Fosdick v. Schall/Opinion of the Court

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Opinion of the Court

United States Supreme Court

99 U.S. 235

Fosdick  v.  Schall


Two questions are presented by the assignment of errors in this case:--

1. Did the lien of the mortgages attach to the cars of Schall on their delivery to the company under his contract, so as to prevent their reclamation as against the mortgagees if the price was not paid according to agreement?

2. Was the order for the payment out of the fund in court of the rent of the cars, during the time they were used by the receivers appointed by the State court and for six months before, justifiable under the circumstances of this case?

As to the first question, it is contended that the mortgage created a subsisting and paramount lien on the cars as soon as they were put into the possession of the railroad company under the contract, and that the reservation of the title was void under the laws of Illinois, because the contract was not recorded.

It must be conceded that contracts like this are held by the courts of Illinois to be in effect, so far as the chattel mortgage act of that State is concerned, the same as though a formal bill of sale had been executed and a mortgage given back to secure the price. We had occasion to consider that question in Hervey et al. v. Rhode Island Locomotive Works (93 U.S. 664), and there held, following the Illinois decisions, that if such an instrument was not recorded in accordance with the provisions of the chattel mortgage act (R. S. Ill., 1874, 711, 712), a lien like that of Schall would have no validity as against third persons. Whatever may be the rule in other States, this is undoubtedly the effect of the Illinois statute as construed by the courts of that State. In Green v. Van Buskirk (5 Wall. 307), this court also held that 'where personal property is seized and sold under an attachment, or other writ issuing from a court of the State where the property is, the question of the liability of the property to be sold under the writ must be determined by the law of that State, notwithstanding the domicile of all the claimants to the property may be in another State.' Hervey v. Rhode Island Locomotive Works (supra), was also a case of seizure and sale under judicial process; and the language of the court, as expressed in its opinion delivered by Mr. Justice Davis, is to be construed in connection with that fact.

As between the parties, notwithstanding the Illinois statute, the transaction is just what, on its face, it purports to be, 'a conditional sale, with a right of rescission on the part of the vendor, in case the purchaser shall fail in payment of his instalments,-a contract legal and valid as between the parties, but made with the risk, on the part of the vendor, of his losing his lien' if it works a legal wrong to third parties. Murch v. Wright, 46 Ill. 488. The question, then, is whether these mortgagees occupy the position of third parties within the meaning of that term as used in this statute.

They are in no sense purchasers of the cars. The mortgage attaches to the cars, if it attaches at all, because they are 'after-acquired' property of the company; but as to that class of property it is well settled that the lien attaches subject to all the conditions with which it is incumbered when it comes into the hands of the mortgagor. The mortgagees take just such an interest in the property as the mortgagor acquired; no more, no less. These cars were 'loose property susceptible of separate ownership and separate liens,' and 'such liens, if binding on the railroad company itself, are unaffected by a prior general mortgage given by the company and paramount thereto.' United States v. New Orleans Railroad, 12 Wall. 362. The title of the mortgagees in this case, therefore, is subject to all the rights of Schall under his contract.

The possession taken by the receiver is only that of the court, whose officer he is, and adds nothing to the previously existing title of the mortgagees. He holds, pending the litigation, for the benefit of whomsoever in the end it shall be found to concern, and in the mean time the court proceeds to determine the rights of the parties upon the same principles it would if no change of possession had taken place.

It follows that the decree ordering a return of the cars to Schall was right. Whether, if the property is worth more than is due upon the contract of purchase, the mortgagees can obtain the benefit of the overplus, is a question we are not called upon to consider.

As to the second question, we have no doubt that when a court of chancery is asked by railroad mortgagees to appoint a receiver of railroad property, pending proceedings for foreclosure, the court, in the exercise of a sound judicial discretion, may, as a condition of issuing the necessary order, impose such terms in reference to the payment from the income during the receivership of outstanding debts for labor, supplies, equipment, or permanent improvement of the mortgaged property as may, under the circumstances of the particular case, appear to be reasonable. Railroad mortgages and the rights of railroad mortgagees are comparatively new in the history of judicial proceedings. They are peculiar in their character and affect peculiar interests. The amounts involved are generally large, and the rights of the parties oftentimes complicated and conflicting. It rarely happens that a foreclosure is carried through to the end without some concessions by some parties from their strict legal rights, in order to secure advantages that could not otherwise be attained, and which it is supposed will operate for the general good of all who are interested. This results almost as a matter of necessity from the peculiar circumstances which surround such litigation.

The business of all railroad companies is done to a greater or less extent on credit. This credit is longer or shorter, as the necessities of the case require; and when companies become pecuniarily embarrassed, it frequently happens that debts for labor, supplies, equipment, and improvements are permitted to accumulate, in order that bonded interest may be paid and a disastrous foreclosure postponed, if not altogether avoided. In this way the daily and monthly earnings, which ordinarily should go to pay the daily and monthly expenses, are kept from those to whom in equity they belong, and used to pay the mortgage debt. The income out of which the mortgagee is to be paid is the net income obtained by deducting from the gross earnings what is required for necessary operating and managing expenses, proper equipment, and useful improvements. Every railroad mortgagee in accepting his security impliedly agrees that the current debts made in the ordinary course of business shall be paid from the current receipts before he has any claim upon the income. If for the convenience of the moment something is taken from what may not improperly be called the current debt fund, and put into that which belongs to the mortgage creditors, it certainly is not inequitable for the court, when asked by the mortgagees to take possession of the future income and hold it for their benefit, to require as a condition of such an order that what is due from the earnings to the current debt shall be paid by the court from the future current receipts before any thing derived from that source goes to the mortgagees. In this way the court will only do what, if a receiver should not be appointed, the company ought itself to do. For even though the mortgage may in terms give a lien upon the profits and income, until possession of the mortgaged premises is actually taken or something equivalent done, the whole earnings belong to the company and are subject to its control. Galveston Railroad v. Cowdrey, 11 Wall. 459; Gilman et al. v. Illinois & Mississippi Telegraph Co., 91 U.S. 603; American Bridge Co. v. Heidelbach, 94 id. 798.

