United States v. Linn (42 U.S. 104)/Opinion of the Court

Court Documents
Case Syllabus
Opinion of the Court
Dissenting Opinion

United States Supreme Court

42 U.S. 104

United States  v.  Linn

This case comes up on a writ of error from the Circuit Court of the United States for the district of Illinois. The writ or summons issued in the cause purports to be in a plea of debt for one hundred thousand dollars. And the declaration contains three counts upon the following instrument, which upon oyer craved by the defendants is set out upon the record.

'Know all men by these presents, that we, William Linn, David B. Waterman, Lemuel Lee, James M. Duncan, John Hall, William Walters, Asahel Lee, William L. D. Ewing, Alexander P. Field, and Joseph Duncan, are held and firmly bound unto the United States of America, in the full and just sum of one hundred thousand dollars, money of the United States, to which payment, well and truly to be made, we bind ourselves jointly and severally, our joint and several heirs, executors, and administrators, firmly by these presents, sealed with our seals, and dated this first day of August, in the year one thousand eight hundred and thirty-six.' They also crave oyer of the condition of the said supposed writing obligatory, and it is read to them in these words: 'The condition of the foregoing obligation is such, that whereas the President of the United States hath, pursuant to law, appointed the said William Linn receiver of public moneys for the district, of lands subject to sale at Vandalia, in the state of Illinois, for the term of four years, from the 12th day of January, 1835, by commission bearing 12th February, 1835. Now, therefore, if the said William Linn shall faithfully execute and discharge the duties of his office, then the above obligation to be void and of none effect, otherwise it shall abide and remain in full force and virtue.

Sealed and delivered in the presence of Presley G. Pollock, as to Wm. Linn, D. B. Waterman, Lemuel Lee, J. M. Duncan, John Hall, Wm. Walters, Asahel Lee, Wm. L. D. Ewing, and A. P. Field; A. Caldwell as to Joseph Duncan.





A. P. FIELD, [L. S.]


J. M. DUNCAN, [L. S.]


WM. L. D. EWING, [L. S.]



Approved, August 30, 1836.


To the first count, which purports to be debt on the bond, the defendants plead jointly non est factum and several other pleas not necessary here to be noticed.

To the second and third counts which are upon the same instrument, not described however as a bond, but as a certain instrument in writing. To these counts the defendant, Joseph Duncan, put in the following plea.

'And the said Joseph Duncan impleaded as aforesaid, by Logan and Brown, his attorneys, comes and defends the wrong and injury, when, &c. And as to the said second and third counts in the said plaintiffs' declaration contained, says that the said plaintiffs their said action on the said second and third counts ought not to have or maintain against him, this defendant; because, he says, that protesting that he executed the supposed written instrument declared upon it be said second and third counts of the plaintiffs' amended declaration, he says that after he had signed said instrument, and delivered it to his co-defendant, Linn, to be transmitted to the plaintiffs; and after the securities to the said written instrument had been affixed (approved) by the Hon. Nathaniel Pope, Judge of the District Court of the United States for the state of Illinois, it was, without the consent, direction, or authority of said Joseph Duncan, materially altered in this that scrawls, by way of seals, were affixed to the signature of said Joseph Duncan to said written instrument, and to the signatures of the other parties to said written instrument, whereby the character and effect of the said written instrument, declared in the second and third counts aforesaid, was materially changed, and said instrument declared on, vitiated.

'And so said Duncan says, that the said supposed written instrument declared on in the second and third counts of plaintiffs' amended declaration, is not his act and instrument, and of this he puts himself upon the country.'

To which plea there is interposed a special demurrer, and the court gave judgment for the defendant Joseph Duncan upon the demurrer, thereby adjudging that the plea was sufficient in law to bar the plaintiffs from maintaining their action against him And issues being joined upon the pleas to the first count, the cause came on to be tried by a jury, and under the instructions of the court a verdict was found for the defendants upon the issues of fact. Exceptions were taken to the instructions of the court to the jury. And the correctness of such instructions is the first question presented on this writ of error.

Upon the trial, after reading the bond to the jury, the defendants called a witness, who testified in substance, that he saw the bond after it had been signed by the obligors, in the hands of William Linn, the obligor first named therein, after it had been returned from the district judge with his certificate endorsed of the sufficiency of the sureties. That the district judge, in a note in writing, accompanying the bond, had pointed out the omission of seals to the names of the signers of the instrument; and said Linn, saying he would obviate that difficulty, took a pen, and in the presence of the witness, added scrawls, by way of seals, to each name subscribed, as makers of the instrument. Other testimony was given, under the issues of fact, which it is not material to notice.

