No. 71.

180 U.S. 343 (1901)


Supreme Court of United States.

Decided February 25, 1901.

Attorney(s) appearing for the Case

Mr. W.S. Reese, Jr., and Mr. Robert A. Howard for appellants. Mr. Solicitor General was on their brief.

Mr. Alexander Troy and Mr. Henry S. Cattell for appellees, except the Henshaw heirs. Mr. W.A. Gunter filed a brief for the Henshaw heirs.

MR. JUSTICE PECKHAM, after making the above statement of facts, delivered the opinion of the court.

The principal claim against the defendants is based upon the manner in which the two separate judgments were obtained against the defendant Beebe, and the administrator of Henshaw, in the Circuit Court of Alabama on February 6, 1885. The amount due on one of those judgments (that against Beebe) was paid into the United States Treasury on July 1, 1886, and this suit was commenced in March, 1890.

The grounds upon which the court is asked to set aside the judgments so entered are (1) fraud in procuring them, and (2) the absence of power on the part of the district attorney to make the compromise, and the consequent invalidity of the judgments entered thereon.

The only ground which the allegation of fraud in relation to the judgments is based consists in the averment in the bill that the defendants came into court and represented that they were poor men; that Beebe and the estate of Henshaw were without property out of which any judgment could be collected or paid; that no part of any judgment could be collected by due process of law; that nothing could be made out of them or either of them or their estates by execution, but that if the court would allow a jury and a verdict to be entered against them for $100 they and each of them would pay said judgments and costs. Accordingly judgments were so taken without any evidence given or hearing had upon the merits of the claim.

It is manifest that these allegations would furnish no defence to the cause of action on the part of the United States against the defendants as sureties on the bond of Widmer. The statements had no tendency to prevent full preparation for trial on the part of complainant, nor did they tend in any way to obstruct the full presentation of the cause of action against the defendants on the trial. It is plain, therefore, that the representations, assuming them to have been false, could not constitute such a fraud as upon well settled principles a court of equity will relieve against by setting aside a judgment in a case where such representations were made. United States v. Throckmorton, 98 U.S. 61; Ward v. Town of Southfield, 102 N.Y. 287, 292. The first case has also been cited with approval in Moffat v. United States, 112 U.S. 24, 32, although a distinction is therein made taking it out from the rule recognized in Throckmorton's case.

But in fact there was no deception in the case. The bill itself avers that the estate of Henshaw had been declared insolvent upon a report of the administrator in 1880, and there is no allegation that the estate was not insolvent at that time. There is on the contrary a distinct allegation that the defendant Beebe, at, before and since July 2, 1880, had been insolvent and without sufficient property to pay his debts, including his indebtedness to the United States, and also that Ferris Henshaw at the time of his death was insolvent and without sufficient property to pay his debts, and that by reason of the insolvency of Beebe and Henshaw and the estate of Henshaw, the Government was entitled to priority of payment. Section 3466, Revised Statutes of the United States.

The insolvency of Beebe and the estate of Henshaw was thus made a material averment of the bill in order to base the demand upon the part of the United States for priority of payment of its debt of more than $28,000, which would exist, as was alleged, upon the setting aside of these judgments. It is obviously impossible to found an allegation of fraud upon a representation made by and for the defendants in open court, which simply states as a fact that which the bill of the complainant itself distinctly avers was a fact. It is true the defendants, as the bill alleges, based their application for reduced judgments upon this fact of insolvency, but whether the application were or were not meritorious is quite immaterial upon the issue of fraud, so long as the statements upon which it was made were neither fraudulent nor even false.

It is entirely plain there was no fraud in the case, and therefore this ground for complainant's relief cannot be sustained.

But a very different question arises from the alleged absence of power on the part of the district attorney to make the compromise and the consequent invalidity of the judgment entered thereon.

By demurring to the amended bill it is admitted that in former suits commenced by complainant against the defendants Beebe and the administrator of the estate of Henshaw, upon a claim to recover some twenty-eight thousand dollars with interest for a number of years, based upon the liability of the defendants upon a bond to the United States executed by them as sureties, two separate judgments were entered in favor of the United States at a term of the United States Circuit Court for the Middle District of Alabama, each judgment being for the sum of only $100 and costs, and that although the judgment records showed a regular trial before a jury and a verdict in each case, yet in truth there had been no jury, no witnesses, no evidence and no verdict, and that the judgments were simply the result of a compromise of the claim in each of the two suits as agreed upon by the district attorney on the one side and the defendants upon the other. Upon these facts the appellant claims that the judgments were wholly void for want of jurisdiction in the court to authorize them.

