HUMPHREYS v. LEGGETT ET AL.


50 U.S. 297 (1850)

9 How. 297

BENJAMIN G. HUMPHREYS, APPELLANT, v. LEGGETT, SMITH, AND LAWRENCE.

Supreme Court of United States.


Attorney(s) appearing for the Case

The cause was argued by Mr. Gilpin, for the appellant, and Mr. Jones, for the appellees.


Mr. Justice GRIER delivered the opinion of the court.

The appellant, Humphreys, who was complainant below, filed his bill against the defendants, praying an injunction against the issuing of an execution on a judgment they had obtained against him at law.

His bill sets forth, that he was one of the sureties of Richard Bland, late sheriff of Claiborne County, in his official bond. That in March, 1839, the present defendants instituted a suit on the bond against Bland and his sureties, on which the Circuit Court rendered a judgment in favor of the defendants. The cause was removed to this court by writ of error, where the judgment of the Circuit Court was reversed, and the case remanded to the Circuit Court, with directions to enter judgment against Humphreys, the surviving surety. This was in February, 1845. In the mean while, at May term, 1840, judgments were entered in the State Circuit Court of Claiborne County against the sheriff and his sureties on the same bond, and the whole amount of the penalty collected, by levy and sale of complainant's property.

The bill, moreover, avers, that complainant had no notice or knowledge whatsoever of the suit and proceedings against him by these defendants, till after the case was remanded by this court; that the sheriff's return of service of the writ on him was false, and made at the request of Bland, for the purpose of keeping the complainant in ignorance of the pendency of the suit; that when the cause was remanded to the Circuit Court, he offered to plead his payment of the bond puis darrein continuance; but the court refused to receive the plea, on the ground, that the mandate of the Supreme Court was imperative on them to enter a judgment for the plaintiff.

The defendants demurred to this bill for want of equity, and the court below sustained the demurrer, and dismissed the bill, and the complainant has appealed to this court.

Do the facts set forth in the bill, and admitted by the demurrer, entitle the complainant to the injunction prayed for?

According to the view entertained by the court of the true merits of this case, it will be unnecessary to examine the question so much mooted on the argument, as to the conclusiveness of the sheriff's return, or whether equity would interfere, where a false return has been made by the sheriff in collusion with a co-defendant, without any fraud or fault of the plaintiff. We shall, therefore, consider the case as if the complainant had full notice of the suit at law, and the summons had been duly served on him.

The laws of Mississippi limit the liability of the sureties in the official bond of the sheriff to the amount of the penalty. Any person injured by a default of the sheriff in paying over money collected by him may have a judgment entered on the bond for the amount due to him, on motion, without service of process, or stay of execution. This judgment is a lien on all the personal and real property of the defendants, and has a priority over all judgments subsequently obtained.

As the officer is liable to the extent of his defaults, and the surety only to the extent of the bond, difficulties will, no doubt, often occur as to the mode in which sureties may defend themselves, when judgments are demanded exceeding the amount of the penalty. If the prior judgments should be paid out of the property of the sheriff, the sureties might wrongfully escape, if the amount of prior judgments might be pleaded against subsequent demands. On the contrary, if it could not, the surety might be compelled to pay more than the amount of his bond, unless the court should protect him in some way.

In some States, where a similar law prevails as to suits on sheriffs' bonds, each suitor is permitted to take a judgment on the bond for the amount of his claim, and when the sureties have paid in the whole amount of the penalty, all further executions are stayed by the court, and the money apportioned to the claimants according to their respective priorities. But, whatever may be the practice of the courts of Mississippi in such cases, it is clear, that, when the surety has paid the whole penalty of his bond, he should, at some stage of the proceedings, be suffered to plead this defence to further exactions. If he has had no such opportunity before judgment, the court, on motion, should permit it to be done after judgment, and order a stay of execution. Formerly, courts of law gave a remedy in such cases, by a writ of audita querela, — "a writ," it is said, "of a most remedial nature, and invented lest in any case there should be an oppressive defect of justice, where a party who has a good defence is too late in making it in the ordinary forms of law"; and although it is said to be in its nature a bill in equity, yet, in modern practice, courts of law usually afford the same remedy on motion in a summary way. The practice in Mississippi seems to prefer a bill in equity for the same purpose.

And courts of equity usually grant a remedy by injunction against a judgment at law, upon the same principles. In Truly v. Wanzer, 5 Howard, 142, this court say, — "It may be stated as a general principle with regard to injunctions after a judgment at law, that any fact which proves it to be against conscience to execute such judgment, and of which the party could not have availed himself in a court of law, or of which he might have availed himself at law, but was prevented by fraud or accident, unmixed with any fault or negligence in himself or his agents, will authorize a court of equity to interfere by injunction to restrain the adverse party from availing himself of such judgment." (See also Story, Eq. Jur. § 887.)

In the case before us, the surety had been compelled to pay the whole amount of his bond by process from the State courts, before the present defendants obtained their judgment against him, but after the institution of their suit. This would have been a good defence to the action if pleaded puis darrein continuance. The complainant tendered this plea at the proper time, and was refused the benefit of it, not because it was adjudged insufficient as a defence, but because the court considered they had no discretion to allow it. The mandate from this court was, probably, made without reference to the possible consequences that might flow from it. At all events, it operated unjustly, by precluding the complainant from an opportunity of making a just and legal defence to the action. The payment was made while the cause was pending here. The party was guilty of no laches, but lost the benefit of his defence, by an accident over which he had no control. He is, therefore, in the same condition as if the defence had arisen after judgment, which would entitle him to relief by audita querela, or a bill in equity for an injunction.

We are of opinion, therefore, that the complainant was entitled to the relief prayed for in his bill, and that the decree of the court below should be reversed.

Order.

This cause came on to be heard on the transcript of the record from the Circuit Court of the United States for the Southern District of Mississippi, and was argued by counsel. On consideration whereof, it is now here ordered, adjudged, and decreed by this court, that the decree of the said Circuit Court in this cause be, and the same is hereby, reversed, with costs, and that this cause be, and the same is hereby, remanded to the said Circuit Court, for further proceedings to be had therein, in conformity to the opinion of this court.


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