Wilson v. City Bank/Opinion of the Court

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Opinion of the Court

United States Supreme Court

84 U.S. 473

Wilson  v.  City Bank

The questions presented to this court by the certificate of division require, for a satisfactory answer, a careful consideration and construction of sections thirty-five and thirtynine of the Bankrupt law, with reference to the general spirit and purpose of that law. In looking to these the first and most important consideration which demands our attention is the discrimination made by the act between the cases of voluntary and involuntary bankruptcy. In both classes of cases undoubtedly the primary object is to secure a just distribution of the bankrupt's property among his creditors, and in both the secondary object is the release of the bankrupt from the obligation to pay the debts of those creditors.

But in case of voluntary bankruptcy the aid of the law is invoked by the bankrupt himself, with the purpose of being discharged from his debts as his principal motive, and in the other the movement is made by his creditors with the purpose of securing the appropriation of his property to their payment, the discharge being with them a matter of no weight and often contested.

There is a corresponding difference in the facts on which the action of this court can be invoked in these different classes of bankruptcy. When the party himself weeks the aid of the court the averment he is required to make is a very simple one, namely, that 'he is unable to pay all his debts in full, and is willing to surrender all his estate and effects for the benefit of his creditors, and desires to obtain the benefit of the act,' that is, to be discharged from the claims of his creditors. On filing a petition containing this request he is declared by the court a bankrupt. The allegation cannot be traversed, nor is any issue or inquiry as to its truth permitted. The administration of his effects proceeds thereafter under the direction of the court, and may end in paying all his debts with a surplus to be returned to the bankrupt, or the result may be nothing for the creditors, and the unconditional release of the bankrupt.

But while the debtor may on this broad basis call on the court to administer his estate, the creditor who desires to do the same thing is limited to a few facts or circumstances, the existence of which are essential to his right to appeal to the court. And when any one of these facts is set forth in a petition to the court by the creditor, the truth of the allegation may be denied by the debtor, and on the issue thus found, he may demand the verdict of a jury.

The reason for this wide difference in the proceedings in the two cases is obvious enough. When a man is himself willing to refer his embarrassed condition to the proper court with a full surrender of all his property, no harm can come to any one but himself, and there can be no solid objection to the course he pursues. But when a person claims to take from another all control of his property, to arrest him in the exercise of his occupation, and to impair his standing as a business man, in short to place him in a position which may ruin him in the midst of a prosperous career, the precise circumstances or facts on which he is authorized to do this, should not only be well defined in the law, but clearly established in the court.

It is the thirty-ninth section of the Bankrupt Act which lays down in nine or ten subdivisions the facts and circumstances which give a man's creditors the right to have him declared a bankrupt, and his property administered in a bankruptcy court. One of them is the case of a person who being bankrupt or insolvent, or in contemplation of insolvency, shall make any payment, gift, grant, sale, conveyance, or transfer of money or other property, estate, rights, or credits, or give any warrant to confess judgment or procure or suffer his property to be taken on legal process with intent to give a preference to one or more of his creditors, or to any person or persons who may be liable for him as indorsers, bail sureties, or otherwise, or with intent by such disposition of his property to defeat or delay the operation of the act. And the same section declares that if such person shall be adjudged a bankrupt, the assignee may recover back the money or property so paid, conveyed, sold, assigned, or transferred, contrary to the act; provided, the person receiving such payment or conveyance, had reasonable cause to believe that'a fraud on the Bankrupt Act was intended, or that the debtor was insolvent.

The case before us is one of involuntary bankruptcy, but there is no question here whether the party was rightfully declared a bankrupt. The statement of facts shows that the debtors were insolvent when the bank commenced its proceedings in the State court, and that the bank had then reasonable cause to believe they were insolvent, and knew that they had committed an act of bankruptcy, to wit, had permitted one of their notes to go unpaid more than fourteen days after it was due.

It is maintained that under these circumstances the bankrupt 'suffered his property to be taken on legal process with intent to give a preference to the bank, and to defeat or delay the operation of the act.' Undoubtedly, the facts stated bring the bank within the proviso, as to knowledge of the debtor's insolvency; and if the debtor suffered his property to be taken within the meaning of the statute, with intent to defeat or delay the operation of the act, then the assignee should recover the property. So that this sufferance and this intent on the part of the bankrupt are the matters to be decided. The first and principal question on which the judges became divided is, whether such intent is to be inferred from the facts stated.

