MAYER ET AL. v. HELLMAN


91 U.S. 496 (____)

MAYER ET AL. v. HELLMAN.

Supreme Court of United States.


Attorney(s) appearing for the Case

Mr. W.T. Forrest for the plaintiffs in error.

Mr. Adam A. Kramer, contra.


MR. JUSTICE FIELD delivered the opinion of the court.

The validity of the claim of the assignee in bankruptcy depends, as a matter of course, upon the legality of the assignment made under the laws of Ohio. Independently of the Bankrupt Act, there could be no serious question raised as to its legality. The power which every one possesses over his own property would justify any such disposition as did not interfere with the existing rights of others; and an equal distribution by a debtor of his property among his creditors, when unable to meet the demands of all in full, would be deemed not only a legal proceeding, but one entitled to commendation. Creditors have a right to call for the application of the property of their debtor to the satisfaction of their just demands; but, unless there are special circumstances giving priority of right to the demands of one creditor over another, the rule of equity would require the equal and ratable distribution of the debtor's property for the benefit of all of them. And so, whenever such a disposition has been voluntarily made by the debtor, the courts in this country have uniformly expressed their approbation of the proceeding. The hinderance and delay to particular creditors, in their efforts to reach before others the property of the debtor, that may follow such a conveyance, are regarded as unavoidable incidents to a just and lawful act, which in no respect impair the validity of the transaction.

The great object of the Bankrupt Act, so far as creditors are concerned, is to secure equality of distribution among them of the property of the bankrupt. For that purpose, it sets aside all transactions had within a prescribed period previous to the petition in bankruptcy, defeating, or tending to defeat, such distribution. It reaches to proceedings of every form and kind undertaken or executed within that period by which a preference can be secured to one creditor over another, or the purposes of the act evaded. That period is four months for some transactions, and six months for others. Those periods constitute the limitation within which the transactions will be examined and annulled, if conflicting with the provisions of the Bankrupt Act.

Transactions anterior to these periods are presumed to have been acquiesced in by the creditors. There is sound policy in prescribing a limitation of this kind. It would be in the highest degree injurious to the community to have the validity of business transactions with debtors, in which it is interested, subject to the contingency of being assailed by subsequent proceedings in bankruptcy. Unless, therefore, a transaction is void against creditors independently of the provisions of the Bankrupt Act, its validity is not open to contestation by the assignee, where it took place at the period prescribed by the statute anterior to the proceedings in bankruptcy. The assignment in this case was not a proceeding, as already said, in hostility to the creditors, but for their benefit. It was not, therefore, void as against them, or even voidable. Executed six months before the petition in bankruptcy was filed, it is, to the assignee in bankruptcy, a closed proceeding.

The counsel of the plaintiffs in error have filed an elaborate argument to show that assignments for the benefit of creditors generally are not opposed to the Bankrupt Act, though made within six months previous to the filing of the petition. Their argument is, that such an assignment is only a voluntary execution of what the Bankrupt Court would compel; and as it is not a proceeding in itself fraudulent as against creditors, and does not give a preference to one creditor over another, it conflicts with no positive inhibition of the statute. There is much force in the position of counsel, and it has the support of a decision of the late Mr. Justice Nelson, in the Circuit Court of New York, in Sedgwick v. Place, First Nat. Bank. Reg. 204, and of Mr. Justice Swayne in the Circuit Court of Ohio, in Langley v. Perry, 2 Nat. Bank. Reg. 180. Certain it is that such an assignment is not absolutely void; and, if voidable, it must be because it may be deemed, perhaps, necessary for the efficiency of the Bankrupt Act that the administration of an insolvent's estate shall be intrusted to the direction of the District Court, and not left under the control of the appointee of the insolvent. It is unnecessary, however, to express any decided opinion upon this head; for the decision of the question is not required for the disposition of the case.

In the argument of the counsel of the defendant in error, the position is taken that the Bankrupt Act suspends the operation of the act of Ohio regulating the mode of administering assignments for the benefit of creditors, treating the latter as an insolvent law of the State. The answer is, that that statute of Ohio is not an insolvent law in any proper sense of the term. It does not compel, or in terms even authorize, assignments: it assumes that such instruments were conveyances previously known, and only prescribes a mode by which the trust created shall be enforced. It provides for the security of the creditors by exacting a bond from the trustees for the discharge of their duties; it requires them to file statements showing what they have done with the property; and affords in various ways the means of compelling them to carry out the purposes of the conveyance. There is nothing in the act resembling an insolvent law. It does not discharge the insolvent from arrest or imprisonment: it leaves his after-acquired property liable to his creditors precisely as though no assignment had been made. The provisions for enforcing the trust are substantially such as a court of chancery would apply in the absence of any statutory provision. The assignment in this case must, therefore, be regarded as though the statute of Ohio, to which reference is made, had no existence. There is an insolvent law in that State; but the assignment in question was not made in pursuance of any of its provisions. The position, therefore, of counsel, that the Bankrupt Law of Congress suspends all proceedings under the Insolvent Law of the State, has no application.

The assignment in this case being in our judgment valid and binding, there was no property in the hands of the plaintiffs in error which the assignee in bankruptcy could claim. The assignment to them divested the insolvents of all proprietary rights they held in the property described in the conveyance. They could not have maintained any action either for the personalty or realty. There did, indeed, remain to them an equitable right to have paid over to them any remainder after the claims of all the creditors were satisfied. If a contingency should ever arise for the assertion of this right, the assignee in bankruptcy may perhaps have a claim for such remainder, to be applied to the payment of creditors not protected by the assignment, and whose demands have been created subsequent to that instrument. Of this possibility we have no occasion to speak now.

Our conclusion is, that the court below erred in sustaining the demurrer to the defendant's answer; and the judgment of the court must, therefore, be reversed, and the cause remanded for further proceedings.


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