The appellants also claim that if not void, the judgments were at least irregular, and upon the facts averred in the bill ought to be set aside.

We do not think that they were void as if rendered by a court having no jurisdiction of the person or of the subject-matter, as confessedly the court had jurisdiction over both; but the facts just stated and which are admitted by the demurrers are enough in our opinion to call for the setting aside of those judgments. It is enough, without alleging fraud in their entry, that they simply carry out and represent a compromise made by the district attorney which he had no power to enter into, and which rendered the judgments so far unauthorized as to permit a suit to set them aside.

We think there can be no serious question that a district attorney of the United States has no power to agree upon a compromise of a claim in suit except under circumstances not present in this case. There is no statute of the United States and no regulation has been called to our attention giving a district attorney any such power, but, on the contrary, it is provided in paragraph 7 of the regulations established by the Solicitor of the Treasury, and approved by the Attorney General, pursuant to section 377 of the Revised Statutes of the United States, that no district attorney shall agree to take a judgment or decree for a less amount than is claimed by the United States, without express instructions from the Solicitor of the Treasury, unless circumstances exist which do not obtain in this case. The power to compromise a suit in which the United States is a party does not exist with the district attorney any more than a power to compromise a private suit between individuals rests with the attorney of either party, and that such an attorney has no power to compromise a claim in suit has been frequently decided. Holker v. Parker, 7 Cranch, 436. In that case it was remarked by Marshall, Chief Justice, that —

"Although an attorney at law, merely as such, has, strictly speaking, no right to make a compromise; yet a court would be disinclined to disturb one which was not so unreasonable in itself as to be exclaimed against by all, and to create an impression that the judgment of the attorney has been imposed on, or not fairly exercised in the case. But where the sacrifice is such as to leave it scarcely possible that, with a full knowledge of every circumstance, such a compromise could be fairly made, there can be no hesitation in saying that the compromise, being unauthorized and being therefore in itself void, ought not to bind the injured party."

The same has been held in Massachusetts in Lewis v. Gamage, 1 Pick. 347; and in New York in Barrett v. Third Avenue Railroad Company, 45 N.Y. 628, 635, and Mandeville v. Reynolds, 68 N.Y. 528, 540. And see Kilmer v. Gallaher, Supreme Court of Iowa, December 22, 1900, 52 Cent. L.J. 150, and note; Bigler v. Toy, 68 Iowa, 688. Indeed, the utter want of power of an attorney, by virtue of his general retainer only, to compromise his client's claim, cannot, we think, be successfully disputed.

A judgment entered upon such a compromise is subject to be set aside on the ground of the lack of authority in the attorney to make the compromise upon which the judgment rests. Prima facie, the act of the attorney in making such compromise and entering or permitting to be entered such judgment is valid, because it is assumed the attorney acted with special authority, but when it is proved he had none, the judgment will be vacated on that ground. Such judgment will be set aside upon application in the cause itself if made in due time or by a resort to a court of equity where relief may be properly granted.

In Robb v. Vos, 155 U.S. 13, it was held that although the judgment was on its face valid and regular, yet inasmuch as the attorney who appeared on behalf of one of the defendants did so without the consent of his principal, the remedy of the principal, when the facts came to his knowledge, was in equity, where the judgment might be set aside as to him. So, if the judgment be in fact entered upon a compromise made by the attorney who had no authority to make it, the judgment may be attacked and set aside in an equitable action upon proof of the necessary facts. Although the judgment is not void for want of jurisdiction in the court, it will yet be set aside upon affirmative proof that the attorney had no right to consent to its entry.

It is said that the judgment being valid on its face, evidence to contradict its recitals is not admissible unless in case of such a fraud as will be relieved against in a court of equity. Fraud under certain circumstances is a ground upon which a judgment may and will be set aside; but in addition to such ground, where, as in this case, the judgment is entered upon a compromise made by an attorney, entirely unauthorized, and without any trial, we have no doubt that such fact may be proved in order to lay the foundation for an application to a court of equity to set the judgment aside, although the proof contradicts the record of the judgment itself and shows that in fact there was no jury, no trial and no verdict.

It is however urged that the Government has lost its right to assail these judgments because of the lapse of time and because one of the judgments was paid before the commencement of this suit. The bill shows that they were entered on February 6, 1885, and that on July 1, 1886, Beebe paid the amount of the judgment against him into the Treasury of the United States. The bill was not filed until March 10, 1890, and it is therefore said that the Government has ratified the action of the district attorney by a failure to proceed to set the judgments aside at an earlier date than it did.