The thirty-fifth section of the act, which is designed to prevent fraudulent preferences of a person in contemplation of insolvency or bankruptcy, declares that any attachment or seizure under execution of such person's property, procured by him with a view to give such a preference, shall be void if the act be done within four months preceding the filing of the petition in bankruptcy by or against him. Though the main purpose of the thirty-ninth section is to define acts of the trader which make him a bankrupt, and that of the thirty-fifth is to prevent preferences by an insolvent debtor in view of bankruptcy, both of them have the common purpose of making such preferences void, and enabling the assignee of the bankrupt to recover the property; and both of them make this to depend on the intent with which the act was done by the bankrupt, and the knowledge of the bankrupt's insolvent condition by the other party to the transaction. Both of them describe, substantially, the same acts of payment, transfer, or seizure of property so declared void. It is, therefore, very strongly to be inferred that the act of suffering the debtor's property to be taken on legal process in section thirty-nine, is precisely the same as procuring it to be attached or seized on execution in section thirty-five. Indeed, the words procure and suffer are both used in section thirty-nine.

What, then, is the true meaning of that phrase in the act? In both cases it must be accompanied with an intent. In section thirty-five it is to give a preference to a creditor; in section thirty-nine it must be to give a preference to a creditor, or to defeat or delay the operation of the Bankrupt Act. In both there must be the positive purpose of doing an act forbidden by that statute, and the thing described must be done in the promotion of this unlawful purpose.

The facts of the case before us do not show any positive or affirmative act of the debtors from which such intent may be inferred. Through the whole of the legal proceedings against them they remained perfectly passive. They owed a debt which they were unable to pay when it became due. The creditor sued them and recovered judgment, and levied execution on their property. They afforded him no facilities to do this, and they interposed no hindrance. It is not pretended that any positive evidence exists of a wish or design on their part to give this creditor a preference, or oppose or delay the operation of the Bankrupt Act.

There is nothing morally wrong in their course in this matter. They were sued for a just debt. They had no defence to it, and they made none. To have made an effort by dilatory or false pleas to delay a judgment in the State court would have been a moral wrong and a fraud upon the due administration of the law. There was no obligation on them to do this, either in law or in ethics. Any other creditor whose debt was due could have sued as well as this one, and any of them could have instituted compulsory bankrupt proceedings. The debtor neither hindered nor facilitated any one of them. How is it possible from this to infer, logically, an actual purpose to prefer one creditor to another, or to hinder or delay the operation of the Bankrupt Act?

It is said, however, that such an intent is a legal inference from such inaction by the debtor, necessary to the successful operation of the Bankrupt law; that the grand feature of that law is to secure equality of distribution among creditors in all cases of insolvency; and that, to secure this, it is the legal duty of the insolvent, when sued by one creditor in an ordinary proceeding likely to end in judgment and seizure of property, to file himself a petition of voluntary bankruptcy, and that this duty is one to be inferred from the spirit of the law, and is essential to its successful operation.

The argument is not without force, and has received the assent of a large number of the district judges, to whom the administration of the Bankrupt law is more immediately confided.

We are, nevertheless, not satisfied of its soundness.

We have already said that there is no moral obligation on the part of the insolvent to do this, unless the statute requires it, and then only because it is a duty imposed by the law. It is equally clear that there is no such duty imposed by that act is express terms. It is, therefore, an argument solely of implication. This implication is said to arise from the supposed purpose of the statute to secure equality of distribution in all cases of insolvency, and to make the argument complete, it is further necessary to hold that this can only be done in bankruptcy proceedings under that statute. Does the statute justify so broad a proposition? Does it in effect forbid all proceedings to collect debts in cases of insolvency, in other courts, and in all other modes than by bankruptcy? We do not think that its purpose of securing equality if distribution is designed to be carried so far.

As before remarked, the voluntary clause is wholly voluntary. No intimation is given that the bankrupt must file a petition under any circumstances. While his right to do so is without any other limit than his own sworn averment that he is unable to pay all his debts, there is not a word from which we can infer any legal obligation on him to do so. Such an obligation would take from the right the character of a privilege, and confer on it that of a burdensome and, often, ruinous duty.

It is, in its essence, involuntary bankruptcy. But the initiation in this kind of bankruptcy is, by the statute, given to the creditor, and is not imposed on the debtor. And it is only given to the creditor in a limited class of cases. The argument we are combating goes upon the hypothesis that there is another class given to the creditor by inference, namely, where the debtor ought himself to go into court as a bankrupt and fails to do it. We do not see the soundness of this implication from anything in the statute.