The mortgagee has his strict rights which he may enforce in the ordinary way. If he asks no favors, he need grant none. But if he calls upon a court of chancery to put forth its extraordinary powers and grant him purely equitable relief, he may with propriety be required to submit to the operation of a rule which always applies in such cases, and do equity in order to get equity. The appointment of a receiver is not a matter of strict right. Such an application always calls for the exercise of judicial discretion; and the Chancellor should so mould his order that while favoring one, injustice is not done to another. If this cannot be accomplished, the application should ordinarily be denied.

We think, also, that if no such order is made when the receiver is appointed, and it appears in the progress of the cause that bonded interest has been paid, additional equipment provided, or lasting and valuable improvements made out of earnings which ought in equity to have been employed to keep down debts for labor, supplies, and the like, it is within the power of the court to use the income of the receivership to discharge obligations which, but for the diversion of funds, would have been paid in the ordinary course of business. This, not because the creditors to whom such debts are due have in law a lien upon the mortgaged property or the income, but because, in a sense, the officers of the company are trustees of the earnings for the benefit of the different classes of creditors and the stockholders; and if they give to one class of creditors that which properly belongs to another, the court may, upon an adjustment of the accounts, so use the income which comes into its own hands as, if practicable, to restore the parties to their original equitable rights. While, ordinarily, this power is confined to the appropriation of the income of the receivership and the proceeds of moneyed assets that have been taken from the company, cases may arise where equity will require the use of the proceeds of the sale of the mortgaged property in the same way. Thus it often happens that, in the course of the administration of the cause, the court is called upon to take income which would otherwise be applied to the payment of old debts for current expenses, and use it to make permanent improvements on the fixed property, or to buy additional equipment. In this way the value of the mortgaged property is not unfrequently materially increased. It is not to be supposed that any such use of the income will be directed by the court, without giving the parties in interest an opportunity to be heard against it. Generally, as we know both from observation and experience, all such orders are made at the request of the parties or with their consent. Under such circumstances, it is easy to see that there may sometimes be a propriety in paying back to the income from the proceeds of the sale what is thus again diverted from the current debt fund in order to increase the value of the property sold. The same may sometimes be true in respect to expenditures before the receivership. No fixed and inflexible rule can be laid down for the government of the courts in all cases. Each case will necessarily have its own peculiarities, which must to a greater or less extent influence the Chancellor when he comes to act. The power rests upon the fact, that in the administration of the affairs of the company the mortgage creditors have got possession of that which in equity belonged to the whole or a part of the general creditors. Whatever is done, therefore, must be with a view to a restoration by the mortgage creditors of that which they have thus inequitably obtained. It follows that if there has been in reality no diversion, there can be no restoration; and that the amount of restoration should be made to depend upon the amount of the diversion. If in the exercise of this power errors are committed, they, like others, are open to correction on appeal. All depends upon a proper application of well-settled rules of equity jurisprudence to the facts of the case, as established by the evidence.

In this case no special conditions were attached to the order appointing a receiver in the Circuit Court of the United States; and it is not contended that the intervener has brought himself within the rule fixed by the State court, in respect to the payment of general creditors. He asks to be paid a rent for his cars; but he entered into no express contract with the company which requires such a payment, and there is nowhere to be found any proof of an implied obligation to make such compensation. Two years and more before the appointment of a receiver by the State court, he contracted to sell his cars to the company at an agreed price, payable in instalments, secured by what was in legal effect a paramount lien upon the cars. Payments were made according to the contract until October, 1874, when they stopped. The cars remained in use after that, not under a new contract of lease, but under the old contract of sale. The price agreed upon not having been paid in full, the power of reclamation, which was reserved, has been exercised and sustained. The cars were not included in what was sold at the foreclosure sale, and consequently have contributed nothing directly to the fund now in court for distribution. So far as appears, no moneys growing out of the receivership remain to be applied on the bonded debt; and, if there did, through the rent already paid by receiver Anderson, full compensation has been made for all additions to that fund by means of the use of the cars. There is nothing to show that the current income of the receivership or of the company has been in any manner employed so as to deprive this creditor of any of his equitable rights. In short, as the case stands, no equitable claim whatever has been established upon the fund in court. Prima facie that fund belongs to the mortgage creditors, and the presumption which thus arises has not been overcome. Schall, for the balance, his due, after his own security has been exhausted, occupied the position of a general creditor only.

The decree of the Circuit Court will be reversed so far as it directs the payment of the sum of $14,568.75 to Schall, the appellee, from the fund in court; but in all other respects it is affirmed, and the cause remanded with instructions to so modify the decree as to make it conform hereto. The costs of the appeal must be paid by the appellee; and it is

So ordered.

Notes[edit]

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).