Raymond v. Chicago Union Traction Company/Opinion of the Court

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United States Supreme Court

207 U.S. 20

Raymond  v.  Chicago Union Traction Company

 Argued: April 8, 9, 1907. --- Decided: October 21, 1907

The claim that action of the state board of equalization in making the assessment under consideration was the action of the state, and if carried out would violate the provisions of the 14th Amendment to the Constitution of the United States, by taking property of the appellee without due process of law, and by failing to give it the equal protection of the laws, constitutes a Federal question beyond all controversy. How that question should be decided is another matter, which we will proceed at once to discuss.

The state board of equalization is one of the instrumentalities provided by the state for the purpose of raising the public revenue by way of taxation. In regard to corporations of the class of which the appellee and the other corporations involved here are members, it is the duty of that board to make an original assessment upon them. From the decision of the board in making such assessment no appeal is provided for, and each decision is therefore conclusive, except as proceedings for relief may thereafter be taken in the courts. As to the assessments of local assessing bodies, the board is one of review, but its decisions are equally conclusive, as in the case of original assessments. Acting under the constitution and laws of the state, the board therefore represents the state, and its action is the action of the state. The provisions of the 14th Amendment are not confined to the action of the state through its legislature, or through the executive or judicial authority. Those provisions relate to and cover all the instrumentalities by which the state acts, and so it has been held that whoever, by virtue of public position under a state government, deprives another of any right protected by that amendment against deprivation by the state, violates the constitutional inhibition; and as he acts in the name of the state and for the state, and is clothed with the state's powers, his act is that of the state. Chicago, B. & Q. R. Co. v. Chicago, 166 U.S. 226, 41 L. ed. 979, 17 Sup. Ct. Rep. 581. Following the above case, the Federal courts throughout the country have frequently reviewed the action of taxing bodies when, under the facts, such action was in effect the action of the state, and therefore reviewable by the Federal courts by virtue of the provisions of the Amendment in question. See Nashville, C. & St. L. R. Co. v. Taylor, 86 Fed. 168; Louisville Trust Co. v. Stone, 46 C. C. A. 299, 107 Fed. 305. In the last case, which related to enjoining the collection of alleged illegal taxes by reason of discrimination, the court said: 'It may be conceded that, if the allegations of the bill are made out, there exists, in respect to the property of complainant and others similarly situated, a systematic, intentional, and illegal undervaluation of other property by the taxing officers of the state, which necessarily affects an unjust discrimination against the property of which the plaintiff is the owner, and a bill in equity will lie to restrain such illegal discrimination, and that in such cases Federal jurisdiction will arise because of the equal protection of the laws guaranteed by the 14th Amendment.'

The same principle has been recognized in Reagan v. Farmers' Loan & T. Co. 154 U.S. 362, 390, 38 l. ed. 1014, 1021, 4 Inters. Com. Rep. 560, 14 Sup. Ct. Rep. 1047; A. Backus, Jr. & Sons v. Fort Street Union Depot Co. 169 U.S. 557, 565, 42 L. ed. 853, 857, 18 Sup. Ct. Rep. 445; Fargo v. Hart, 193 U.S. 490, 502, 48 L. ed. 761, 766, 24 Sup. Ct. Rep. 498.

The case before us is one which the facts make exceptional. It is made entirely clear that the board of equalization did not equalize the assessments in the cases of these corporations, the effect of which was that they were levied upon a different principle or followed a different method from that adopted in the case of other like corporations whose property the board had assessed for the same year. It was not the mere action of individuals, but, under the facts herein detailed, it was the action of the state, through the board. There is here no contention of illegality simply because of assessing the franchises of these corporations at a different rate from tangible property in the state, which the state might do (Coulter v. Louisville & N. R. Co. 196 U.S. 599, 49 L. ed. 615, 25 Sup. Ct. Rep. 342), but it is asserted that the board assessed the franchises and other property of these companies at a different rate and by a different method from that which had been employed by the board for other corporations of the same class for that year. The result is an enormous disparity and discrimination between the various assessments upon the corporations. The most important function of the board, that of equalizing assessments, in order to carry out the provisions of the Constitution of the state in levying a tax by valuation, 'so that every person shall pay a tax in proportion to the value of his, her, or its property,' was, in this instance, omitted and ignored, while the board was making an assessment which it had jurisdiction to make under the laws of the state. This action resulted in an illegal discrimination which, under these facts, was the action of the state through the board. Barney v. New York, 193 U.S. 430, 48 L. ed. 737, 24 Sup. Ct. Rep. 502, holds that where the act complained of was forbidden by the state legislature, it could not be said to be the act of the state. Such is not the case here.

