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United States Supreme Court

80 U.S. 517

Railroad Company  v.  Soutter

APPEAL from the Circuit Court for the District of Wisconsin.

The Milwaukee and Minnesota Railroad Company filed a bill in equity, in June, 1859, against Soutter (survivor of Bronson), Russell Sage, and several other natural or individual persons, as also against the Milwaukee and St. Paul Railway Company, a corporation, to recover back certain large sums of money, amounting in all to $462,057.80, which they had paid into court, in December, 1865, in part liquidation of certain bonds held by the individual defendants, in this suit, which bonds had been issued by the La Crosse and Milwaukee Railroad Company in 1857, and were secured by a mortgage upon a portion of the railroad of the last named company. By way of alternative relief, the complainants prayed that they might be subrogated to the benefit of the decree of foreclosure of the mortgage, under which they had paid they money in question. The Milwaukee and St. Paul Railway Company were made defendants because they were the parties now in possesson of the railroad and other mortgaged premises, and asserted themselves to be the owners thereof.

The facts, on which the complainants rested their claim, as set forth in their bill, were substantially as follows:

The La Crosse and Milwaukee Railroad Company, in 1858, after giving the bonds and mortgage above mentioned, gave two other mortgages, one on their road and one on their land grants, to secure certain other bonds issued by them. Failing to pay the interest coupons on the latter bonds, William Barnes, the trustee named in the mortgages, in May, 1859, sold the mortgaged premises, and all the franchises of the company, at public auction, and became the purchaser thereof, in trust for the bondholders, under the laws of Wisconsin, for the sum of $1,593,333. The bondholders thereupon, in May, 1859, organized a new company by the name of the Milwaukee and Minnesota Railroad Company (the corporation now complainant in the case), and Barnes conveyed the property to the said company; which thereafter conducted its business under and in pursuance of the charter of the La Crosse and Milwaukee Railroad Company, and immediately entered into possession of the said property and franchises.

But the prior mortgage of 1857 still subsisted on a portion of the road. Of this mortgage Bronson and Soutter were the trustees, and they filed another bill to foreclose their mortgage, and, after protracted litigation (of which the part in this court is reported in Bronson v. La Crosse Railroad Company) obtained a final decree in 1865, [1] for the amount of interest coupons due on the bonds secured thereby, amounting to upwards of $450,000; which decree contained a proviso, that if the Milwaukee and Minnesota Railroad Company (the now complainants) should pay the amount of the decree before a sale of the mortgaged premises, the receiver (the road being then in the hands of a receiver) should deliver the property to them; that is to say, they had the usual privilege of redeeming the property by paying the decree. Thereupon, the complainants, on the 30th of December, 1865, paid into court the amount of $462,057.80, as above stated, the money being afterwards distributed to the holders of the various bonds secured by the Bronson and Soutter mortgage, who are the individual defendants in this suit. The money thus paid was paid by the complainants as purchasers, and claiming to be owners, of the property, upon an acknowledged incumbrance, and in relief of the property claimed.

Prior to this payment, however, certain judgment creditors of the La Crosse and Milwaukee Railroad Company filed in the United States District Court for Wisconsin a creditor's bill against the present complainants, alleging that the sale by Barnes was fraudulent and void, and praying that it might be set aside as such, and that the complainants might be enjoined from any further interference with the property or franchises of the La Crosse and Milwaukee Railroad Company. This suit had been pending for some considerable period, and was pending here on appeal-the case of James v. Railroad Company [2]-when the complainants paid their money into court, as before stated, and, some time after its payment and distribution, a decree was made on said creditor's bill, in accordance will the prayer thereof, and directing that the property should be resold, and the proceeds applied, after payment of prior liens, to the satisfaction of the judgments on which the creditor's bill was founded.

The complainants accordingly now asked to have their money returned to them, on the ground that they paid it under a mistake. Their allegation was that they supposed they owned the property when they did not; that they supposed they were lifting an incumbrance off of their own property, when they were, in fact, lifting it off of property decided to belong to other parties. Their bill, speaking of the order allowing them to pay the amount of the decree, represented that the 'said order was made by this court upon the understanding and theory entertained and believed by the judges of said court, and by your orator, and by all persons and parties interested in said cause, that your orator was the owner of said equity of redemption.' And again, that 'your orator paid said sum of money into this court, this court distributed the same, and the several persons hereinbefore named in that behalf received the same with, upon, and under, and only with, upon, and under, the belief, understanding, and theory, that your orator was the owner of the equity of redemption of the mortgaged premises and property in said cause, and that your orator was thereby paying and extinguishing a lien, charge, and incumbrance upon property owned by your orator as aforesaid.' It further stated that 'after paying the money, your orator for the first time discovered that the said foreclosure of the Barnes mortgage was fraudulent and void as to the creditors of the La Crosse and Milwaukee Railroad Company, and as against the said last-named company, and that, in fact and in law, your orator never was the owner of the said equity of redemption, and that the payment made by your orator into court, and the distribution of the said moneys and the receipt thereof by the said defendants was made, had, and received in mistake of fact as aforesaid.'