Upon this evidence the court gave the following instruction to the jury: 'If they shall find from the evidence, that after the instrument upon which the action is brought, was signed by the defendants, it was altered by William Linn, one of the defendants, without the knowledge or assent of the other defendants, by adding to the names of the defendants the scrawl seals which now appear upon the face of the instrument, and such defendants have not at any time since the alteration sanctioned it, the instrument is not the deed of such defendants, and the jury will find a verdict in their favour.' And the question is, whether this instruction was in point of law correct, under the pleadings and evidence in the cause. All the defendants united in a joint plea of non est factum, and the proof was that the scrawls were added by Linn to his own name and to the names of the other defendants. The adding the scrawl by Linn to his own name did not vitiate the instrument as to him: he had a right to add the seal, or at least, he can have no right to set up his own act in this respect to avoid his own deed. It was therefore his deed, and the plea of non est factum as to him is false. And the question is, whether it is not false as to all who joined him in the plea of non est factum. It is laid down by Chitty in his Treatise on Pleading, that a plea which is bad in part is bad in toto. If therefore two defendants join in a plea, which is sufficient for one but not for the other, the plea is bad as to both. For the court cannot sever it, and say that one is guilty, and that the other is not, when they put themselves on the same terms. Chitty, 598. A plaintiff may in an action in form ex delicto against several defendants, enter a nolle prosequi as to one of them. But in actions in form ex contractu, unless the defence be merely in the personal discharge of one of the defendants, a nolle prosequi cannot be entered, as to one defendant, without discharging the other, for the cause of action is entire and indivisible. Chitty, 599. The rule laid down by Chitty is fully sustained by the English and American decisions. In Smith v. Bouchin et al., 2 Strange, 993, the action was trespass and false imprisonment; plea not guilty by all, and a justification as to eight days' imprisonment. And the court held, that although the officer and jailer might have been excused, if they had pleaded severally, but having joined in the plea with others who could not justify, they had forfeited their justification. In Moors v. Parker and others, 3 Massachusetts, 310, the action was trespass de bonis asportatis against several, and all join in the plea of not guilty, and also in a plea of justification. The court held that the bar set up was no justification for one of the defendants, and if several defendants join in pleading in bar, if the plea is bad as to one defendant it is bad as to all.

So in the case of Schermerhorne and others v. Tripp, 2 Caines, 108, which was in error from a Court of Common Pleas. The action was trespass against a justice of the peace, the constable, and the plaintiff, and all joined in a plea of not guilty. The court said, the constable having joined with the others in the plea of the general issue, they are all equally trespassers. If he had pleaded separately, he would probably have been excused; but he has now involved himself with others, and we cannot separate their fates.

It is unnecessary to multiply authorities on this point, the books are full of them, and it is a well settled and established rule in pleading. The reason is, because the plea, being entire, cannot be good in part and bad in part, an entire plea not being divisible, and consequently, if the matter jointly pleaded be insufficient as to one of the parties, it is so in toto. 1 Saunders, 28, n. 2, and cases there cited.

It has been suggested that this objection is waived by the following entry in the bill of exceptions: 'A judgment having been obtained against Linn for the full amount of his defalcation, a judgment on this bond was not asked against him or any of the defendants, unless the jury shall find against all the defendants.' It is not perceived how this can be considered a waiver of any error. No judgment could have been given against Linn separately, the plea of non est factum being joint. But the plaintiffs, according to the express terms of this memorandum, did ask a verdict and judgment against all the defendants; and if from the pleadings and evidence they were entitled to judgment against all, as we think they were, there was no waiver that will justify the instructions given to the jury.

