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U.S. Supreme Court

Coffee v. Planters Bank of Tennessee, 54 U.S. 13 How. 183 183 (1851)

Coffee v. Planters Bank of Tennessee

54 U.S. (13 How.) 183




By the eleventh section of the Judiciary Act, 1 Stat. 78, no action can be brought in the federal courts upon a promissory note or other chose in action by an assignee unless the action could have been maintained if there had been no assignment. But an endorsee may sue his own immediate endorser.

Hence, where an action was brought by an endorsee upon checks which had been endorsed from one person to another in the same state, and some of the counts of the declaration traced the title through these endorsements, no recovery could have been had upon those counts.

But the declaration also contained the common money counts, and upon the trial these were the only counts which remained, all the rest having been stricken out. The suit against the maker and also against all the endorsers except one had been discontinued.

The statute of the state where the trial took place authorized a suit upon such an instrument as if it were a joint and several contract.

The dismissal of the suit against all the endorsers except one, and the striking out of all the counts against him except the common money counts, freed the judgment against him from all objection, and therefore when brought up for review upon a writ of error, it must be affirmed.

Page 54 U. S. 184

The facts are stated in the opinion of the Court.

Page 54 U. S. 186

MR. JUSTICE DANIEL delivered the opinion of the Court.

The questions of law to be decided in this cause, arise upon the following facts: the defendant in error, the plaintiff in the court below, described in the pleadings to be a corporation created by the laws of the State of Tennessee, the stockholders of which are citizens of Tennessee, declared in assumpsit, in the court below against the Mississippi & Alabama Railroad Company, averred to be a corporation created by the laws of Mississippi, and also against William H. Shelton, Robert G. Crozier, Henry K. Moss, Samuel M. Puckett, Thomas G. Coffee, the plaintiff in error, and William H. Washington, averring the said individuals to be all citizens of the State of Mississippi. The declaration contained twenty-four counts, twenty-three of which set out respectively checks drawn by the Mississippi & Alabama Railroad Company, for different sums of money, payable to some of the individual defendants in the court below, and endorsed by the payee and successively by the other defendants, so as at last to become payable to the plaintiff below, the defendant in error as the last endorsee.

The last or twenty-fourth count in the declaration was upon an indebitatus assumpsit for one hundred and fifty thousand dollars, for money lent and advanced, for the like sum for money laid out and expended, and for the like sum for money had and received, laying the damages at three hundred thousand dollars.

The defendants below, Moss, Puckett, Shelton, and Coffee, the plaintiff in error, appeared to the suit and pleaded jointly the general issue. Crozier also appeared and pleaded nonassumpsit. The Mississippi & Alabama Railroad Company did not appear. Afterwards, upon a suggestion of the death of Washington and Shelton, the suit was abated as to these parties, and upon the motion of the plaintiff below, the defendant in error,

Page 54 U. S. 187

the suit was ordered to be discontinued as to all the defendants below except the plaintiff in error, and a jury being empanelled upon the issue joined as to him, found a verdict against him in damages for the sum of $149,924.97 for which sum together with costs of suit, a judgment was entered by the circuit court. No exception appears to have been taken to the forms of proceeding, nor to any ruling by the court upon the trial, and the questions for consideration here are raised upon facts as above set forth.

On behalf of the plaintiff in error it is insisted that upon none of the twenty-three counts, each of which sets forth a deduction of title by intermediate endorsements from the payees, can this action be maintained, because it appears on the face of those counts that the drafts or checks constituting the claim were drawn by a corporation situated within the State of Mississippi, and the members of which corporation were citizens and inhabitants of that state, in favor of payees who being also citizens of that state, could not sue upon those drafts in the courts of the United States, and could not, by endorsement, confer upon others a right denied by the law to themselves.

By the 11th section of the act of Congress establishing the judicial courts of the United States it is declared that no district or circuit court of the United States shall have cognizance of any suit to recover the contents of any promissory note or other chose in action, in favor of an assignee, unless a suit might have been prosecuted in such court to recover the said contents, if no assignment had been made, except in cases of foreign bills of exchange. This provision has been expounded by this Court as early as 1779 in the case of Turner's Administrator v. Bank of North America, 4 Dall. 8. It has received a farther interpretation in the case of Montalet v. Murray, 4 Cranch 46; of Young v. Bryan, 6 Wheat. 146; of Mollan v. Torrance, 9 Wheat. 537; and of Evans v. Gee, 11 Pet. 80. These several decisions have settled the construction of the 11th section of the Judiciary Act, and the principle they have affirmed is unquestionably fatal to a right of recovery under the twenty-three first counts, for they deny jurisdiction in the courts of the United States over cases of intermediate deduction of title from the payee, where such payee and the maker of the instrument are citizens of the same state, with the exception of foreign bills of exchange, and in the case before us every special count is framed upon a title thus deduced, and is not within the exception made by the statute. But whilst the authorities cited have laid down the above doctrine with reference to intermediate deductions of title from the payee of a note or check, they have ruled with equal clearness that as between the

Page 54 U. S. 188

immediate endorsee and endorser, being citizens and inhabitants of different states, the jurisdiction of the federal courts attaches, as upon a distinct contract between these parties, independently of the residence of the original and remote parties to the instrument.

