Erwin v. United States
Annotate this Case
97 U.S. 392 (1878)
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U.S. Supreme Court
Erwin v. United States, 97 U.S. 392 (1878)
Erwin v. United States
97 U.S. 392
1. Where cotton was captured by the military forces of the United States and sold and the proceeds were paid into the Treasury, the claim of the owner against the government constitutes property, and passes to his assignee in bankruptcy, though, by reason of the bar arising from the lapse of time it cannot be judicially enforced.
2. The Act of Congress of Feb. 20, 1853, 10 Stat. 170, to prevent frauds upon the Treasury of the United States applies only to cases of voluntary assignment of demands against the government. The passing of claims to heirs, devisees, or assignees in bankruptcy is not within the evil at which it aimed.
In January, 1873, the appellant brought suit in the Court of Claims under the Captured and Abandoned Property Act, to recover the proceeds of two hundred and eighty-three bales of cotton, alleged to have belonged to him and to have been seized and taken from his possession in Savannah in February, 1865, by the military forces of the United States, and to have been sold by the agent of the Treasury Department, and
the proceeds paid into the Treasury. After issue had been joined in the suit and evidence on behalf of the claimant had been taken, but before a hearing was had, Haycraft v. United States, 22 Wall. 81, was decided by this Court, in which it was held that the Court of Claims had no jurisdiction to hear and determine any claim arising under the provisions of that act unless suit upon the same was commenced within two years after the suppression of the rebellion. It had been previously decided that, within the meaning of the act, the rebellion was to be considered as suppressed throughout the whole of the United States on the 20th of August, 1866, the day on which the President, by his proclamation, had declared it suppressed in Texas, the last of the states in insurrection. United States v. Anderson, 9 Wall. 56.
Upon learning of the decision mentioned, the appellant petitioned Congress for relief, and, in compliance with his petition, a statute was passed which became a law in February, 1877, authorizing the Court of Claims to take jurisdiction of his claims under the Captured and Abandoned Property Act, "which claims," said the statute,
"were, by accident or mistake of his agent or attorney, and without fault or neglect on his part, as is claimed, not filed within the time limited by said act."
19 Stat. 509.
After its passage, the appellant filed in the Court of Claims an amended petition setting forth the act and averring that Congress intended by it to confer upon the court jurisdiction to hear and determine his claims, as stated in his original petition.
It appears from the findings of the Court of Claims that in December, 1864, the appellant was possessed of the cotton described in his petition; that it was taken from his possession by the military forces of the United States and sold, and the proceeds thereof paid into the Treasury; that in December, 1868, he was a member of the firm of Erwin & Hardee, of Savannah; that during this month, that firm became insolvent and presented a petition in bankruptcy to the District Court in Georgia; that in due course of proceedings, the partners were adjudged bankrupts; that an assignee of their estate was appointed, and that their property was passed to the assignee. The schedule
of the individual property of the appellant annexed to the petition set forth among his assets "a claim on the United States government for three hundred and eighty-two bales of cotton, captured by General Sherman in Savannah in December, 1864." In March, 1872, the assignee presented a petition to the judge of the district court stating that he had in his possession a great many outstanding debts and demands belonging to the estate of the bankrupts which could not be collected without inconvenient delay, and praying for leave to sell at auction certain notes and accounts mentioned, among which was this item: "All uncollected open accounts on the books." The court gave the assignee leave to sell at auction "such notes, accounts, and other debts" due to the estate as in his judgment would be for the interest of the creditors of the bankrupts, but as he and the creditors afterwards came to the conclusion that the property, if sold as proposed, would bring a mere nominal amount, no such sale was made, and in December, 1872, he accepted an offer of $2,500, made by the appellant, for the assets, exclusive of the notes of one Henry Schaben. The assets, with that exception, were accordingly sold to him and a memorandum given to him by the assignee acknowledging the receipt of the money "in full for all the remaining assets of the late firm of Erwin & Hardee." It also appears from the findings that the copy of the bankrupts' schedules, prepared by the register in bankruptcy for the use of the assignee, contained a sheet setting forth as an asset the claim mentioned against the United States for three hundred and eighty-two bales of cotton, but that the sheet was removed by some person unknown, and that the assignee had no personal knowledge that such an asset existed when he made this sale to the appellant.
The Court of Claims dismissed the petition, and from its decision Erwin appealed to this Court.