The next question arises upon the special demurrer to the plea of Joseph Duncan to the second and third counts of the declaration. This plea sets up new matter, to avoid the instrument upon which the action is founded, and concludes to the country. And it may well be questioned, whether upon the best and soundest rules of pleading it ought not to have concluded with a verification. Chitty, in his Treatise on Pleading, (1 Chitty, 590,) says it is an established rule in pleading, that whenever new matter is introduced on either side, the pleading must conclude with a verification, in order that the other party may have an opportunity of answering it. And this rule has the sanction of many adjudged cases. In the case of Service v. Heermance, 1 Johns. 92, the court say there is no rule in pleading, better or more universally established, than, that whenever new matter is introduced the pleading must conclude with an averment. And the reason, say the court, is obvious, because the plaintiff might otherwise be precluded from setting forth matter which would maintain his action, although the matter pleaded by the defendant might be true. And in Henderson v. Whitby and others, 2 Durn. and East, 576, Buller, Justice, in giving the judgment of the court, said: By the rules of pleading, whenever new matter is introduced, the other party must have an opportunity of answering it. So that the replication setting up new matter concluded properly with an averment. Numerous authorities, both in England and in the United States, might be cited in support of this rule. But there is certainly no little confusion and diversity of opinion appearing in the books with respect to the question, when the pleadings ought to conclude to the country, and when with a verification. Many of these discrepancies may grow out of rules, said, by Mr. Chitty, to have been recently established in the English courts relating to pleadings, which have not fallen under our notice. We will, however, pass by the demurrer for that cause in the present case, and proceed to an examination of the special matter set up in the plea in bar of the action. If this mode of pleading be adopted, the special matter set up must, as in a special plea, be such, that if true in point of fact, it will bar the action and defeat the plaintiff's right to recover. The matter set up in this plea, when stripped of some circumlocution, is, that after he, Joseph Duncan, and the other parties to the instruments, had signed the same, it was, without his consent, direction, or authority, altered by affixing seals to their signatures. The plea does not indicate in any manner by whom the alteration was made. It does not allege that it was done with the knowledge or by the authority or direction of the plaintiffs; nor does it even deny that it was done with the knowledge of the defendant, Joseph Duncan. The plea does not contain any allegation inconsistent with the conclusion, that it was altered by a stranger, without the knowledge or consent of the plaintiffs, and if so, it would not have affected the validity of the instrument. It is said that the demurrer admits the truth of the matter set up in the plea. The demurrer admits whatever is well pleaded. But it does not admit any more, and certainly does not admit what is not pleaded at all. The demurrer then admits nothing more than that the seals were affixed after the instrument had been signed by the parties and delivered to Linn to be transmitted to the plaintiffs, and that this was done, without the consent, direction, or authority of him, the said Joseph Duncan. Is this enough to avoid the instrument and bar the recovery? It certainly is not; for the seals might have been affixed by a stranger without the knowledge or authority of the plaintiffs, and would not have affected the validity of the instrument. The plea not alleging by whom the seals were affixed, it is open to two intendments. Either that this was made by the plaintiffs, which would make the instrument void, or that it was done by a stranger, which would not invalidate it. And what is the rule of construction of such a plea? It is, that it is to be construed most strongly against the defendant. This is the rule laid down by Chitty, 1 Chitty, 578, and in which he is supported by numerous authorities. And the reason assigned for this rule of construction, is, that it is a natural presumption, that the party pleading will state his case as favourably as he can for himself. And if he do not state it with all its legal circumstances, the case is not in fact favourable to him; and the rule of construction in such case is, that if a plea has on the face of it two intendments, it shall be taken most strongly against the defendant; that is, says he, the most unfavourable meaning shall be put upon the plea; a rule which obtains also in other pleadings; and a number of cases are put, illustrating this rule. The present plea falls directly within it. The plea not alleging by whom the seals were affixed, it is left open to intendment, that it was done either by the plaintiffs or by a stranger. In the first case, it would make the deed void; in the last, it would not vitiate it. And under the rule that has been stated, the most unfavourable meaning must be put upon the plea; that is, that which will operate most against the party pleading it. And the alteration must be presumed to have been made so as not to vitiate the instrument, if the plea will admit of such construction. Suppose the plea had concluded with a verification, and the plaintiffs had replied that the affixing the seal was done without their knowledge, consent, or authority, and this state of the case had been sustained by the proof, it would not have avoided the instrument.

