123 U.S. 227 (1887)


Supreme Court of United States.

Decided October 31, 1887.

Attorney(s) appearing for the Case

Mr. Thomas C. Fletcher for appellant.

Mr. Solicitor General and Mr. Heber J. May for appellee.

MR. JUSTICE HARLAN delivered the opinion of the court.

In United States v. Lippitt, 100 U.S. 663, 668, 669, it was held that `limitation is not pleadable in the Court of Claims against a claim cognizable therein, and which has been referred by the head of an executive department for its judicial determination, provided such claim was presented for settlement at the proper department within six years after it first accrued; that is, within six years after suit could be commenced thereon against the Government. Where the claim is of such a character that it may be allowed and settled by an executive department, or may, in the discretion of the head of such department, be referred to the Court of Claims for final determination, the filing of the petition should relate back to the date when it was first presented at the department for allowance and settlement. In such cases the statement of the facts upon which the claim rests, in the form of a petition, is only another mode of asserting the same demand which had previously, and in due time, been presented at the proper department for settlement." "These views," the court said, "find support in the fact that the act of 1868 describes claims presented at an executive department for settlement, and which belong to the classes specified in its seventh section as cases which may be transmitted to the Court of Claims. `And all the cases mentioned in this section, which shall be transmitted by the head of an executive department or upon the certificate of any auditor or comptroller, shall be proceeded in as other cases pending in said court, and shall, in all respects, be subject to the same rules and regulations,' with right of appeal. The cases thus transmitted for judicial determination are, in the sense of the act, commenced against the Government when the claim is originally presented at the department for examination and settlement. Upon their transfer to the Court of Claims, they are to be `proceeded in as other cases pending in said court.'" See, also, Ford v. United States, 116 U.S. 213; United States v. McDougall's Administrator, 121 U.S. 89.

We are of opinion that the claim here in suit — although by reason of its character "cognizable by the Court of Claims" — cannot properly be made the basis of a judgment in that court. As the United States are not liable to be sued, except with their consent, it was competent for Congress to limit their liability, in that respect, to specified causes of action, brought within a prescribed period. Nichols v. United States, 7 Wall. 122, 126. It appears from the finding of facts that more than ten years had expired after the claim first accrued before it was presented to the proper department for settlement; and more than six years after the passage of the act of 1868, Rev. Stat. §§ 1063, 1064, which authorized the head of an executive department to transmit to the Court of Claims, for adjudication, any claim which involved disputed facts or controverted questions of law, or the decision of which would affect a class of cases, or furnish a precedent for future action. Consequently, in any view, this claim belonged to the class which, under the express words of the act of 1863, Rev. Stat. § 1069, were "forever barred," so far, at least, as the claimant had the right to a judgment in that court against the United States. The duty of the court, under such circumstances, whether limitation was pleaded or not, was to dismiss the petition; for the statute, in our opinion, makes it a condition or qualification of the right to a judgment against the United States that — except where the claimant labors under some one of the disabilities specified in the statute — the claim must be put in suit by the voluntary action of the claimant, or be presented to the proper department for settlement, within six years after suit could be commenced thereon against the Government. Under the appellant's theory of the case, the Second Comptroller could open the case twenty years hence, and, upon the claim being transmitted by the Secretary of the Treasury to the Court of Claims, that court could give judgment upon it against the United States. We do not assent to any such interpretation of the statutes defining the powers of that court.

The general rule that limitation does not operate by its own force as a bar, but is a defence, and that the party making such a defence must plead the statute if he wishes the benefit of its provisions, has no application to suits in the Court of Claims against the United States. An individual may waive such a defence, either expressly or by failing to plead the statute; but the Government has not expressly or by implication conferred authority upon any of its officers to waive the limitation imposed by statute upon suits against the United States in the Court of Claims. Since the Government is not liable to be sued, as of right, by any claimant, and since it has assented to a judgment being rendered against it only in certain classes of cases, brought within a prescribed period after the cause of action accrued, a judgment in the Court of Claims for the amount of a claim which the record or evidence shows to be barred by the statute, would be erroneous.

The judgment is



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