A commission called together, in pursuance of treaty
stipulations or otherwise, to settle and adjust disputed claims
with a view to their ultimate payment and satisfaction is, for that
purpose, a quasi
-court, and there is nothing illegal,
immoral, or against public policy in an agreement by an
attorney-at-law to present and prosecute a claim before it, either
at a fixed compensation or for a reasonable percentage upon the
Wright, the defendant below, a licensed trader in the Choctaw
country at the commencement of the rebellion, claimed that he had
sustained large losses by the use of his property by the Choctaw
nation and that large sums were due to him for goods taken by or
sold to members of the nation, and for money advanced to it. By a
treaty concluded April 28, 1866, between the United States and the
Choctaws and Chickasaws, it was stipulated and agreed that this
claim, with others, should be investigated and examined by a
commission to be appointed by the President, and that such sum as
might be found due should be paid by the United States out of any
money belonging to that nation in the possession of the United
States. 14 Stat. 781.
Tebbitts, the plaintiff below, an attorney-at-law, was employed
by Wright to present and prosecute his claim before this
commission, and he accordingly, in August, 1866, appeared before
the commissioners and presented an argument in its support.
Afterwards, on the 9th August, 1866, Wright executed to Tebbitts a
memorandum in writing, as follows:
"Jonas M. Tebbitts having rendered valuable services to me in
securing my claims under the fiftieth article of the treaty of
April 28 with the Choctaws and Chickasaws, I hereby bind myself to
pay him one-tenth of whatever I may realize from the Choctaw
Indians under said article whenever the money comes into my hands,
which payment, when made, will be in full compliance with my verbal
contract, made in April last, with John B. Luce."
Wright subsequently realized on his claim $20,541.28, the last
payment having been made to him in June, 1869. This suit was
brought by Tebbitts to recover compensation for his services, which
Wright refused to pay. He claimed $2,054,
Page 91 U. S. 253
being ten percent on the sum paid to Wright, and for this amount
he obtained judgment upon the verdict of a jury.
To reverse this judgment, the present writ of error has been
Mr. CHIEF JUSTICE WAITE delivered the opinion of the Court.
The errors assigned upon this record are in substance that the
contract given in evidence is illegal:
1. Because it is an assignment of a one-tenth interest in the
claim of Wright, and not
"freely made and executed in the presence of at least two
witnesses, after the allowance of the claim, the ascertainment of
the amount due, and the issuance of a warrant for the payment
as required by sec. 3477, Rev.Stat.;
2. Because it is tainted with illegality and immorality, and is
against public policy, and,
3. Because it is champertous, as it was a bargain to pay
one-tenth of whatever might be collected.
1. As to the first objection, all that need be said is that
there is no claim of any lien upon the fund. All Wright undertakes
to do is to pay "one-tenth of whatever he may realize from the
Choctaw Indians, . . . whenever the money comes into his hands."
Tebbitts asserts no claim upon the fund; he only asks that he may
be paid by Wright for his services after the money has been
collected, and in accordance with the stipulations of the contract
2. Tebbitts has not engaged in any improper or illegal service.
Wright had a claim against the Choctaw Indians which they, by their
treaty, had agreed to submit to an adjudication by commissioners to
be appointed for that purpose. He employed Tebbitts to appear for
him professionally before that commission and enforce his claim.
Tebbitts appeared and presented an argument in behalf of his
client. This is all he did and all he engaged to do. It was
legitimate service rendered in a legitimate employment. To deprive
a claimant of the means of obtaining such professional service
would be to deprive him, in many instances, of the means of
Page 91 U. S. 254
enforcing his claim. In this case, so far as anything appears by
the record, Wright neither contracted for nor received anything
else than legitimate and honorable professional assistance. Such an
agreement we held to be valid in Trist
21 Wall. 450, for we then said, speaking
through MR. JUSTICE SWAYNE, "We entertain no doubt . . . an
agreement, express or implied, for purely professional services, is
valid." Such services, we say, "rest on the same principle of
ethics as professional services rendered in a court of justice, and
are no more exceptionable." In fact, the commission acting on this
claim was a quasi
-court. It was in no material respect,
for all the purposes of the present controversy, different from the
"Court of Commissioners of Alabama Claims," or the "Southern Claims
Commission," or the "Mexican Claims Commission," or "Spanish Claims
Commission," which have been called together, in pursuance of
treaty stipulations or otherwise, to settle and adjust disputed
claims, for the purpose of their ultimate payment and satisfaction.
There is nothing illegal, immoral, or against public policy, in a
professional engagement to present and prosecute such claims before
3. In Wylie v. Coxe,
15 How. 415, we decided that an agreement to pay a reasonable
percentage upon the amount of recovery was not an illegal contract.
Here, after the service had been rendered and after, as was
supposed, the claim had been secured, Wright agreed to pay ten
percent of the amount eventually realized as compensation for the
labor done. We see no reason to find fault with this, and the jury
seem also to have adopted this rule, which the parties established
for themselves, as presenting the true criterion for estimating the
reasonable value of the services rendered.
The judgment is affirmed.