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U.S. Supreme Court

Corbus v. Alaska Treadwell Gold Mining Co., 187 U.S. 455 (1903)

Corbus v. Alaska Treadwell Gold Mining Company

No. 10

Argued December 3, 1902

Decided January 5, 1903

187 U.S. 455


Before a court of equity will in any way help a party to thwart the intent of Congress, as expressed in a statute, it should affirmatively and clearly appear that there is an absolute necessity for its interference in order to prevent irreparable injury.

If the party primarily and directly charged with a tax is unable to make a case for the interference of a court of equity, no one subordinately and indirectly affected by the tax should be given relief unless he shows not merely irreparable injury to the tax debtor as well as to himself, but also that he has taken every essential preliminary step to justify his claim of a right to act in behalf of such tax debtor.

The fact that this Court entertained the bill of equity in Pollock v. Farmers' Loan & Trust Co., 157 U. S. 429, does not determine to what extent a court of equity will permit a stockholder to maintain a suit nominally against the corporation, but really for its benefit, and where a bill is filed by a stockholder to enjoin the officers of a corporation from paying a tax as required by a statute of the United States, this Court will examine the bill in its entirety and determine whether, under all the circumstances, the plaintiff has made such a showing of wrong on the part of the corporation as will justify the suit, and if it appears that the suit is collusive or that the plaintiff has not done everything which ought to have been done to secure action by the corporation and its directors, and justify under the assumption of a controversy between himself and the corporation his prosecution of a litigation for its benefit, the bill will be dismissed.

This, like the preceding cases, was brought to prevent the payment of an Alaskan license tax. The method pursued was, however, different. It is a suit in equity brought by a stockholder against a corporation -- the stockholder and the corporation being the sole parties plaintiff and defendant -- to restrain it from paying the tax. Notice was given to the United States district attorney of the pendency of the suit, who appeared as amicus curiae, and, disclaiming any intention of in any manner representing or binding the United States, denied the jurisdiction

Page 187 U. S. 456

of the court, its right to enjoin the defendant from paying the license, and argued in favor of the constitutionality of the law.

The bill alleged that the defendant was incorporated under the laws of the State of Minnesota, and engaged in mining and milling ore in the District of Alaska, with an office and manager in the district; that

"the general control of the affairs of said company is entrusted to a board of directors who reside in San Francisco, State of California, and are nonresidents of the district of Alaska; that the complete control and management of the affairs of said company in Alaska are under the supervision and control of its general superintendent and manager, J. P. Corbus."

It is further averred that the company, by its general superintendent in Alaska, is intending to pay the license tax which, for the year beginning July 1, 1899, amounted, with the clerk's fee, to the sum of $1,875. After denying the legality of the tax the bill proceeds:

"Your orator further shows that this suit is not a collusive one, brought to confer jurisdiction of the case upon this Court, of which it would not otherwise have cognizance; that your orator has not been able, because of the great distance at which the directors of said company reside, to request them to refuse to pay said tax and to apply for said license, but has made such request of the officers or agents of said company controlling its business in Alaska, but they have failed and refused not to make such application and pay such tax for the reason that, though they doubt the constitutionality of said law, the pains and penalties imposed by said act for the omission so to do are so severe that said company and its said officers and agents fear, and have reason to fear, the great loss and injury in defending prosecution that might be brought against it for the failure to comply with said law; that they deem it better to submit to the legal tax than to incur the consequences of the failure to comply with it; that your orator is advised that there is no procedure provided by law whereby said company could test the validity of said law and the constitutionality of said tax without incurring the pains and penalties therein provided for

Page 187 U. S. 457

the violation thereof, inasmuch as the said act requires the voluntary payment of the tax imposed under a penalty of heavy forfeiture and fines for the failure to make such voluntary payment; that the said company, in view of the foregoing, has refused and still refuses and intends omitting to comply with complainant's demand to refuse to pay said tax, and has resolved and determined and intends to comply with all and singular the provisions of said chapter 44 of said act of Congress, and to pay said tax upon its stamps and upon its said mercantile establishment, amounting to the said sum of $1,875 for the said year, and to continue the payment of a like or greater sum for each year hereafter."

"Your orator further shows that, if said company and its officers, as they have proposed and declared their intention to do, shall pay said tax, the assets of the said company will be thereby diminished and lessened, as well as the dividends to be declared upon the stock thereof, and the value of the shares of said company, including the shares owned by your orator and all others in whose behalf this suit is brought, and your orator further shows that this involves more than the sum of $5,000; that, unless the company should comply with said act, or this Court grant the relief herein prayed for, the said company would be exposed to a multiplicity of suits and prosecutions for the violation of said act, and would be put to great expense and suffer irreparable injury in defending said suits and avoiding the fines and forfeitures provided by the said act, and its assets and the value of its shares would be thereby greatly lessened, to the great and irreparable injury and damage to your orator and other shareholders in said company."

A demurrer to the bill was sustained and a decree entered dismissing the suit. A single opinion was filed by the district judge in disposing of all of these tax cases. In that opinion, and with special reference to the present case, he said:

"In the cases at bar, the district attorney, so far as he had the right to do so, the government not being a party to the suits, raised not only the question of the jurisdiction of the court because the plaintiffs had a plain, speedy, and adequate remedy

Page 187 U. S. 458

at law, but insisted that the suits were of a friendly nature, collusive in character, and brought for the sole purpose of conferring jurisdiction upon the court, to the end that the defendants might escape paying the license fee imposed by law. And when all the facts are taken together, as disclosed by the record, some color is lent to the latter contention. Take the case of Corbus v. Treadwell Co.; the bill was filed July 17, the subpoena served July 19 commanding the defendant to answer the bill within twenty days. No appearance was made by defendant, however, and no pleading filed until November 15, nearly four months after the filing of the bill, and not until about the time the matter was called up for hearing, when a demurrer was interposed. Counsel for defendant did not contend for his demurrer, made no argument, and filed no brief in support of the same, and in the very nature of the case the interests of the plaintiff and defendant are identical. Then, if the object and purpose of the suit is solely to test the constitutionality of the law without first paying into the United States Treasury the amount of the license tax (and there can be no other object), and if the court will sustain the plaintiff and enjoin the defendant as prayed, how is the private citizen to avail himself of a similar remedy? Who shall enjoin him and save him from paying his tax until the constitutionality of the law is determined? And if he cannot avail himself of this manner of suit, why should corporations or copartnerships be permitted to do so? Why should not corporations and individuals have and be permitted to exercise identically the same legal rights and remedies under the law?"

From the decree of dismissal, the plaintiff appealed to this Court.

Page 187 U. S. 459

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