But, it is said, the law imposes upon the party who claims under the instrument the burden of explaining the alteration. This is the rule, undoubtedly, where the alteration appears on the face of the instrument, as an erasure, interlineation, and the like. In such case, the party having the possession of the instrument and claiming under it, ought to be called upon to explain it. It is presumed to have been done while in his possession. But, where no such prima facie evidence exists, there can be no good reason why this should devolve upon a party, simply because he claims under the instrument. The plea avers the alteration, and the defendant, therefore, holds the affirmative; and the general rule is, that he who holds the affirmative must prove it. And this, under the present plea, can impose no hardship on the defendant, for his affirming the fact of alteration affords a reasonable presumption that he knew by whom the alteration was made. And, in addition to this, it is a circumstance deserving considerable weight, that the defendant in his plea does not deny his having such knowledge. He avers that the seal was affixed without his consent, direction, or authority; but he does not say it was done without his knowledge. And it is not an unreasonable inference that if he had, in his plea, disclosed by whom it was done, it would appear to have been done in a way that did not affect the validity of the instrument. There is not upon the face of this instrument any thing indicating an alteration, or casting a suspicion upon its validity, that should put the plaintiffs upon inquiry. The instrument upon its face admits it was sealed with the seals of the defendants, and purports to have been sealed and delivered, in the common conclusion of a sealed bond. So that, when the instrument came into the possession of the plaintiffs, there was nothing on the face of it to raise a suspicion against its validity. The case of Henman v. Dickinson, 5 Bingham, 183, has been relied upon to show that the onus of accounting for the alteration is thrown upon the plaintiffs. All that this case decides is, that the party who sues on an instrument which on the face of it appears to have been altered, it is for him to show that the alteration has not been improperly made. The circumstance of the alteration appearing on the face of the instrument is emphatically relied upon by the court to show that the party claiming under the instrument must account for the alteration. This was a question of evidence upon the trial, and did not arise upon the pleadings, and the report of the case does not furnish us with the pleadings. Many other cases might be cited to the same effect.

In the case of Taylor v. Mosely, 6 Car. and Payne, 273, the bill upon which the suit was brought appeared on its face to have been altered, and there was no evidence on either side when or by whom the alteration was made; and the question was submitted to the jury by Lord Lyndhurst, with the remark, that it lay on the plaintiff to account for the suspicious form and obvious alteration of the note, and they must judge from the inspection of the instrument, and if they thought the alteration was made after the completion of the bill, the verdict must be for the defendant. In the case now before the court, the inspection of the instrument furnishes no ground of suspicion, and from the facts stated in the plea, there must have been a considerable distance of time after the instrument was signed by Duncan before it came into the possession of the plaintiffs. The plea alleges that it was delivered to Linn, one of the defendants, to be transmitted to the plaintiffs. But the plea does not allege that the alteration was made after the instrument came into the possession of the plaintiffs; and under this state of facts alleged in the plea, the onus of proving when and by whom altered, is more properly cast upon the defendant. We are accordingly of opinion that the plea is bad. But it is a settled rule that, when the demurrer is to the plea, the court having the whole record before them will go back to the first error: and when the demurrer is by the plaintiffs, his own pleadings must be scrutinized, and the court will notice all exceptions to the declaration that might have been taken on general demurrer. We are accordingly thrown back on the record to examine the sufficiency of the declaration in the second and third counts.

The second count sets out the instrument as of the date of the 1st of April, 1836. That Linn's commission bears date the 12th of February, 1835, and that he was appointed receiver for four years from the 12th of January, 1835. And the count then alleges that after the making and delivering the said instrument in writing, and after the appointment of the said Linn, he entered upon the duties of his office; and that within four years from the said 12th day of January, and while he was receiver of public moneys, there came into his hands, as receiver, the sum of four millions of dollars, which it was his duty to pay over to the plaintiffs when requested, yet the said William Linn hath not, nor would he, although often requested so to do, to wit on the 2d day of April, in the year 1838, account for and pay over to the said plaintiffs the said sums of money or any part thereof, but hath wholly neglected and refused so to do. It is said this count is bad, because from the time stated in the count he might have received the money after the 12th day of January, 1835, the commencement of his office, and before the 1st day of April, 1836, when the instrument signed by the sureties bears date, and that the sureties cannot be responsible for any moneys received before they became sureties. The count alleges a demand of the money and a refusal to pay it on the 2d day of April in the year 1838, long after the defendant became surety. In the case of Farrar and Brown v. The United States, 5 Peters, 373, (which was an action upon a bond given for the faithful discharge of the duties of a surveyor of the public lands,) the breach assigned was, that at the time of the execution of the bond, 'there were in the hands of the surveyor large sums of money to be disbursed for the use of the United States, which he had neglected to do.' And one of the questions which arose was, whether the sureties could be made liable for any moneys paid to the surveyor prior to the execution of the bond; and the court said there is but one ground on which the sureties can be made answerable, and that was on the assumption that the money was still remaining in his hands when the bond was given. And in the case of The United States v. Boyd, 15 Peters, 208, the court said it matters not at what time the moneys had been received, if after the appointment of the officer they were held by him in trust for the United States, and so continued to be held at and after the date of the bond. In these cases there was a direct allegation that the money was in the hands of the officer at the date of the bond. In the case now before the court, there is no such direct allegation, and this court is therefore bad on this ground. The third count is also bad for the same reason.

The judgment of the Circuit Court must accordingly be reversed, and the cause sent back for further proceedings.


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).