United States v. Robeson

Court Documents

United States Supreme Court

34 U.S. 319

United States  v.  Robeson

IN error to the district court of the United States for the eastern district of Louisiana.

The United States on the 10th of January 1822, instituted a suit, by petition, in the district court of the United States in Louisiana, against the defendant William L. Robeson, late assistant deputy quartermaster-general in the army of the United States; claiming to recover the sum of 2663 dollars 61 cents, for the balance of his account, as such officer, as settled and examined, adjusted, admitted and certified at said department.

To this petition and the citation issued thereon, the defendant answered and pleaded, that the United States were indebted to him in the sum of 3000 dollars for work, labour, attendance, &c., bestowed by him in and about the business of the United States, and for the United States, at their request; and for materials and necessary things by him, before the time of action, bought, found and employed, in and about the said work and labour; for goods sold and delivered, and for money laid out and expended for the United States, at their request; for money due and owing to him, and interest thereon: which sums of money exceed the sum claimed by the United States from him; and out of which sum so claimed he is willing, and offers to set off and allow to the United States the full amount of their claim.

On the same day this answer and plea were filed, the 21st January 1822, William L. Robeson filed an affidavit sworn to and subscribed in open court, stating that he was equitably entitled to credits which had been submitted, previously to the commencement of the suit, to the accounting officers of the treasury and rejected; that the credits are as follows, viz. the sum of 30 dollars for transportation of officers to Baton Rouge and back to New Orleans, and an amount of 39 dollars for transportation of officers from Pass Christianne to New Orleans. That a claim of 364 dollars 50 cents for transportation of contractors' stores taken from the wreck of the schooner Italian, and delivered at Appalachicola in April 1818; a claim for demurrage at Mobile Point, of the schooner Experiment, in a voyage from New Orleans to Appalachicola, in 1818, to wit, 330 dollars, were presented to the quartermaster-general's department, and returned.

Issue being joined, and the cause having been brought to trial, in December 1829, a verdict was found for the plaintiff for a less amount than the balance of the account stated at the treasury of the United States, the verdict being for 1656 dollars and 11 cents, instead of 2663 dollars and 61 cents. This difference resulted from allowances made by the jury, under the ruling and direction of the court upon various points which arose at the trial; in respect to which, several bills of exception were filed by the counsel of the United States.

The first bill of exceptions stated, that the defendant gave in evidence certain depositions to prove the amount of loss and damage claimed by Forsyth and Walton and Breedlove, owners of a certain schooner, called the Experiment, to be due to them by the United States, together with an assignment by the said owners to the defendant, for the consideration of 500 dollars, of the whole of the amount so claimed by them under a charter of the Experiment to the defendant, as assistant deputy quarter-master-general, to proceed from New Orleans to Appalachicola with stores; their claim being for the transportation, by the Experiment, of provisions and stores belonging to the United States, taken from the wreck of a schooner, and carried to Appalachicola, amounting to 364 dollars and 50 cents, for demurrage of the schooner 330 dollars, and for the loss of a cable and anchor 226 dollars and 20 cents, together 920 dollars and 70 cents.

The plaintiffs prayed the court to instruct the jury, that the defendant could not set off against the demand of the United States a greater sum than that expressed as the consideration of the transfer, viz. 500 dollars. The demurrage claimed was for detention of the schooner at Mobile Point; and he proved by the charter party, the right of the charterers to the same, and his right under the assignment thereof; and offered evidence of the detention of the vessel at Mobile Point.

The plaintiffs prayed the court to instruct the jury, that evidence of a detention at Mobile Point, could not sustain a claim for damage under the charter party; and that under the pleading and treasury report, no off-set could be sustained for a detention at Mobile Point; but the court refused so to instruct, and to these refusals the plaintiffs excepted.

