them all, and at the conclusion of its investigations endorsed upon the vouchers the amounts allowed by it, and ordered that the sum of $163,111 be deducted from the vouchers. The commission also withheld all of the vouchers until the claimants signed a receipt or agreement, not under seal and without consideration, which provided that when the reduced amounts allowed by the commission should be paid, the payment should be in full of all the claimants' demands against the United States. The claimants, on their part, never submitted their vouchers to the arbitration or decisions of the commission, and did not sign the receipt voluntarily, but under protest and to obtain possession of their vouchers withheld until they should do so.
The claimants after receiving back from the commission their vouchers presented them for payment to the Quartermaster General, but the disbursing officer of the United States refused to pay the same, on the ground that he had no legal authority to do so, and continued to refuse payment until the enactment by Congress of a joint resolution approved 11 March, 1863:
"That all sums allowed to be due from the United States to individuals, by the commission heretofore appointed by the Secretary of War, . . . shall be deemed to be due and payable, and
shall be paid by the disbursing officers in each case, upon the presentation of the voucher, with the commissioners' certificate thereon, in any form plainly indicating the allowance of the claim and to what amount."
Thereupon the Quartermaster General "referred the said vouchers to Major M. S. Miller, quartermaster, for payment, under the above quoted joint resolution of Congress," and Major Miller, in pursuance of this order, paid to the claimants, upon these vouchers, the amounts allowed by the commission.
The claimants, at the time of receiving payment, made no formal objection or protest, but were required to, and did, sign a receipt not under seal and without consideration, whereby they acknowledged having received such reduced amounts "in full of the above account."
Such were the facts as found by the Court of Claims. The court did not find anything about Child & Co.'s having accepted the amount reported as due by the commission, because they would have become bankrupt had they not done so. But in the opinion of the Court of Claims, as given in the official report of the case, the court, [Footnote 1] in speaking of the receipts which Child & Co. had given for the money, says:
Of these receipts two things may be said: in the first place, the acts of the commission had taken from the claimants their business books of account; had suspended their business transactions; had reduced them to the verge of bankruptcy, and had been constantly met by the claimants' repeated and most earnest protests.
The Court of Claims, as a conclusion of law upon the facts found in their finding, decided,
1st. That the purchases were lawful and valid.
2d. That neither Congress nor the claimants having submitted the controversy to the arbitrament of the commission, the said commission was not possessed of jurisdiction or power to determine the rights of the parties, and that the deductions
made by the commission from the claimants' vouchers did not constitute a valid or binding award. And further that the agreement or receipt, signed by the claimants on receiving back their vouchers, was obtained and exacted by duress of their goods, and was wholly without consideration, and void.
3d. That the joint resolution approved 11 March, 1863, was simply an authority and direction to the defendants' disbursing officers to pay the amounts allowed by the commission, and that the resolution did not ratify the reductions made by the commission from the claimants' vouchers, nor change, nor affect the legal rights and liabilities of the parties. That the payment of the reduced amount made to the claimants under the resolution by the express order of the quartermaster general, and its acceptance by the claimants, without objection or protest, did not estop or conclude the claimants from seeking legal redress for the balance remaining due upon their accounts; and that the receipts required by the quartermaster at the time of payment, expressing upon their face that a less sum was received than that due, and being without consideration, did not operate as a release of the balance of the claimants' accounts, and were wholly void.
The Court of Claims accordingly decided that the claimants should recover the balance claimed, to-wit, $163,111.
From this decision the United States appealed to this Court. The case being here, it was remanded at the request of the government to the Court of Claims for certain additional findings, on questions raised. The supplemental findings found:
1st. That the claims of the claimants were never submitted to the commission, either before or after the seizure of the books and papers; but that, before the seizure, the claimants, in pursuance of the published notice of the commission (requiring all claims which had accrued before the 14th of October, 1861, to be presented to it), had in some manner, not shown to the Court of Claims, presented or given notice of their claims against the defendants to the said commission. But that the claimants had not presented their original vouchers, nor any proofs to the commission.
2d. That after the seizure, and while the books and papers
were withheld from the claimants by the commission, the claimants did appear before the commission with witnesses; but what the witnesses testified, or whether or not they were produced before the commission to support the claims, did not appear at the trial.
The claim, as the reader will have observed, belonged to a class of demands against the government, originating at St. Louis in the early days of the civil war, and which by order of the President were investigated at the time by a special commission appointed for the purpose. In some respects, therefore, it resembled the cause of United States v. Adams, twice passed on in this Court; [Footnote 2] first on an appeal, the record of which stated that Adams had presented his claim to the commission, and the second -- after a decision of that appeal by this Court, in which decision it was assumed that Adams had "voluntarily submitted his claims to the adjudication and decision of the said commissioners" -- on a motion by Adams to refer the case back to the Court of Claims, because it had erroneously found as a fact that he had voluntarily presented his claims, whereas the truth was -- as was shown on the motion -- that he had not presented them himself at all, but that General Meigs, head of the bureau of a department of this class of claims, had presented them, and that they had been heard ex parte. In the opinion on the appeal (the first case), [Footnote 3] this Court -- admitting fully that the commission had no legal authority to compel a hearing before them, and that he might have gone to the Court of Claims -- held the fact to be that Adams had "voluntarily submitted his claims to the adjudication and decision of the said commission," and adverting to this and to the fact that after the award by the commission of a smaller sum than that claimed, Adams took it and gave a receipt -- a document which the government set up as concluding him, while he contended that he was free to explain it -- the court declared that:
"In the view we have taken of the case, the giving of the
receipt is of no legal importance. The bar to any further legal demand against government does not rest upon this acquittance, but upon the voluntary submission of the claims to the board; the hearing and final decisions thereon; the receipt of the vouchers containing the sum or account found due to the claimant, and the acceptance of the payment of that amount under the act of Congress providing therefor. . . . So far as respects the cases of voluntary submission before the board, we regard the finding followed by acceptance as conclusive as if it had been before the first Court of Claims, and heard and decided there, and the amount found due paid by the government."
In the second case [Footnote 4] (the motion to remand), the Court said:
"Though it is true that the appellee did not present his claim to the board, as stated in the finding in the record on appeal, it cannot, in view of the original record of the evidence before the Court of Claims, be denied that he made himself a party to the proceedings and took the benefit of the adjustment of his accounts by them, which brings the case within the principle decided in 7th Wallace. "