Sawyer v. Hoag/Opinion of the Court

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Opinion of the Court

United States Supreme Court

84 U.S. 610

Sawyer  v.  Hoag

The first and most important question to be decided in this case is whether the indebtedness of the appellant to the insurance company is to be treated, for the purposes of this suit, as really based on a loan of money by the company to him, or as representing his unpaid stock subscription.

The charter under which the company was organized authorized it to commence business upon a capital stock of $100,000, with ten thousand paid in, and the remainder secured by notes with mortgages on real estate or otherwise. The transaction by which the appellant professes to have paid up his stock subscription is, shortly, this: He gave to the company his check for the full amount of his subscription, namely, $5000. He took the check of the company for $4250, being the amount of his subscription less the 15 per cent. required of each stockholder to be paid in cash, and he gave his note for the amount of the latter check, with good collateral security for its payment, with interest at 7 per cent. per annum. The appellant and the company, by its officers, agreed to call this latter transaction a loan, and the check of the appellant payment in full of his stock; and on the books of the company, and in all other respects as between themselves it was treated as payment of the subscription and a loan of money. It is agreed that at this time the current rate of interest in Chicago was greater than 7 per cent., and it is not stated as a fact whether these checks were ever presented and paid at any bank, or that any money was actually paid or received by either party in the transaction. It must, therefore, be treated as an agreement between the corporation, by its officers, on the one part, and the appellant, as a subscriber to the stock of the company, on the other part, to convert the debt which the latter owed to the company for his stock into a debt for the loan of money, thereby extinguishing the stock debt.

Undoubtedly this transaction, if nothing unfair was intended, was one which the parties could do effectually as far as they alone were concerned. Two private persons could thus change the nature of the indebtedness of one to the other if it was found to be mutually convenient to do so. And in any controversy which might or could grow out of the matter between the insurance company and the appellant we are not prepared to say that the company, as a corporate body, could deny that the stock was paid in full.

And on this consideration one of the main arguments on which the appellant seeks to reverse the decree stands. He assumes that the assignee in bankruptcy is the representative alone of the corporation, and can assert no right which it could not have asserted. The weakness of the argument is in this assumption. The assignee is the representative of the creditors as well as the bankrupt. He is appointed by the creditors. The statute is full of authority to him to sue for and recover property, rights, and credits, where the bankrupt could not have sustained the action, and to set aside as void transactions by which the bankrupt himself would be bound. All this, of course, is in the interest of the creditors of the bankrupt.

Had the creditors of this insolvent corporation any right to look into and assail the transaction by which the appellant claims to have paid his stock subscription?

Though it be a doctrine of modern date, we think it now well established that the capital stock of a corporation, especially its unpaid subscriptions, is a trust fund for the benefit of the general creditors of the corporation. And when we consider the rapid development of corporations as instrumentalities of the commercial and business world in the last few years, with the corresponding necessity of adapting legal principles to the new and varying exigencies of this business, it is no solid objection to such a principle that it is modern, for the occasion for it could not sooner have arisen.

The principle is fully asserted in two recent cases in this court, namely, Burke v. Smith, [4] and in New Albany v. Burke. [5] Both these cases turned upon the doctrine we have stated, and upon the necessary inference from that doctrine, that the governing officers of a corporation cannot, by agreement or other transaction with the stockholder, release the latter from his obligation to pay, to the prejudice of its creditors, except by fair and honest dealing and for a valuable consideration.

In the latter case, a judgment creditor of an insolvent railroad company, having exhausted his remedy at law, sought to enforce this principle by a bill in chancery against the stockholders. The court, by affirming the right of the corporation to deal with the debt due it for stock as with any other debt, would have ended the case without further inquiry. But asserting, on the contrary, to its full extent, that such stock debts were trust funds in their hands for the benefit of the corporate creditors, and must in all cases be dealt with as trust funds are dealt with, it was found necessary to go into an elaborate inquiry to ascertain whether a violation of the trust had been committed. And though the court find that the transaction by which the stockholders had been released was a fair and valid one, as founded on the conditions of the original subscription, the assertion of the general rule on the subject is none the less authoritative and emphatic. [6]

In the case before us the assignee of the bankrupt, in the interest of the creditors, has a right to inquire into this conventional payment of his stock by one of the shareholders of the company; and on that inquiry, we are of opinion that, as to these creditors, there was no valid payment of his stock by the appellant. We do not base this upon the ground that no money actually passed between the parties. It would have been just the same if, agreeing beforehand to turn the stock debt into a loan, the appellant had brought the money with him, paid it, taken a receipt for it, and carried it away with him. This would be precisely the equivalent of the exchange of checks between the parties. It is the intent and purpose of the transaction which forbids it to be treated as valid payment. It is the change of the character of the debt from one of a stock subscription unpaid to that of a loan of money. The debt ceases by this operation, if effectual, to be the trust fund to which creditors can look, and becomes ordinary assets, with which the directors may deal as they choose.