The third bill of exceptions relates to the assignment from the owners of the schooner Experiment, mentioned in the first bill. The plaintiffs objected to its admission in evidence, because it had been received by the defendant after he had ceased to be in the employ of the United States, and because not offered as proof of payment of a debt due from the United States, but as evidence of the purchase of a claim against the United States, which could not be set off in this action. The court overruled these objections: and the plaintiffs excepted.

The other bills of exception are not inserted, as they were not noticed in the opinion of the court.

The case was submitted to the court by Mr Butler, attorney-general, on a printed argument. No counsel appeared for the defendant in error.

It was contended that the judgment of the court below was erroneous, and ought to be reversed for the following reasons.

The several decisions of the court, in relation to the offsets claimed by the defendant under the assignment from the owners of the Experiment, as specified in the first, third, and fourth bills of exceptions, were erroneous.

There is no act of congress defining, generally, the law of set-off. The third and fourth sections of the act of the 3d of March 1797, Story 464, imply that persons sued as debtors at the treasury, might be entitled, in certain cases, to set off claims for credits rejected by the accounting officers; but they do not attempt to define the nature of those credits. They, however, impose the following restrictions on the right of set-off, that is to say: first, they require the defendant to make oath that he is equitably entitled to credits which had been previously presented to and rejected by the accounting officer. And secondly, they forbid the allowance of any claims for credits except such as shall have been so presented and rejected; unless the defendant shall be in possession of vouchers at the trial, not before in his power, &c. In all other respects, the laws and modes of proceeding on the subject of set-off in the state in which the trial is had, must, under the judicial and process acts, be observed as rules of decisions; 'except when the constitution, treaties, or statutes of the United States shall otherwise require or provide.' Judicial act of 1789, sect. 34, 1 Story 67.

The claim for detention at Mobile Point, not being especially provided for in the charter party, could not be sustained as a claim for demurrage; it was a mere unliquidated claim for damages. Such a claim could not, under the law of Louisiana, be set off. Civil Code of 1808, p. 298, art. 191; Civil Code of 1825, p. 718, art. 2205; 7 Martin 516.

It is not pretended that Robeson paid to the owners of the schooner the moneys he desired to set-off, in the execution of his duty as disbursing officer. If they had been so paid in good faith, and for valid claims, they might have been proper credits, because they related to the same general appropriation. Act of March 2d 1809; 2 Story 1122, sec. 1. But the credit claimed by the party is for an outstanding demand, bought up by this officer, for a gross sum. The second and third sections of the act of the 31st of January 1813, 3 Story 1876, by necessary implication, forbid any disbursing officer to apply public money remaining in his hands to any such purpose; and require the prompt payment to the treasury of all moneys remaining in his hands, except such as he may be authorized to retain for salary, pay or emolument.

This attempt of the defendant is equally forbidden by the general law of principal and agent, as universally understood. An agent intrusted with moneys to be disbursed for his principal, will not be permitted to pay off his principal's debts, without authority, or to purchase up claims against him, for the purpose of off-setting such debts or claims, in an action against him for the moneys remaining in his hands; Middletown and Harrisburg Turnpike Company v. Watson's Administratrix, 1 Rawle 330. The same principle is recognized in the law of Louisiana; Civil Code of 1808, p. 424, art. 19, 24, 26, 29; Civil Code of 1825, p. 938, art. 2974 to 2984, p. 942, art. 2990 to 2994. And without reference to the character of the defendant as an agent, the courts of Louisiana will not allow a defendant to set off money paid by him on account of a debt due from the plaintiff to a third person, unless it be shown to have been made at plaintiff's request; Rogers's Heirs v. Bynum, 9 Martin 82. It is unnecessary to enlarge on the injurious consequences which would probably follow the allowance, in cases of this nature, of the course adopted by the defendant.

At all events, the defendant should only have been allowed to set off the amount actually paid by him; no rule being better established, or more important, in reference to all cases of a fiduciary nature, than that which denies to a trustee the benefit of any profit made in purchasing up claims against the trust estate; Van Horn v. Fonda, 5 John. Chan. Rep. 388.

Mr Justice M'LEAN 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).