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U.S. Supreme Court

Larson v. Domestic & Foreign Commerce Corp., 337 U.S. 682 (1949)

Larson v. Domestic and Foreign Commerce Corp.

No. 31

Argued November 12, 1948

Decided June 27, 1949

337 U.S. 682


1. Plaintiff, a private corporation, brought suit in a Federal District Court against the Administrator of the War Assets Administration, an agency of the United States, in his official capacity. The complaint alleged that the Administration had sold certain surplus coal to the plaintiff, but had refused to deliver it and had made a new contract to sell it to others. The prayer was for an injunction prohibiting the Administrator, his agents and all persons acting under their direction, from selling or delivering the coal to anyone other than the plaintiff and for a declaration that the sale to the plaintiff was valid and the sale to the second purchaser invalid. There was no allegation that the contract of sale was with the Administrator personally, no allegation of any statutory limitation on his powers as a sales agent, and no claim that his action constituted an unconstitutional taking of property.

Held: The suit was one against the United States and, in the absence of consent by the United States, the District Court was without jurisdiction. Pp. 337 U. S. 684-705.

2. In determining whether a suit nominally against an office is against the officer individually or against the sovereign, the crucial question is whether the relief sought is relief against the sovereign. Pp. 687-688.

Page 337 U. S. 683

3. If the actions of an officer do not conflict with the terms of his valid statutory authority, then they are actions of the sovereign, whether or not they are tortious under general law, if they would be regarded as the actions of a private principal under the normal rules of agency. A government officer is not thereby necessarily immunized from liability if his action is such that liability would be imposed by the general law of torts. But the action itself cannot be enjoined or directed, since it is also the action of the sovereign. United States v. Lee, 106 U. S. 196, distinguished. Pp. 337 U. S. 689-697.

4. The action of an officer of the sovereign (be it holding, taking or otherwise legally affecting a plaintiff's property) can be regarded as so "illegal" as to permit a suit for specific relief against the officer as an individual only if it is not within the officer's statutory powers or, if within those powers, only if the powers, or their exercise in the particular case, are constitutionally void. Goldberg v. Daniels, 231 U. S. 218, followed; Goltra v. Weeks, 271 U. S. 536, discussed. Pp. 337 U. S. 697-702.

5. Since the very basis of plaintiff's action is that the Administrator was authorized to enter into a binding contract to sell the Government's coal, there is no allegation of any statutory limitation on his authority, as sales agent, to deliver only when he believed he was required to do so under the contract, and there is no claim that his action in refusing to deliver constituted an unconstitutional taking of plaintiff's property, the Administrator's action in so refusing was that of the United States, and the effort to enjoin it must fail as an effort to enjoin the United States. P. 337 U. S. 703.

6. In the absence of a claim of constitutional limitation, the necessity of permitting the Government to carry out its functions unhampered by direct judicial intervention outweighs the possible disadvantage to the citizen in being relegated to the recovery of money damages after the event. Pp. 337 U. S. 703-704.

7. It is not for this Court to examine the necessity of immunity of the particular Government agency involved, since that is a function of the Congress. Pp. 337 U. S. 704-705.

83 U.S.App.D.C. 13,165 F.2d 235, reversed.

A suit against the Administrator of the War Assets Administration was dismissed by the District Court, for want of jurisdiction, as a suit against the United States.

Page 337 U. S. 684

The Court of Appeals reversed. 83 U.S.App.D.C. 13, 165 F.2d 235. This Court granted certiorari, and Larson was substituted for Littlejohn as the party petitioner. 333 U.S. 872. Reversed, p. 337 U. S. 705.

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