We are also of opinion that the case is one over which equity has jurisdiction. In Cummings v. Merchants' Nat. Bank, 101 U.S. 153, 25 L. ed. 903, this court held that the case was one properly brought in equity. It was to restrain the collection of a tax. While the court held that the position of the bank as trustee entitled it to maintain an action in equity and also under the statute of Ohio, it was further held (page 157): 'Independently of this statute, however, we are of opinion that when a rule or system of valuation is adopted by those whose duty it is to make the assessment, which is designed to operate unequally and to violate a fundamental principle of the Constitution, and when this rule is applied not solely to one individual, but to a large class of individuals or corporations, that equity may properly interfere to restrain the operation of this unconstitutional exercise of power.' We have in the case at bar similar facts. A system of valuation was adopted and applied to a large class of corporations, differing wholly from that applied to other corporations of the same class, and resulting in a discrimination against the appellee of the most serious and material nature. It is not a question of mere difference of opinion as to the valuation of property, but it is a question of difference of method in the manner of assessing property of the same kind. Although the law itself may be valid and provide for a proper valuation, yet if, through mistake on the part of the state, through its board of equalization, and while acting as a quasi-judicial body, the board erred in the method to be pursued in relation to the corporations now before us, the mistake is one which may be corrected in equity.

In all these cases, however, where there is jurisdiction to tax at all, equity will not grant an injunction to restrain the collection, even of an illegal tax, without the payment on the part of the taxpayer of the amount of a tax fairly and equitably due. People's Nat. Bank v. Marye, 191 U.S. 272, 48 L. ed. 180, 24 Sup. Ct. Rep. 68, and cases eited. Acting upon this principle, the circuit court refused to issue the injunction until the appellee paid the amount which the court found to be a fair and just amount due from the appellee for the tax of the year 1900, based upon a tax at the same rate as that levied upon other property and on corporations of the same class within the state. The sum to be paid by the appellee herein, as decided by the circuit judge, was $134,350.03. That sum was paid instead of $1,019,211.78, called for by the warrant in the hands of the collector.

Finally, it is objected that the appellee had a complete and adequate remedy at law by paying the amount of the warrant, and then suing the collector to recover the same back as money paid under duress, although upon a void warrant. Undoubtedly, if there be a complete and adequate remedy at law in such a case as this, the remedy in equity will not be recognized. Assuming the tax to be void, equity will not restrain, by injunction, its collection, unless there be some other ground for equitable interposition. Shelton v. Platt, 139 U.S. 591, 35 L. ed. 273, 11 Sup. Ct. Rep. 646; Allen v. Pullman's Palace Car Co. 139 U.S. 658, 35 L. ed. 303, 11 Sup. Ct. Rep. 682; Racific Exp. Co. v. Seibert, 142 U.S. 339, 35 L. ed. 1035, 3 Inters. Com. Rep. 810, 12 Sup. Ct. Rep. 250.

In the cases in 139 U.S., supra, it was recognized that no ground appeared for the interposition of a court of equity, because of the existence of a statute in the state of Tennessee providing for paying the amount of the alleged illegal tax to the officer holding the warrant, and granting to the taxpayer a right to commence an action to recover back the tax thus paid, the statute providing that the officer should pay the amount received into the state treasury, where it was to remain until the question was decided, and, if it was decided in favor of the taxpayer, provision was made for the repayment of the amount by the state. The other averments, beside that of the illegality of the tax, made in these two cases, were held not to constitute a ground for the interposition of a court of equity by restraining the collection of the tax. In the case in 142 U.S., supra, the court held that there was no ground to warrant the interposition of a court of equity. The case was decided upon the ground that the averment of illegality of the tax was not sustained. There is no statute of a similar kind in Illinois which has been called to our attention, but some of the cases in that state hold that such a suit may be maintained against the collector when the money was paid under protest.

