Open main menu

Court Documents

United States Supreme Court

43 U.S. 202

Chapman  v.  Forsyth and Limerick

THIS case came up on a certificate of division from the Circuit Court of the United States for the district of Kentucky.

The record was as follows:--

The following statement of questions and points of law which arose in this case, and the adjournment thereof into the Supreme Court of the United States for decision, was ordered so be entered, to wit:

'This was an action of assumpsit for the proceeds of 150 bales of cotton, shipped to and sold by defendants, as the property of the plaintiff, the defendants having been a factor,' &c.

The defendant, Forsyth, pleaded he had been duly discharged as a bankrupt, on his own voluntary petition.

To this the plaintiff replied; the replication was demurred to, and upon the hearing and argument of the demurrer, which presented the whole case, the following questions of law arose, and on which the judges were opposed in opinion:--

1st. Could the defendant be discharged, as a bankrupt, from any part of his debts, on his own petition, when he was indebted, in a fiduciary capacity, in part, within the exception in the first section of the bankrupt law; that is, were all persons indebted excluded, that held and owed moneys in the capacity of trustees (as a class,) from the benefit of the act, although they owed other debts besides the moneys held in trust?

2d. Is a commission merchant and factor, (who sells for others,) or indebted in a fiduciary capacity, within the act, provided he withholds the money received for property sold by him, and which property was sold on account of the owner, and the money received on the owner's account?

3d. Whether, when the decree of discharge, and the regular certificate of being a bankrupt, have been obtained without contest in the District Court, they ary conclusive and binding on all persons named as creditors by the bankrupt in his petition and list of creditors; and whether a creditor, who did not prove his debt, and which the bankrupt owed said creditors in a fiduciary capacity, can come into court, and sue the bankrupt for such fiduciary debt, notwithstanding the decree of discharge and certificate, the debt having been set forth in the petition and list as an ordinary debt, not due in a fiduciary character?

Which divisions of opinion, at the request of the plaintiff, are certified to the Supreme Court of the United States, for their opinion and certificate on the three questions on which the judges of this court were opposed in opinion.

The case was submitted upon the following printed arguments by Moorehead, for the plaintiff, and Loughborough, for the defendant.

This was an action of assumpsit for the proceeds of 150 bales of cotton, shipped to and sold by the defendants, as the property of the plaintiff, the defendants having been a factor, &c.

Upon a demurrer to the replication to the plea of the defendant Forsyth, three questions arose—

1. On the first question the counsel for Chapman does not propose to submit argument. The only authorities, of which he is aware, that bear materially on the point, are the decisions on the circuits, and with them the court is familiar.

2. On the second question, the undersigned would remark, that the words of the statute, 'while acting in any other fiduciary capacity,' would seem to have been inserted expressly to embrace all other cases of trusts besides those specifically mentioned. A factor, with goods and money in his hands belonging to his principal, is in estimation of law, a trustee. His relation with the principal is a fiduciary relation. The language of the act is extremely comprehensive, and it is contended that the case under consideration is within the equity of it.

3. The opinion of the late Judge Thompson in the matter of Brown, settles that a fiduciary creditor may or may not, at his election, come in under the bankruptcy, and if he declines to do so, his debt is not discharged. So at least the undersigned understands the opinion as given in the public prints, not having seen any authoritative report of the case.

It is submitted that such is the true doctrine on the subject.

J. T. MOREHEAD, for Chapman.

The questions presented in this case arise under the late bankrupt law of the United States.

1. The first has already been considered in many of the circuits, and several of the members of this court have pronounced opinions upon it.

It is contended by the counsel of Forsyth et al., that the exception in the first section of the bankrupt act, in reference to fiduciary debts, is of such debts, not of the persons owing them, if they owe other debts which have not arisen from a breach of trust since the passage of the act. In this case the debt arose prior to the passage of the act. This has been held to be the correct exposition of the act in the Ohio circuit, Matter of Lord, 5 Law Rep., 258, in the New York circuit by the late Judge Thompson, in the Matter of Brown, Id., 25, and in the Massachusetts circuit, in the Matter of Tebbetts, Id., 259. Decisions have been made in other circuits, of which the counsel have not seen reports in print.

This question has doubtless been maturely considered by all the members of this court, and the counsel for Forsyth would not hope to exhibit any new views of the subject.

2. The debt of a commercial factor to his principal, is not an excepted debt. These factors are of various kinds, and the case does not state whether the factor, respecting whom the question is asked, acted under an ordinary or a del credere commission; a point, perhaps, worthy of consideration.

The excepted debt is one which has arisen 'in consequence of a defalcation as a public officer, or as executor, administrator, guardian or trustee, or while acting in any other fiduciary capacity.' These expressions are not appropriate to commercial affairs. 'Defalcation' is ordinarily used to express the misapplication of the funds with which he is intrusted by a public officer, or some express trustee. Does a commission merchant act in any other such fiduciary capacity as is meant by the act? The term fiduciary is a legal, not a commercial one. It has a comprehensive import, which may be given to it without including a mercantile debt; and according to the course of trade in this country, a very common mercantile debt.

A very large proportion of the debts which have been discharged by the courts under the bankrupt law, are the debts of factors to their principals. Millions have been so discharged, which will be revived, if this court shall decide them to be fiduciary, within the meaning of the act.

3. Upon the last point it is contended, that the proceedings in bankruptcy in the District Court, when in conformity to the act, are a suit, the decision of which by a decree of bankruptcy, and the discharge of the applicant, is conclusive upon the parties thereto, who are the petitioner himself and at least all such of his creditors as are named in his list, and to whom notice is given.

Such is the nature of the proceedings authorized by the act: Process is to be served upon the creditor, or a notice in writing sent to him. In effect, the proceeding is a suit by the debtor against his creditors for a discharge.

It was not necessary for the applicant to have stated in his petition the nature or origin of the debt. It was enough that he stated, as in this case, the name of his creditor, his residence, and the amount due to him. See the first section of the act.

What is a fiduciary debt may in a given case, be a matter of doubt. This contest shows it. Shall an applicant, acting upon his best lights, stating the name and residence of his creditor, and the sum due to him, and expressly summoning him in, to contest, if he chooses, be prejudiced because he has not denominated the debt fiduciary, when he and his counsel did not deem it to be so? Shall the creditor thus notified lie by, and, after the adjudication of the District Court, come forward with the objections which he should have made there?

The certificate of the District Court is made conclusive everywhere, except in cases where there has been fraud, or the wilful concealment of property. Fraud is not suggested here. The expressions of the act in conferring jurisdiction upon the District Court, and in declaring the effect and conclusiveness of its adjudications, are most broad.

The District Court had jurisdiction to grant or refuse the discharge of Forsyth. The exercise of this jurisdiction involved the consideration of the question, whether the existence of the debt to Chapman was a bar to the discharge. Contest might have been made in the District Court on that ground, and, it is contended, should have been made there.

The decree of discharge having been made by the District Court, is it not to be held that the questions now made have been already decided between these parties, by a court of competent jurisdiction?


Mr. Justice McLEAN delivered the opinion of the court.


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).