114 U.S. 138 (1885)


Supreme Court of United States.

Decided March 30, 1885.

Attorney(s) appearing for the Case

Mr. William L. Putnam, (Mr. Thomas H. Haskell was with him) for plaintiff in error.

MR. CHIEF JUSTICE WAITE delivered the opinion of the court. After making the foregoing statement of the facts he continued:

By the original judiciary act of September 24, 1789, ch. 20, 1 Stat. 73, it was provided, § 11, that no District or Circuit Court should "have cognizance of any suit to recover the contents of any promissory note or other chose in action in favor of an assignee, unless a suit might have been prosecuted in such court to recover the said contents if no assignment had been made, except in cases of foreign bills of exchange." The same act provided, § 12, for the removal of suits from a State court to the Circuit Court by a defendant, and he was required to file his petition for such a removal at the time of entering his appearance in the State court.

By the act of March 3, 1875, ch. 137, § 1, 18 Stat. 470, § 11 of the act of 1789 was changed so as to provide that the Circuit and District Courts should not have cognizance of any suit founded on contract in favor of an assignee, unless a suit might have been prosecuted in such court to recover thereon if no assignment had been made, except in cases of promissory notes negotiable by the law merchant and bills of exchange. By the same act, §§ 2 and 3, removals could be effected by either party, when the necessary citizenship existed, if a petition was filed therefor, in the State court before or at the term at which the cause could be first tried, and before the trial thereof. This last act also contained this provision, § 5: "If, in any suit commenced in a Circuit Court or removed from a State court, ... it shall appear to the satisfaction of the Circuit Court, at any time after such suit has been brought or removed thereto, that such suit does not really and substantially involve a suit or controversy properly within the jurisdiction of said Circuit Court, or that the parties to said suit have been improperly or collusively made or joined, either as plaintiffs or defendants, for the purpose of creating a case cognizable or removable under this act, the said Circuit Court shall proceed no further therein, but shall dismiss the suit or remand it to the State court from which it was removed, as justice may require, and shall make such order as to costs as shall be just, but the order of the Circuit Court, dismissing or remanding said cause to the State court, shall be reviewable by the Supreme Court on writ of error or appeal, as the case may be."

Under the act of 1789, the jurisdiction of the courts of the United States, in suits by assignees of choses in action, was confined within narrow limits, and there was comparatively little danger of collusion to create a case of that character cognizable by those courts, because, if the owner of the claim could sue in his own name, there would ordinarily be no motive for transferring it to another to bring the action. In that act promissory notes and inland bills of exchange, the form of negotiable securities most used in the transaction of ordinary business by citizens of the United States, were included in the prohibition of suits by assignees.

The subject of colorable transfers to create a case for the jurisdiction of the courts of the United States was presented for the most part in suits for the recovery of real property, when a conveyance had been made by a citizen of the State in which the suit must be brought to a citizen of another State. At a very early day it was held in this class of cases that the citizenship of the parties could not be put in issue on the merits, but that it must be brought forward at an earlier stage in the proceedings by a plea in abatement, in the nature of a plea to the jurisdiction, and that a plea to the merits was a waiver of such a plea to the jurisdiction. De Wolf v. Rabaud, 1 Pet. 476, 498; Evans v. Gee, 11 Pet. 80, 83; Sims v. Hundley, 6 How. 1, 5; Smith v. Kernochen, 7 How. 198, 216; Jones v. League, 18 How. 76, 81; De Sobry v. Nicholson, 3 Wall. 420, 423. And upon the question of transfer it was uniformly held that, if the transaction was real and actually conveyed to the assignee or grantee all the title and interest of the assignor or grantor in the thing assigned or granted, it was a matter of no importance that the assignee or the grantee could sue in the courts of the United States when his assignor or grantor could not. A suit by such an assignee or grantee would present, in reality, a controversy between the plaintiff on the record and the defendants. McDonald v. Smalley, 1 Pet. 620; Smith v. Kernochen, supra; Barney v. Baltimore, 6 Wall. 280, 288. But it was equally well settled that if the transfer was fictitious, the assignor or grantor continuing to be the real party in interest, and the plaintiff on record but a nominal or colorable party, his name being used only for the purpose of jurisdiction, the suit would be essentially a controversy between the assignor or grantor and the defendant, notwithstanding the formal assignment or conveyance, and that the jurisdiction of the court would be determined by their citizenship rather than that of the nominal plaintiff. Maxwell v. Levy, 2 Dall. 381; S.C. 4 Dall. 238, decided by Mr. Justice Iredell and Peters J. in the Pennsylvania circuit in 1797. Smith v. Kernochen, supra; Barney v. Baltimore, supra.