And this was precisely what was designed by the parties. It divested the claim against the stockholder of its character of a trust fund, and enabled both him and the directors to deal with it freed from that charge. There are three or four of these cases now before us in which precisely the same thing was done by other insurance companies organized in Chicago, and we have no doubt it was done by this company in regard to all their stockholders.

It was, therefore, a regular system of operations to the injury of the creditor, beneficial alone to the stockholder and the corporation.

We do not believe we characterize it too strongly when we say that it was a fraud upon the public who were expected to deal with them.

The result of it was that the capital stock of the company was neither paid up in actual money, nor did it exist in the form of deferred instalments properly secured.

It is said by the appellant's counsel that conceding this, it is still a debt due by him to the corporation at the time that he became the owner of the debt due by the corporation to Hayes, and, therefore, the proper subject of set-off under the twentieth section of the Bankrupt Act. That section is as follows: 'In all cases of mutual debts or mutual credits between the parties, the account between them shall be stated, and one debt set off against the other, and the balance only shall be allowed or paid, but no set-off shall be allowed of a claim in its nature not provable against the estate: Provided, that no set-off shall be allowed in favor of any debtor to the bankrupt of a claim purchased by or transferred to him after the filing of the petition.'

This section was not intended to enlarge the doctrine of set-off, or to enable a party to make a set-off in cases where the principles of legal or equitable set-off did not previously authorize it.

The debts must be mutual; must be in the same right.

The case before us is not of that character. The debt which the appellant owed for his stock was a trust fund devoted to the payment of all the creditors of the company. As soon as the company became insolvent, and this fact became known to the appellant, the right of set-off for an ordinary debt to its full amount ceased. It became a fund belonging equally in equity to all the creditors, and could not be appropriated by the debtor to the exclusive payment of his own claim.

It is unnecessary to go into the inquiry whether this claim was acquired before the commission of an act of bankruptcy by the company, or the effect of the bankruptcy proceeding. The result would be the same if the corporation was in the process of liquidation in the hands of a trustee or under other legal proceedings. It would still remain true that the unpaid stock was a trust fund for all the creditors, which could not be applied exclusively to the payment of one claim, though held by the stockholder who owed that amount on his subscription.

Nor do we think the relation of the appellant in this case to the corporation is without weight in the solution of the question before us. It is very true, that by the power of the legislature there is created in all acts of incorporation a legal entity which can contract with its shareholders in the ordinary transactions of business as with other persons. It can buy of them, sell to them, make loans to them, and in insurance companies, make contracts of insurance with them, in all of which both parties are bound by the ordinary laws of contract. The stockholder is also relieved from personal liability for the debts of the company. But after all, this artificial body is but the representative of its stockholders, and exists mainly for their benefit, and is governed and controlled by them through the officers whom they elect. And the interest and power of legal control of each shareholder is in exact proportion to the amount of his stock. It is, therefore, but just that when the interest of the public, or of strangers dealing with this corporation is to be affected by any transaction between the stockholders who own the corporation and the corporation itself, such transaction should be subject to a rigid scrutiny, and if found to be infected with anything unfair towards such third person, calculated to injure him, or designed intentionally and inequitably to screen the stockholder from loss at the expense of the general creditor, it should be disregarded or annulled so far as it may inequitably affect him. [7]

These principles require the affirmation of the decree in the present case, and it is accordingly


Mr. Justice HUNT dissented, holding that the transaction was a loan by the company to the appellant.

At the same time with the preceding case were submitted and adjudged two other cases, Meyer v. Vocke, Assignee, and Jaeger v. Same Defendant, both from the same court as the preceding case, which though differing, both, in some respects,-the latter case especially, which was a suit at law,-from the one just above reported, were declared by the court to fall within the same governing principles. In both cases the decision below had been in favor of the assignee in bankruptcy, and in both it was accordingly affirmed in this court.


^4  16 Wallace, 390.

^5  11 Id. 96.

^6  See also Curran v. State of Arkansas, 15 Howard, 304; Wood v. Dummer, 3 Mason, 305; Slee v. Bloom, 19 Johnson, 456, and numerous other cases cited by the counsel for the appellees.

^7  Lawrence v. Nelson, 21 New York, 158.

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).