In the case at bar it is averred that it is the duty of the collector, having received the money on his warrant, to pay the sum so received in the proportions designated in his tax books to the city treasurer of the city of Chicago, the county treasurer of the county of Cook, the treasurer of the sanitary district, and other officers and authorities entitled to receive the same, and if the plaintiff instituted suit to recover back the taxes so paid to the town or county collector he would be obliged to bring separate suits against each one of the several taxing bodies receiving its proportionate share of the tax, thereby necessitating a multiplicity of suits, and the proportion of the tax which would go to the state of Illinois could not be collected back by any legal proceeding whatsoever; and if repayment could be compelled from the city of Chicago and other taxing bodies, such repayment would not cover the cost, including commissions deducted for the collection of the tax, and in that way it was averred that the appellee would be subjected to great and irreparable injury, for which there was not a complete or adequate remedy at law. There was also the allegation, already referred to in the foregoing statement, that, if compelled to pay this enormous tax, it would be rendered insolvent. We think all these allegations combined take the case out of the class where relief is prayed for, founded simply upon the unconstitutionality of the law under which the tax is levied, or upon the illegality, for any other reason, of the tax itself, and bring the case within the jurisdiction of a court of equity. And, in addition, there is the allegation that a levy upon the property of the appellee would interfere with the operation of the street car system in the city of Chicago, operated by the appellee, and would greatly embarrass and injure the public who have to use the cars.

Upon the whole, we think it is apparent that no adequate remedy at law exists in this case, and that the judgment enjoining the collection of the balance of the tax levied against the appellee, above that which has been paid under the direction of the circuit court, must be affirmed.

Notwithstanding my unfeigned deference to the judgment of my brethren, I cannot but think that the circuit court was wrong in taking jurisdiction of this case. We all agree, I suppose, that it is only in most exceptional cases that a state can be said to deprive a person of his property without due process of law merely because of the decision of a court, without more. The discussion in Chicago, B. & Q. R. Co. v. Chicago, 166 U.S. 226, 41 L. ed. 979, 17 Sup. Ct. Rep. 581, concerned a judgment assumed to be authorized by a statute of the state, and in that case the judgment of the state court was affirmed, so that no very extensive conclusions can be drawn from it. So far as I know this is the first instance in which a circuit court has been held authorized to take jurisdiction on the ground that the decision of a state tribunal was contrary to the 14th Amendment.

It seems to me that the appellee should not be heard until it has exhausted its local remedies; that the action of the state board of equalization should not be held to be the action of the state until, at least, it has been sanctioned directly, in a proceeding which the appellee is entitled to bring, by the final tribunal of the state,-the supreme court. I am unable to grasp the principle on which the state is said to deprive the appellee of its property without due process of law because a subordinate board, subject to the control of the supreme court of the state, is said to have violated the express requirement of the state in its Constitution,-because, in other words, the board has disobeyed the authentic command of the state by failing to make its valuations in such a way that every person shall pay a tax in proportion to the value of his property. I should have thought that the action of the state was to be found in its Constitution, and that no fault could be found with that until the authorized interpreter of that Constitution, the supreme court, had said that it sanctioned the alleged wrong. Barney v. New York, 193 U.S. 430, 48 L. ed. 737, 24 Sup. Ct. Rep. 502.

At I think that the circuit court ought to be ordered to dismiss this case, I shall not discuss the merits. But I cannot forbear adding that, so far as the appellee is complaining that it has been compelled to pay the full amount of the tax due from it, and is founding its complaint on the fact that other parties are escaping their liabilities, whether through mistake or still uncorrected fraud, it seems to me to show no sufficient ground for relief, unless exceptional reasons exist, not adverted to in the judgment of the court.

Mr. Justice Moody concurs in the dissent.


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).