Willcox Gibbs Sewing-Mach Company v. Ewing/Opinion of the Court

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Opinion of the Court

United States Supreme Court

141 U.S. 627

Willcox Gibbs Sewing-Mach Company  v.  Ewing


If this action was based upon the agreement of 1867, there would be some ground for holding that the company was obliged, by that agreement, to continue Ewing as agent so long as he performed its stipulations. We are only concerned, however, with the agreement of 1874, which materially differs from that of 1867, and expressly provides that all prior contracts between the parties 'are hereby nullified and satisfied.' It is only for a breach of the contract of 1874 the plaintiff sues. Looking at all the provisions of the last agreement, it is clear that Ewing-although bound, while the contract was in force, to devote his time, attention, and abilities primarily to the interests of the company, within the territory allotted to him-was not compelled to continue in its service for any given number of years, at least after 1875, or indefinitely, but was at liberty after that year, if not before, upon reasonable notice, to surrender his position and quit its service, subject to the company's right to buy back such of its goods sold to him as it might select, and for the prices at which they were charged to him. He may have been entirely satisfied with the manner in which the company acted towards him, and yet may have preferred-it is immaterial for what reason-not to remain in its service after 1875, or to continue in the business of selling sewing-machines. We specify the year 1875, because Ewing agreed to purchase, during that year, $20,000 of the company's machines. But he did not bind himself to purchase any given number during subsequent years. It would be a very hard interpretation of the contract to hold that he was bound by the agreement of 1874 to serve the company within the designated territory so long as it kept the contract, and was satisfied with him as its agent. None of its provisions would justify such an interpretation.

If Ewing had the privilege, upon reasonable notice, of severing the connection between him and the company after 1875, upon what ground could a like privilege be denied the company if it desired to dispense with his services? He contends that his life, or the continuance of the company in business, was the shortest duration of the contract, consistently with its provisions, provided he did his duty. This position is untenable. His appointment was made and accepted subject to the conditions expressed in the agreement. No one of those conditions is to the effect that so long as he devoted his time, attention, and abilities to the company's business he should retain his position as its exclusive vendor, within the territory named, without regard to its wishes. If the parties intended that their relations should be of that character, it was easy to have so stipulated. The only part of the contract that gives color to the theory for which the plaintiff contends is the part declaring that a violation of the spirit of the agreement 'shall be sufficient cause for its abrogation.' This clause, it may be suggested, was entirely unnecessary if the parties retained the right to abrogate the contract after 1875 at pleasure, and implies that it could be abrogated only for sufficient cause, of which, in case of suit, the jury, under the guidance of the court as to the law, must judge in the light of all the circumstances. We cannot concur in this view. The clause referred to is not equivalent to a specific provision declaring, affirmatively, that the contract should continue in force for a given number of years or without a limit as to time, unless abrogated by one or the other party for sufficient cause. It was inserted by way of caution, to indicate that the parties were bound to observe equally the spirit and the letter of the agreement while it was in force.

There was some discussion at the bar as to whether Ewing was, strictly, an agent of the company. We think he was. He was none the less an agent because of his appointment as 'exclusive vendor' of the defendant's machines within a particular territory, or because of the peculiar privileges granted to or the peculiar restrictions imposed upon him. One clause of the contract prohibits him from soliciting trade, directly or indirectly, in the territory 'of other agents;' another, that he will bind 'all subvendors or agents' to sustain the etablished retail prices of the company; and still another imposes restrictions upon the sale of his 'appointment or agency.' The agreement constituted him the sole agent of the company for the sale of its machines within a certain territory. It is true that the machines he undertook to sell were to be purchased by him from the company at a large discount. But he could not sell them by retail below the regular retail prices. This arrangement was the mode adopted to protect the company's interests, and to secure the plaintiff such compensation for his services as would induce him to devote his time, attention, and abilities to the company's interests. He was still a mere agent to sell such machines as might be delivered to him under the contract. We perceive nothing in the agreement of 1874 to take the case out of the general rule that 'the principal has a right to determine or revoke the authority given to his agent at his own mere pleasure; for, since the authority is conferred by his mere will, and is to be executed for his own benefit and his own purposes, the agent cannot insist upon acting when the principal has withdrawn his confidence, and no longer desires his aid.' Story, Ag. §§ 462, 463. So far as the company's power of revocation is concerned, the case is not materially different from what it would be if the plaintiff had agreed to sell such machines as were delivered to him at the established retail prices, receiving, as compensation for his services, the difference between those prices and the amount he agreed to pay for them under the contract of 1874. In either case, his relation to the company would be one of agency, that could be terminated at its will or by renunciation upon his part, at least after 1875. Of course, the revocation by the principal of the agent's authority could not injuriously affect existing contracts made by the latter under the power originally conferred upon him.

For the reasons stated the court below erred in not instructing the jury, as requested, to return a verdict for the defendant.

The judgment is reversed, with directions to grant a new trial, and for further proceedings consistent with this opinion.

Mr. Justice BRADLEY and Mr. Justice GRAY did not hear the argument or take part in the decision of this case.

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).