We do not construe the act as intended to cover all cases of insolvency, to the exclusion of other judicial proceedings. It is very liberal in the classes of insolvents which it does include, and needs no extension in this direction by implication. But it still leaves, in a great majority of cases, parties who are really insolvent, to the chances that their energy, care, and prudence in business may enable them finally to recover without disastrous failure or positive bankruptcy. All experience shows both the wisdom and justice of this policy.

Many find themselves with ample means, good credit, large business, technically insolvent; that is, unable to meet their current obligations as fast as they mature. But by forbearance of creditors, by meeting only such debts as are pressed, and even by the submission of some of their property to be seized on execution, they are finally able to pay all, and to save their commercial character and much of their property. If creditors are not satisfied with this, and the parties have committed an act of bankruptcy, any creditor can institute proceedings in a bankrupt court. But until this is done, their honest struggle to meet their debts and to avoid the breaking up of all their business is not, of itself, to be construed into an act of bankruptcy, or a fraud upon the act.

It is also argued, that inasmuch as to lay by and permit one creditor to obtain judgment and levy on property necessarily gives that creditor a preference, the debtor must be supposed to intend that which he knows will follow.

The general legal proposition is true, that where a person does a positive act, the consequences of which he knows beforehand, that he must be held to intend those consequences. But it cannot be inferred that a man intends, in the sense of desiring, promoting, or procuring it, a result of other persons acts, when he contributes nothing to their success or completion, and is under no legal or moral obligation to hinder or prevent them.

Argument confirmatory of these views may be seen in the fact that all the other acts or modes of preference of creditors found in both the sections we have mentioned, in direct context with the one under consideration, are of a positive and affirmative character, and are evidences of an active desire or wish to prefer one creditor to others. Why, then, should a passive indifference and inaction, where no action is required by positive law or good morals, be construed into such a preference as the law forbids?

The construction thus contended for is, in our opinion, not justified by the words of either of the sections referred to, and can only be sustained by imputing to the general scope of the Bankrupt Act a harsh and illiberal purpose, at variance with its true spirit and with the policy which prompted its enactment.

Undoubtedly very slight evidence of an affirmative character of the existence of a desire to prefer one creditor, or of acts done with a view to secure such preference, might be sufficient to invalidate the whole transaction. Such evidence might be sufficient to leave the matter to a jury, or to support a decree, because the known existence of a motive to prefer or to defraud the Bankrupt Act would color acts or decisions otherwise of no significance. These cases must rest on their own circumstances. But the case before us is destitute of any evidence of the existence of such a motive, unless it is to be imputed as a conclusion of law from facts which we do not think raise such an implication.

These latter considerations serve to distinguish the present case from that of Buchanan v. Smith, [9] decided at the last term, and which may seem to conflict, in some of the expressions used in that opinion, with those found in this. That was a bill in chancery involving several distinct issues of fact, on which much and conflicting testimony was given, and the contention was mainly as to what was established by the evidence. There was satisfactory proof that the creditor, before pursuing his remedy in the State court, had urgently sought to secure a preference by obtaining from the debtor a transfer of certain policies of insurance on which a loss was due. The case was also complicated by an assignment made by the debtor, under which the assignee took possession before the creditor procured his judgment in the State court. That case was well decided on the evidence before the court. But in the case now before us the questions we have discussed are presented nakedly and without confusion, by facts found by the court and undisputed, and we have been compelled, on careful consideration of the Bankrupt Act, to the following conclusions:

1. That something more than passive non-resistance of an insolvent debtor to regular judicial proceedings, in which a judgment and levy on his property are obtained, when the debt is due and he is without just defence to the action, is necessary to show a preference of a creditor, or a purpose to defeat or delay the operation of the Bankrupt Act.

2. That the fact that the debtor under such circumstances does not file a petition in bankruptcy is not sufficient evidence of such preference or of intent to defeat the operation of the act.

3. That, though the judgment creditor in such case may know the insolvent condition of the debtor, his levy and seizure are not void under the circumstances, nor any violation of the Bankrupt law.

4. That a lien thus obtained by him will not be displaced by subsequent proceedings in bankruptcy against the debtor, though within four months of the filing of the petition.

These propositions require the questions certified to us to be answered as follows: The first and second in the NEGATIVE, and the third in the AFFIRMATIVE.


^9  16 Wallace, 277.

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).