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Bank of the Republic v. Millard/Opinion of the Court

United States Supreme Court

77 U.S. 152

Bank of the Republic  v.  Millard

The only question presented by the record which it is material to notice is this: Can the holder of a bank check sue the bank for refusing payment, in the absence of proof that it was accepted by the bank, or charged against the drawer?

It is no longer an open question in this court, since the decision in the cases of The Marine Bank v. The Fulton Bank [6] and of Thompson v. Riggs, [7] that the relation of banker and customer, in their pecuniary dealings, is that of debtor and creditor. It is an important part of the business of banking to receive deposits, but when they are received, unless there are stipulations to the contrary, they belong to the bank, become part of its general funds, and can be loaned by it as other moneys. The banker is accountable for the deposits which he receives as a debtor, and he agrees to discharge these debts by honoring the checks which the depositors shall from time to time draw on him. The contract between the parties is purely a legal one, and has nothing of the nature of a trust in it. This subject was fully discussed by Lords Cottenham, Brougham, Lyndhurst, and Campbell, in the House of Lords, in the case of Foley v. Hill, [8] and they all concurred in the opinion that the relation between a banker and customer, who pays money into the bank, or to whose credit money is placed there, is the ordinary relation of debtor and creditor, and does not partake of a fiduciary character, and the great weight of American authority is to the same effect.

As checks on bankers are in constant use, and have been adopted by the commercial world generally as a substitute for other modes of payment, it is important, for the security of all parties concerned, that there should be no mistake about the status, which the holder of a check sustains towards the bank on which it is drawn. It is very clear that he can sue the drawer if payment is refused, but can he also, in such a state of case, sue the bank? It is conceded that the depositor can bring assumpsit for the breach of the contract to honor his checks, and if the holder has a similar right, then the anomaly is presented of a right of action upon one promise, for the same thing, existing in two distinct persons, at the same time. On principle, there can be no foundation for an action on the part of the holder, unless there is a privity of contract between him and the bank. How can there be such a privity when the bank owes no duty and is under no obligation to the holder? The holder takes the check on the credit of the drawer in the belief that he has funds to meet it, but in no sense can the bank be said to be connected with the transaction. If it were true that there was a privity of contract between the banker and holder when the check was given, the bank would be obliged to pay the check, although the drawer, before it was presented, had countermanded it, and although other checks, drawn after it was issued, but before payment of it was demanded, had exhausted the funds of the depositor. If such a result should follow the giving of checks, it is easy to see that bankers would be compelled to abandon altogether the business of keeping deposit accounts for their customers. If, then, the bank did not contract with the holder of the check to pay it at the time it was given, how can it be said that it owes any duty to the holder until the check is presented and accepted? The right of the depositor, as was said by an eminent judge, [9] is a chose in action, and his check does not transfer the debt, or give a lien upon it to a third person without the assent of the depositary. This is a well-established principle of law, and is sustained by the English and American decisions. [10]

The few cases which assert a contrary doctrine, it would serve no useful purpose to review.

Testing the case at bar by these legal rules, it is apparent that the court below, after the plaintiff closed his case, should have instructed the jury, as requested by the defendant, that the plaintiff, on the evidence submitted by him, was not entitled to recover. The defendant did not accept the check for the plaintiff, nor promise him to pay it, but, on the contrary, refused to do so. If it were true, as the evidence tended to show, that the bank, before the check came to the plaintiff's hands, paid it on a forged indorsement of his signature, to a person not authorized to receive the money, it does not follow that the bank promised the plaintiff to pay the money again to him, on the presentation of the check by him for payment.

It may be, if it could be shown that the bank had charged the check on its books against the drawer, and settled with him on that basis, that the plaintiff could recover on the count for money had and received, on the ground that the rule ex aequo et bono would be applicable, as the bank, having assented to the order and communicated its assent to the paymaster, would be considered as holding the money thus appropriated for the plaintiff's use, and therefore, under an implied promise to him to pay it on demand.

It is hardly necessary to say, that the check in question having been drawn on a public depositary, by an officer of the government, in favor of a public creditor, cannot change the rights of the parties to this suit. The check was commercial paper, and subject to the laws which govern such paper, and it can make no difference whether the parties to it are private persons or public agents. [11]

As soon as the deposit was made to the credit of Lawler as paymaster, the bank was authorized to deal with it as its own, and became answerable to Lawler for the debt in the same manner that it would have been had the deposit been placed to his personal credit.



^6  2 Wallace, 252.

^7  5 Id. 663.

^8  2 Clark and Finnelly, 28.

^9  Gardiner, J., Chapman v. White, 2 Selden, 417.

^10  Chapman v. White, 2 Selden, 412; Butterworth v. Peck, 5 Bosworth, 341; Ballard v. Randall, 1 Gray, 605; Harker v. Anderson, 21 Wendell, 373; Dykers v. Leather Manufacturing Co., 11 Paige, 616; National Bank v. Eliot Bank, 5 American Law Register, 711; Parsons on Bills and Notes, edition of 1863, pp. 59, 60, 61, and notes; Parke, Baron, in argument in Bellamy v. Majoribanks, 8 English Law and Equity, 522, 523; Wharton v. Walker, 4 Barnewall & Cresswell, 163; Warwick v. Rogers, 5 Manning & Granger, 374; Byles on Bills, chapter 'Check on a Banker;' Grant on Banking, London edition, 1856, 96.

^11  The United States v. Bank of Metropolis, 15 Peters, 377.

This work is in the public domain in the United States because it is a work of the United States federal government (see 17 U.S.C. 105).