Bull v. First National Bank/Opinion of the Court

United States Supreme Court

123 U.S. 105

Bull  v.  First National Bank

In the record, the instruments upon which the action is brought are designated as 'drafts or bills of exchange.' In a general sense, they may be thus designated; for they are orders of one party upon another for the payment of money, which is the essential characteristic of drafts or bills of exchange. They are also negotiable, and pass by delivery, and are within the description of instruments of that character in the act of March 3, 1875, prescribing the jurisdiction of circuit courts of the United States. But, in strictness, they are bank-checks. They have all the particulars in which such instruments differ or may differ from regular bills of exchange. They are drawn upon a bank having funds of the drawer for their payment, and they are payable upon demand, although the time of payment is not designated in them. A bill of exchange may be so drawn, but it usually states the time of payment, and days or grace are allowed upon it. There are no days of grace upon checks. The instruments here are also drawn in the briefest form possible in orders for the payment of money, which is the usual characteristic of checks. A bill of exchange is generally drawn with more formality, and payment at sight, or at a specified number of days after date, is requested, and that the amount be charged to the drawer's account. When intended for transmission to another state or country, they are usually drawn in duplicate or triplicate, and designated as first, second, or third of exchange. A regular bill of exchange, it is true, may be in a form similar to a bank-check, so that it may sometimes be difficult, from their form, to distinguish between the two classes of instruments. But when the instrument is drawn upon a bank, or a person engaged in banking business, and simply directs the payment to a party named of a specified sum of money, which is at the time on deposit with the drawee, without designating a future day of payment, the instrument is to be treated as a check rather than as a bill of exchange, and the liability of parties thereto is to be determined accordingly. If the instrument designates a future day for its payment, it is, according to the weight of authorities, to be deemed a bill of exchange, when, without such designation, it would be treated as a check. Bowen v. Newell, 8 N. Y. 190.

The instruments upon which the action is brought being bank-checks, the liability of the parties is determinable by the rules governing such paper. A check implies a contract on the part of the drawer that he has funds in the hands of the drawee for its payment on presentation. If it is dishonored, the drawer is entitled to notice; but, unlike the drawer of a bill of exchange, he is not discharged from liability for the want of such notice unless he has sustained damage, or is prejudiced in the assertion of his rights by the omission.

In Bank v. Bank this court said: 'Bank-cheeks are not inland bills of exchange, but have many of the properties of such commercial paper; and many of the rules of the law-merchant are alike applicable to both. Each is for a specific sum payable in money. In both cases there is a drawer, a drawee, and a payee. Without acceptance, no action can be maintained by the holder upon either against the drawee. The chief points of difference are that a check is always drawn on a bank or banker. No days of grace are allowed. The drawer is not discharged by the laches of the holder in presentment for payment, unless he can show that he has sustained some injury by the default. It is not due until payment is demanded, and the statute of limitations runs only from that time. It is by its face the appropriation of so much money of the drawer in the hands of the drawee to the payment of an admitted liability of the drawer. It is not necessary that the drawer of a bill should have funds in the hands of the drawee. A check in such case would be a fraud.' 10 Wall. 647.

Similar language is used by Mr. Justice Story with reference to the time when checks are to be regarded as due. In stating the differences in point of law between checks and bills of exchange, he refers to the rule that a bill of exchange taken after the day of payment subjects the holder to all the equities attaching to it in the hands of the party from whom he receives it. 'But,' he adds, 'this rule does not apply to a check; for it is not treated as overdue, although it is taken by the holder some days after its date, and it is payable on demand. On the contrary, the holder in such a case takes it subject to no equities of which he has not, at the time, notice; for a check is not treated as overdue merely because it has not been presented as early as it might be, or as a bill of exchange is required to be, to charge the drawer or indorser or transferrer. One reason for this seems to be that, strictly speaking, a check is not due until it is demanded.' Prom. Notes, § 491. See, also, In re Brown, 2 Story, 502, 513.

Accepting these citations as correctly stating the law, the question presented for our decision is readily answered. The drawer was in no way injured or prejudiced in his rights by the delay of Edison to present the checks. The funds against which they were drawn remained undisturbed in the hands of the drawee, and therefore the drawer had no cause of complaint. The instruments in suit were not overdue and dishonored when presented for payment. Until then the plaintiffs, as purchasers for a valuable consideration without notice of any demand against Edison, in the hands of the drawer, were protected against its set-off.

The certificate of division of opinion presents to us only one question, and yet, to answer that correctly, we must consider whether the negotiability of the instruments in suit was affected by the fact that they were payable 'in current funds.' Undoubtedly it is the law that, to be negotiable, a bill, promissory note, or check must be payable in money, or whatever is current as such by the law of the country where the instrument is drawn or payable. There are numerous cases where a designation of the payment of such instruments in notes of particular banks or associations, or in paper not current as money, has been held to destroy their negotiability. Irvine v. Lowry, 14 Pet. 293; Miller v. Austen, 13 How. 218, 228. But within a few years, commencing with the first issue in this country of legal tender, it has been a common of legal tenderIt has been a common practice of drawers of bills of exchange or checks, or makers of promissory notes, to indicate whether the same are to be paid in gold or silver, or in such notes; and the term 'current funds' has been used to designate any of these, all being current and declared, by positive enactment, to be legal tender. It was intended to cover whatever was receivable and current by law as money, whether in form of notes or coin. Thus construed, we do not think the negotiability of the paper in question was impaired by the insertion of those words.

It follows from these views that the question certified to us must be answered in the negative. The judgment will therefore be reversed and the cause remanded, with directions to enter judgment for the plaintiffs upon the findings; and it is so ordered.


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