Such was the condition of the law when the act of 1875 was passed, which allowed suits to be brought by the assignees of promissory notes negotiable by the law merchant, as well as of foreign and domestic bills of exchange, if the necessary citizenship of the parties existed. This opened wide the door for frauds upon the jurisdiction of the court by collusive transfers, so as to make colorable parties and create cases cognizable by the courts of the United States. To protect the courts as well as parties against such frauds upon their jurisdiction, it was made the duty of a court, at any time when it satisfactorily appeared that a suit did not "really and substantially involve a dispute or controversy" properly within its jurisdiction, or that the parties "had been improperly or collusively made or joined ... for the purpose of creating a case cognizable" under that act, "to proceed no further therein," but to dismiss the suit or remand it to the State court from which it had been removed. This, as was said in Williams v. Nottawa, 104 U.S. 209, 211, "imposed the duty on the court, on its own motion, without waiting for the parties, to stop all further proceedings and dismiss the suit the moment a fraud on its jurisdiction was discovered." The old rule established by the decisions, which required all objections to the citizenship of the parties, unless shown on the face of the record to be taken by plea in abatement before pleading to the merits, was changed, and the courts were given full authority to protect themselves against the false pretences of apparent parties. This is a salutary provision which ought not to be neglected. It was intended to promote the ends of justice, and is equivalent to an express enactment by Congress that the Circuit Courts shall not have jurisdiction of suits which do not really and substantially involve a dispute or controversy of which they have cognizance, nor of suits in which the parties have been improperly or collusively made or joined for the purpose of creating a case cognizable under the act. It does not, any more than did the act of 1789, prevent the courts from taking jurisdiction of suits by an assignee when the assignment is not fictitious, and actually conveys all the interest of the assignor in the thing assigned, so that the suit when begun involves really and substantially a dispute or controversy in favor of the assignee for himself and on his own account against the defendant; but it does in positive language provide that, if the assignment is collusive and for the purpose of enabling the assignee to sue in the courts of the United States for the benefit of the assignor, when the assignor himself could not bring the action, the court shall not proceed in the case. In this respect it goes further than the rulings of the courts under the act of 1789. Under its provisions the holders of promissory notes or of foreign or domestic bills of exchange, who are citizens of a State in which the decisions of the courts have been adverse to their interests, cannot by collusive transfers to citizens of other States create a case apparently cognizable in the courts of the United States, and have it prosecuted by their assignees in those tribunals for their benefit, in the hope of securing an adjudication in that jurisdiction more favorable to their interests. The courts of the United States were not created under the Constitution for any such purpose. Except in certain specified cases they have no jurisdiction of controversies between citizens of the same State.

We are clearly of opinion that this case falls within the prohibitions of the statute. The bonds to which the coupons now in suit were attached were all bought as early as 1871 or 1872 by citizens of the State of Maine, who held and owned the bonds themselves when this suit was brought. Their purchases were made while a suit was pending in the courts of the State to test the validity of the bonds. On the 27th of August, 1878, the highest court of the State decided in effect that the bonds were inoperative and void, for want of constitutional power in the village corporation to issue them. Almost two years after this decision these coupons, to the amount of $7,922, were collected from various holders of bonds, all residents of the village of Farmington and citizens of Maine, and transferred, separate from the bonds, to the present plaintiff, a citizen of Massachusetts, under an arrangement by which the plaintiff gave to the agent of the holders of the coupons his non-negotiable promissory note for $500, payable in two years from date, with interest, and agreed, "as a further consideration for said coupons," that if he succeeded in collecting the full amount thereof he would pay the agent, as soon as the money was got from the corporation, fifty per cent. of the net amount collected above the $500. This suit, begun July 1, 1880, in the name of the plaintiff, is the result of that arrangement. It is a suit for the benefit of the owners of the bonds. They are to receive from the plaintiff one-half of the net proceeds of the case they have created by their transfer of the coupons gathered together for that purpose. The suit is their own in reality, though they have agreed that the plaintiff may retain one-half of what he collects for the use of his name and his trouble in collecting. It is true the transaction is called a purchase in the papers that were executed, and that the plaintiff gave his note for $500, but the time for payment was put off for two years, when it was, no doubt, supposed the result of the suit would be known. No money was paid, and as the note was not negotiable, it is clear the parties intended to keep the control of the whole matter in their own hands, so that if the plaintiff failed to recover the money he could be released from his promise to pay. In the language of Mr. Justice Field, speaking for the court in Detroit v. Dean, 106 U.S. 537, 541, applied to the facts of this case, the transfer of the coupons was "a mere contrivance, a pretence, the result of a collusive arrangement to create" in favor of this plaintiff "a fictitious ground of federal jurisdiction," so as to get a re-examination in that jurisdiction of the question decided adversely to the owners of the coupons by the highest judicial tribunal of the State. Hawes v. Oakland, 104 U.S. 450, 459; Hayden v. Manning, 106 U.S. 586; Bernards Township v. Stebbins, 109 U.S. 341.

We, therefore, say, in answer to the first question certified, that the plaintiff cannot maintain the action in the Circuit Court upon the coupons declared upon.

The judgment of the Circuit Court is reversed, and the cause remanded, with instructions to dismiss the suit for want of jurisdiction and without prejudice.


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