It is not averred in the bill to whom Beebe paid the amount of the judgment, but there is simply a statement that it was paid into the Treasury of the United States. We must probably assume from such averment that the payment was made to an officer who had the right to receive the money, but it is not charged that such officer received it with knowledge of the facts preceding the entry of the judgment and by virtue of which such judgment was entered. There would be nothing in the record of the judgment itself which would show anything other than a regular trial of the case and a verdict of a jury upon which the judgment was entered; consequently there would be nothing in the record which would charge the officer with knowledge that the judgment was only the result of and represented a compromise made by the district attorney, which he had no power to make.

In addition to this want of notice there is an averment in the bill that the facts and circumstances set out therein as the basis of the relief asked for by the bill had only come to the knowledge of the complainant on or about March 5, 1890. From 1885, when the judgments were entered, no one having authority to act in the premises for the Government had any knowledge of these facts until March, 1890, and this the demurrers admit. Generally speaking, the laches of officers of the Government cannot be set up as a defence to a claim made by the Government. United States v. Kirkpatrick, 9 Wheat. 720, 735; United States v. Vanzant, 11 Wheat. 184; Dox v. The Postmaster General, 1 Pet. 318, 325; Hart v. United States, 95 U.S. 316; Gaussen v. United States, 97 U.S. 584.

But we fail to see wherein the officers of the Government have been guilty of laches. There has been no ratification of any unauthorized act of the district attorney by reason of any delay on the part of the Government after knowledge of the facts, and without that knowledge there can be no ratification and in this case no laches.

Where an agent has acted without authority and it is claimed that the principal has thereafter ratified his act, such ratification can only be based upon a full knowledge of all the facts upon which the unauthorized action was taken. This is as true in the case of the Government as in that of an individual. Knowledge is necessary in any event. Story on Agency, 9th ed. sec. 239, notes 1 and 2. If there be want of it, though such want arises from the neglect of the principal, no ratification can be based upon any act of his. Knowledge of the facts is the essential element of ratification, and must be shown or such facts proved that its existence is a necessary inference from them. Here, it is denied by an express averment in the bill to that effect, and must be taken as a fact. There being no knowledge of the facts on the part of the Government until March, 1890, we think there were no laches on its part which would bar the maintenance of this suit. We think it cannot be said that a failure to earlier obtain knowledge was evidence of neglect upon the part of the officers of the Government, even though neglect would affect the Government in its right to maintain this suit.

Nor do we think the omission to make in the bill an offer to repay the hundred dollars and costs paid into the Treasury of the United States constituted a fatal defect in the pleading. It was a payment of money only, and the amount might be properly credited to the representatives of Beebe upon the trial of the action, and constitute by that amount a reduction of the claim of the Government; or if, upon the trial, the compromise being set aside and the cause tried on its merits, it should appear there was nothing due to the Government on its claim, the amount paid by Beebe into the Treasury together with interest thereon might be the subject of judgment against the Government. At any rate, no payment has been made upon the judgment against Henshaw's estate, and the payment made by Beebe did not operate as a payment of the judgment against that estate, because by the terms of the agreement as set forth in the bill the compromise consisted in a promise to pay by each the amount of each judgment of a hundred dollars and costs. The amended bill is not therefore defective so as to be demurrable as not containing facts sufficient to constitute a cause of action. And we do not think it is multifarious. The amendment but added another claim to those already made which were averred to be prior liens upon the lands in the hands of the Henshaw heirs at law. If the lands described in the bill, or any portion of them, have been conveyed to bona fide grantees for value, nothing in this opinion can be taken as in any way passing upon the question of their right to insist that they took the lands free and clear of any lien in favor of the Government, other than the $100 judgments.

To conclude, we are of opinion that the district attorney had no authority to compromise the claim of the Government by consenting to the entry of the judgments in question and as that unauthorized act on his part has never been ratified by the Government, with knowledge of the facts, and no laches are in reality attributable in this case to the Government, which proceeded at the earliest moment after the discovery of the facts to file this bill, we are of opinion that a cause of action was set forth in the amended bill and that the demurrers to such amended bill should be overruled.

The judgments of the United States Circuit Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit and of the Circuit Court of the United States for the Middle District of Alabama are therefore reversed and the case remitted to the latter court with directions to overrule the demurrers, with leave to the defendants to answer, and for such further proceedings as are consistent with this opinion. So ordered.


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