The bill further stated that Russell Sage, one of the defendants, who received a large portion of the money paid into court, was also a large holder of bonds under the Barnes mortgages, and had advised and encouraged the sale by Barnes, and participated in the organization of the complainants' company; and alleged further that the board of directors of the corporation complainant became totally changed, and was, at the time of such payment, wholly composed of persons who had not participated personally in the foreclosure of the Barnes mortgage; and that a large majority of the stockholders and directors at the time of the said payment were persons who had no interest at the time of the foreclosure, and no participation in the proceedings.

The defendants demurred to this bill, and on the hearing of the same the demurrer was sustained, and the bill dismissed. From the decree dismissing the complainants' bill, this appeal was taken.

Messrs. G. B. Smith and M. H. Carpenter, for the appellant:

Whether money paid under a mistake of law can or cannot be recovered back, it is certain that money paid under a mistake of fact, may be so recovered, and by suit in equity. [3] Mistake is one of the original heads of chancery jurisdiction; it is one of the great trinity of subjects from which all equity jurisdiction flows. No chancellor would be anything without fraud, accident, and mistake.

This money was paid under a mistake of fact. In almost every instance of the payment of money the ultimate determination rests upon some legal conclusion of the parties' right to, or interest in the subject-matter to be affected by such payment. The conclusion must rest upon facts to which it is attempted to apply the legal principle. And the rule is that if any one of a supposed complicated state of facts is unfounded, and that supposed fact induced, or tended to induce, the payment of the money, the party paying is entitled to relief. A man's title to property is always a question of law, after facts are ascertained. But if a man acts upon the belief that he is the owner of property and that belief is based upon a supposed state of facts, which if well founded, would in law make him the owner, and such supposed facts are misapprehended, the erroneous conclusion of ownership is a mistake of fact, not of law.

In this case the Minnesota company paid this money into court upon the supposition that it was the owner of the equity of redemption; that supposition being a legal conclusion based upon certain supposed facts, one being that the Barnes mortgage was a valid incumbrance. But unfortunately for the company the supposed state of facts did not exist. The mistake, therefore, under which the company acted in paying the money was a mistake in regard to the existence of certain facts; or in other words the company paid the money under a mistake of fact.

This view of the subject is established by the single consideration that this court, which cannot make any mistake of law, expressly declared in its opinion in Bronson v. La Crosse Railroad Company, [4] that the foreclosure of the Barnes mortgage had vested the equity of redemption in the Minnesota company. This tribunal knew all law when it made this decision just as well as it did when in the subsequent case of James v. Railroad Company, [5] it decided that the Minnesota company had no interest whatever in the premises.

The different conclusions reached by that court, first, that the company did own the property, and second, that it did not, were both sound in law as applied to the cases made by the respective suits.

The difference between the two, in other words, is a difference of fact, not of law. In the first suit, it appeared to the court that the case before mentioned did exist, and therefore the law said: 'The Minnesota company is the owner of the equity of redemption.' In the second case, the case was shown not to exist, and the law said, 'The Minnesota company is not the owner of the equity of redemption.' It was the mistake in regard to the facts that induced the court to say, and induced the company to believe, that the company was such owner. And the mistake of the company was the same as that made by the court; and as the court cannot make a mistake of law, it follows that the company did not.

The true distinction between a mistake of law and a mistake of fact is well stated by the court in Hurd v. Hall, [6] and there can be no doubt that the money in this instance was paid under a mistake of fact.

An action for money had and received, is maintainable wherever the money of one man has, without consideration, gone into the pockets of another. [7]

Mr. J. W. Cary, contra, contended that on the face of the bill no case was made, and that judgment was rightly given on the demurrer for the defendants.

Mr. Justice BRADLEY, having stated the case, delivered the opinion of the court.


^1  2 Wallace, 283.

^2  6 Wallace, 752.

^3  Wilkins v. Woodfin, 5 Munford, 183.

^4  2 Wallace, 304.

^5  6 Id. 752.

^6  12 Wisconsin, 124.

^7  Hudson v. Robinson, 4 Maule & Selwyn, 478; Kelly v. Solari, 9 Meeson & Welsby, 54; Chatfield v. Paxton, note, 2 East, 471; Milnes v. Duncan, 6 Barnewall & Cresswell, 671; Townsend v. Crowdy, 8 C. B. (New S.) 477.

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).