Bailey v. United States

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United States Supreme Court

109 U.S. 432

Bailey  v.  United States

By a decree passed March 25, 1868, in the district court of the United States for the southern district of New York, certain sums of money were ascertained to be due on account of the illegal capture of the British steamer Labuan and her cargo by a cruiser of the United States. On the sixth day of February, 1869, William Bailey, William Leetham, James Leetham, and Elizabeth Leetham, British subjects, executed and delivered a power of attorney-in which they described themselves as then or late owners of said steamer-constituting one A. E. Godeffroy, of New York, their attorney, with authority to receive from the government of the United States, and from all and every person or persons whom it might concern to pay or satisfy the same, all moneys then or which might thereafter become due and payable to them with reference to said vessel Labuan; upon receipt thereof, to execute acquittances, releases, and discharges for the same; and, upon non-payment thereof, to collect said moneys by such necessary actions, suits, or expedients as their attorney deemed proper.

By an act of congress approved July 7, 1870, it was, among other things, provided 'that there be paid, out of any money in the treasury not otherwise appropriated, to William Bailey, William Leetham, and John Leetham, of England, or their legal representatives, owners of the British steamer Labuan, $131,221.30, with interest from June 2, 1862, to the time of payment, and five thousand dollars without interest.' The act declares that such sums are due under the before-mentioned decree of March 25, 1868. At the date of this act the owners, in different proportions, of the Labuan were William Bailey, William Leetham, and the executors and executrix of John Leetham, who were William Leetham, James Leetham, and Elizabeth Leetham.

An account between the United States and said owners, based upon the said act of July 7, 1870, having been examined, adjusted, admitted, and certified by the proper officers of the treasury, a warrant was made, upon which a draft was issued on the treasurer of the United States for the sum of $200,070.34, payable 'to Wm. Bailey, Wm. Leetham, and John Leetham, of England, or their legal representatives, or order.' This draft was delivered to Godeffroy, with this indorsement thereon: 'Pay on the indorsement of A. E. Godeffroy, atty. in fact. R. W. TAYLOR, Comptroller.' The draft having been indorsed in the names of the payees, by himself as their attorney in fact, Godeffroy received the proceeds, but has never paid to the parties named in the act of congress, or to any one for them, any part of the sum collected by him from the United States. The treasury department refused, although requested by appellants or their agents, to make further payment. Thereupon this action was brought in the court of claims to recover the amount specified in the act of congress. Judgment was rendered for the United States, and the present appeal questions the correctness of that judgment.

Nathaniel Wilson and J. Hubley Ashton, for appellants.

[Argument of Counsel from pages 433-435 intentionally omitted]

Sol. Gen. Phillips, for appellee.


It is contended, on behalf of appellants, that the power of attorney executed in 1869 to Godeffroy-upon the authority of which alone was payment made to him-was, under the laws of the United States, absolutely null and void; consequently, no payment under it could bind the claimants or discharge the government from its obligation to pay the sums specified in the act of 1870. This presents the controlling question on the present appeal. Its determination depends upon the construction to be given to the act of July 29, 1846, (9 St. 41,) entitled 'An act in relation to the payment of claims,' and to the first and seventh sections of the act of February 26, 1853, (10 St. 170,) entitled 'An act to prevent frauds upon the treasury of the United States.'

The act of 1846 related to claims against the United States allowed by a resolution or act of congress. That statute directed that they should not be paid to any other person than the claimant, his executor or administrator, unless upon the production to the proper disbursing officer of a warrant of attorney executed 'after the enactment of the resolution or act allowing the claim.' The first section of the act of 1853 declares that 'all transfers and assignments hereafter made of any claim upon the United States, or any part of or share thereof, or interest thereon, whether absolute or conditional, and whatever may be the consideration therefor, and all powers of attorney, or orders, or other authorities for receiving payment of any such claim, or any part or share thereof, shall be absolutely null and void, unless the same shall be freely made and executed in the presence of at least two attesting witnesses, after the allowance of such claim, the ascertainment of the amount due, and the issuing of a warrant for the payment thereof.' That act further provides (section 7) that its provisions and those of the act of 1846 shall 'apply and extend to all claims against the United States, whether allowed by special acts of congress, or arising under general laws or treaties, or in any other manner whatever.' These enactments have been under examination in several cases heretofore decided in this court, some of which are now relied on to support the proposition that officers of the treasury were forbidden, by statute, from recognizing Godeffroy, under any circumstances, as agent of claimants, with authority, as between them and the government, to receive the warrant and draft when issued. But we do not understand that any of these cases involved the precise question now presented for determination.

In U.S. v. Gillis, 95 U.S. 414, it was ruled that a claim against the United States could not be assigned so as to enable the assignee to bring suit against the government in his own name in the court of claims. In Spofford v. Kirk, 97 U.S. 484, the question was as to the validity of certain orders drawn by a claimant before the allowance of his claim, upon the attorneys having it in charge, directing the latter to pay certain sums out of the proceeds when collected, and which orders, being accepted by the attorneys, were purchased by Spofford in good faith and for value. Upon the treasury warrant being issued, the claimant refused to admit the validity either of the orders he had given or the acceptances made by his attorneys. Thereupon Spofford sought, by suit against the claimant and his attorneys, to enforce a compliance with the orders and acceptances, of which he had become assignee and holder. The court adjudged that the transfer or assigment to Spofford was, under the act of 1853.-carried into the Revised Statutes, § 3477,-a nullity as between him and the claimant. No question arose in that case as to what would have been the effect upon the rights of the claimant had the officers of the government recognized the assignment to Spofford. In Erwin v. U.S. 97 U.S. 392, it was ruled that the act of 1853 applied to cases of voluntary assignments of demands against the government, and did not embrace cases where the title is transferred by operation of law. 'The passing of claims to heirs, devisees, or assignees in bankruptcy,' said the court, 'are not within the evil at which the statute aimed.'

But what was said in Goodman v. Niblack, 102 U.S. 559, seems to be more directly in point. That was the case of a voluntary assignment by a debtor of his property for the benefit of creditors, including his rights, credits, effects, and estate of every description. The assignment embraced a claim of the assignor arising under a contract with the United States. It was adjudged in the court of original jurisdiction that, as to that claim, the assignment was rendered invalid by the act of 1853. But the language of this court, speaking by Mr. Justice MILLER, was:


This work is in the public domain in the United States because it is a work of the United States federal government (see 17 U.S.C. 105).