MR. JUSTICE DOUGLAS delivered the opinion of the Court.
Petitioners are present and former members of the United States Maritime Commission. Respondents are stockholders of Dollar Steamship Lines, Inc., Ltd. (Dollar of Delaware), whose corporate name was changed to American President Lines, Ltd., subsequent to the execution in 1938 of a contract out of which the present litigation arises. By 1937 Dollar of Delaware was in difficult financial straits. The problems confronting it and the various steps taken to remedy the situation need not be recapitulated here.
Thereupon respondents instituted the present suit in the District Court for the District of Columbia, see 11 D.C. Code, §§ 301, 305, 306, claiming that petitioners were unlawfully in possession of respondents' stock and illegally withholding it. The prayer was that petitioners be restrained from selling the shares and be directed to return them to respondents. Respondents moved for a preliminary injunction. Petitioners submitted affidavits opposing the motion. After a hearing, the District Court on its own motion dismissed the complaint with prejudice, holding that the suit was against the United States. The Court of Appeals reversed. 81 U.S. App. D.C. 28, 154 F.2d 307. The case is here on a petition for a writ of certiorari which we granted because of the importance of the question presented.
First. The facts asserted in the affidavits support the view that the 1938 contract called for the outright transfer of the shares, not for their pledge. But we put the affidavits to one side for two reasons. In the first place, the function of the affidavits was to oppose the motion for a
The allegations of the complaint, if proved, would establish that petitioners are unlawfully withholding respondents' property under the claim that it belongs to the United States. That conclusion would follow if either of respondents' contentions were established: (1) that the Commission had no authority to purchase the shares or acquire them outright; or (2) that, even though
If respondents are right in these contentions, their claim rests on their right under general law to recover possession of specific property wrongfully withheld. At common law their suit as pledgors to recover the pledged property on payment of the debt would sound in tort.
If viewed in that posture, the case is very close to United States v. Lee, 106 U.S. 196. That was an action in ejectment to recover possession of a tract of land. The defendants were military officers who, acting under orders of the President, took possession of the land and converted one part into a fort and another into a cemetery. For the lawfulness of their possession they relied on a tax sale of the property to the United States. On the trial it was held that the claim of the plaintiffs to the land was valid and that the defendants were wrongfully in possession. The Court affirmed the judgment over the objection that the suit was one against the United States. It held that the assertion by officers of the Government of their authority to act did not foreclose judicial inquiry into the lawfulness of their action; that a determination of whether their "authority is rightfully assumed is the exercise of jurisdiction, and must lead to the decision of the merits of the question." P. 219. It further held that while such an adjudication is not res judicata against the United States because it cannot be made a party to the suit, the courts have jurisdiction to resolve the controversy between those who claim possession. And it concluded that an agent or officer of the United States who acts beyond his authority is answerable for his actions. And see Philadelphia Co. v. Stimson, 223 U.S. 605, 619-620; Sloan Shipyards Corp. v. United States Fleet Corp., 258 U.S. 549, 567.
We do not trace the principle of United States v. Lee, supra, in its various ramifications. Cases on which petitioners rely are distinguishable. This is not an indirect attempt to collect a debt from the United States by preventing action of government officials which would alter or terminate the contractual obligation of the United States to pay money. See Wells v. Roper, 246 U.S. 335; Mine Safety Co. v. Forrestal, 326 U.S. 371. It is not an attempt to get specific performance of a contract to deliver property of the United States. Goldberg v. Daniels, 231 U.S. 218. It is not a case where the sovereign
We say the foregoing cases are distinguishable from the present one, though as a matter of logic it is not easy to reconcile all of them. But the rule is based on practical considerations reflected in the policy which forbids suits against the sovereign without its consent. The "essential nature and effect of the proceeding" may be such as to make plain that the judgment sought would expend itself on the public treasury or domain, or interfere with the public administration. Ex parte New York, 256 U.S. 490, 500, 502. If so, the suit is one against the sovereign. Mine Safety Co. v. Forrestal, supra, p. 374. But public officials may become tort-feasors by exceeding the limits of their authority. And where they unlawfully seize or hold a citizen's realty or chattels, recoverable by appropriate action at law or in equity, he is not relegated to the Court of Claims to recover a money judgment. The dominant interest of the sovereign is then on the side of the victim who may bring his possessory action to reclaim that which is wrongfully withheld.
It is in the latter category that the pleadings have cast this case. That is to say, if the allegations of the petition are true, the shares of stock never were property of the United States and are being wrongfully withheld by petitioners who acted in excess of their authority as public officers. If ownership of the shares is in the United States, suit to recover them would of course be a suit against the
We intimate no opinion on the merits of the controversy. We only hold that the District Court has jurisdiction to determine its jurisdiction by proceeding to a decision on the merits.
Second. Motions were made by the Solicitor General to substitute as defendants the new members of the Commission for those who are no longer members.
The judgment of the Court of Appeals is
MR. JUSTICE BLACK took no part in the consideration or decision of this case.
MR. JUSTICE REED, concurring.
As I think this proceeding states a cause of action against the United States Maritime Commission, I do not
A contract between plaintiffs, Dollar et al., and the United States Maritime Commission, was attached to the complaint as an exhibit. The contract was not signed by any individual member of the Commission but by the Commission through its duly authorized special counsel. In the complaint, respondents alleged that they and their predecessors in interest "caused said shares of stock of the company to be transferred to the United States Maritime Commission." They further alleged that they made demand upon the "Maritime Commission for the return of said stock in July, 1945. This request was denied by the Maritime Commission in July, 1945." The ultimate result sought by the complaint was that the respondents "be directed and ordered by this court to return the plaintiffs' stock, now in the unlawful possession and custody of the defendants, to the plaintiffs, the lawful owners." Taken as a whole, I cannot read the complaint otherwise than as alleging that title and possession of this stock is now in the United States Maritime Commission. Although plaintiffs assert possession in the defendants, the other allegations and the attached contract show that defendants hold the stock by virtue of their official positions as members of the Commission. If the basic allegations were proven, the Commission would be shown to be in possession of the stock under a claim of right.
If that is the correct interpretation of the complaint, it follows of course that the Maritime Commission is an indispensable party to this proceeding. See Commonwealth Trust Co. v. Smith, 266 U.S. 152, 159. No matter how far beyond their statutory powers the members of the Commission may have acted in contracting with the
Cases cited in the opinion of the Court as following the rule of United States v. Lee are not significant here. Two are similar cases of ejectment.
The present suit is for the return to the plaintiffs of property held by the Maritime Commission under a contract which the Dollar interests allege called for a return of the certificates to them on payment of a debt. Such a suit, it seems to me, is an effort to get possession of property actually in the possession of the Maritime Commission. This cannot be done without joining the Maritime Commission as a party defendant. See Goldberg v. Daniels, 231 U.S. 218; Wells v. Roper, 246 U.S. 335; Morrison v. Work, 266 U.S. 481, 487; Mine Safety Co. v. Forrestal, 326 U.S. 371.
As this appears to me as a suit against the Commission, I would affirm the judgment of the Court of Appeals, remanding this case to the District Court. There the questions
"The Commission may enter into such contracts, upon behalf of the United States, and may make such disbursements as may, in its discretion, be necessary to carry on the activities authorized by this Act, or to protect, preserve, or improve the collateral held by the Commission to secure indebtedness, in the same manner that a private corporation may contract within the scope of the authority conferred by its charter." Keifer & Keifer v. R.F.C., 306 U.S. 381.