Upon the doctrine thus ruled, the following question recurs for our decision upon this record, viz., whether the plaintiff below, the defendant in error, as a corporation created by and situated within the State of Tennessee, and the members of which corporation were citizens of that state, as immediate endorsee of the plaintiff in error, a citizen and inhabitant of the State of Mississippi, had the right to a recovery against him, as the immediate endorser of the notes or checks on which the action was founded. As to the general principle relative to the jurisdiction of the federal courts, and as to the right of recovery or of action as between the immediate endorsee and endorser, we have already stated that principle as having been conclusively settled; if then there can be an objection to its application or controlling effect in the case before us, it must exist as to the manner of that application in the proceedings in this cause, and not to the rule itself. Such objection, it has been attempted, on the part of the plaintiff in error, to maintain. Thus it is disclosed upon the record, that after the general issue pleaded by all the defendants except the Mississippi & Alabama Railroad, who were in default, the action was by order of the circuit court, on the motion of the plaintiff, discontinued as to all the defendants except the now plaintiff in error, the last endorser, and as to him also, upon all the counts except the general indebitatus assumpsit, upon which the case was tried and verdict and judgment obtained. It has been insisted that the proceeding just mentioned, under the order of the circuit court, was erroneous; that the liability of the defendants was a joint liability, as set forth in the declaration, and could not be severed upon motion, and that the discontinuance as to one of the defendants was a discontinuance as to them all. It may here be remarked in the first place that however the liability of the defendants below may have been presented by the declaration, it is certain that the responsibility of the endorser to his immediate endorsee, is strictly a several responsibility, and that so far as the jurisdiction of the federal court is concerned, there is no right in the endorsee to look beyond that responsibility into transactions between citizens of the same state. The courts of the United States therefore could not, upon the face of the pleadings, take cognizance of questions beyond the several responsibility arising out of the transaction between the endorsee and his immediate endorser. We deem it unnecessary, however, to examine critically, in connection with

Page 54 U. S. 189

the proceedings had in this cause, the doctrine of joint and several obligations as settled by the common law and the rules of pleading founded thereon, and are the less disposed to listen to objections drawn from that source at this stage of the case, as not an exception has been taken upon the record to any of the proceedings in the circuit court, which are therefore entitled to every presumption in their favor, whether of fact or law, which is not excluded by absolute authority. But the proceedings in this case should not be tested by the rules of the common law in relation to joint and several obligations, but should be judged of by the regulations of a local polity which has been adopted by the courts of the United States, and in conformity with which the pleadings in this case have been controlled and modeled.

By the statute of Mississippi, vide Howard & Hutchinson's edition, c. 44, 578, s. 9, it is declared that,

"Every joint bond, covenant, bill, or promissory note, shall be deemed and construed to have the same effect in law as a joint and several bond, covenant, bill, or promissory note, and it shall be lawful to sue out process and proceed to judgment against anyone of the obligors, covenantors, or drawers of such bond, covenant, bill, or promissory note, in the same manner as if the same were joint and several."

In the same collection, c. 45, 594, s. 28, it is laid down, that

"it shall hereafter be lawful for the holder or holders of any covenant, bond, bill, or promissory note, signed by two or more persons, to sue any number of the covenantors, obligors, or drawers thereof in one and the same action."

By these statutory provisions, the rules prescribed under the common law with respect to suits upon joint and several promises have been essentially changed, and the same license which concedes to a party the power of instituting his suit against one or more, or all the parties to an undertaking, carries with it by necessary implication the right to prosecute or discontinue it in the same sense and to the same extent and degree. In accordance with this conclusion is the interpretation given to the statutes of Mississippi by the supreme court of that state, as will be seen in the cases of Peyton & Halliday v. Scott, 2 How. 870; Lynch v. Commissioners of the Sinking Fund, 4 id. 377; Dennison v. Lewis, 6 id. 517; Prewet v. Caruthers, 7 id. 304, and that interpretation, by the state court, of these statutes, has been repeatedly sanctioned as a rule of proceeding in the Circuit Court of the United States for the District of Mississippi, by the decisions of this Court, as will be seen by the cases of McAfee v. Doremus, 5 How. 53; of Bank of the United States v. Moss, 6 How. 31; and of United States v. Girault, 11

Page 54 U. S. 190

How. 22. It follows, then, from the foregoing authorities as an inevitable conclusion that whether the undertakings set out in the special counts or in the general indebitatus assumpsit be taken as joint or as joint and several, it would have constituted no valid objection to the proceedings in the circuit court by which the cause was discontinued, as to all the defendants save the last or immediate endorser, even had such an objection been directly and expressly presented and reserved by the pleadings. That discontinuance deprived him of no right, imposed upon him no burden or responsibility he was not already bound to sustain -- it merely left him in the exact position in which his undertaking with the plaintiff below could be regularly and properly adjudicated. Upon full consideration, therefore, we think that the judgment of the circuit court should be, and the same is hereby



This cause came on to be heard on the transcript of the record from the Circuit Court of the United States, for the Southern District of Mississippi, and was argued by counsel. On consideration whereof, it is now here ordered, and adjudged, by this Court that the judgment of said circuit court in this cause be and the same is hereby affirmed with costs and damages at the rate of six percentum per annum.

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