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U.S. Supreme Court

Whiteside v. United States, 93 U.S. 247 (1876)

Whiteside v. United States

93 U.S. 247


1. An assistant special agent of the Treasury Department has no authority to bind the United States by contract to repay the expenses of transporting, repairing, &c., abandoned or captured cotton.

2. The government is not bound by the act or declaration of its agent, unless it manifestly appears that lie acted within the scope of his authority, or was employed in his capacity as a public agent to do the actor make the declaration for it.

3. Individuals, as well as courts, must take notice of the extent of authority conferred by law upon a person acting in an official capacity.

This was a suit brought Dec. 21, 1871, against the United States, to recover $17,356, expended by claimants in hauling, baling, and ginning cotton in Arkansas, in 1865, under a contract with A. B. Miller, assistant special agent of the treasury, made at Camden, Ark., dated Nov. 10, 1865, by which they agreed to proceed to La Fayette County, procure evidence of the right of the United States to cotton there, put the same into shipping order, and transport it to Camden, for a half-interest in all cotton condemned. In all cases of a release after a seizure, upon sufficient evidence, they were to be repaid "all expenses of transportation, repairing," &c. In November and December, 1865, they delivered to Miller three lots of cotton, aggregating five hundred and twenty-two bales. Two of these lots, comprising four hundred and fifty-one bales, were, Jan. 9, 1866, taken from the warehouse at Camden, by General May, commanding the district, and turned over to one Harvey, the alleged owner of them. The claimants had hauled the cotton nearly eighty miles, rebaled it, &c., and ginned a part, for which they were never paid. Two undated vouchers, certified by Miller and approved by O. H. Burbridge, supervising special agent of the treasury, were given the claimants, showing the total

Page 93 U. S. 248

amount by them thus expended to be $17,356. Neither was presented to the Treasury Department for payment. On the 28th of March, 1866, Burbridge made the following endorsement on the contract:

"Subject to the approval of the Secretary of the Treasury, the within contract is approved, so far as it conforms to the regulations of the Treasury Department for paying one-fourth of the cotton condemned, and it is recommended that one-half be allowed."

The defendant pleaded the general denial and the statute of ;imitations. The Court of Claims, upon the facts found, ruled as matter of law:

"1. That the contract relied on by the claimant, not being approved by the supervising special agent of the treasury, was incomplete, and, no benefit having resulted to the government from its alleged fulfillment, there is no legal or equitable ground for recovery."

"2. That if the contract was valid, the loss to the claimants was caused by the illegal seizure of General May, and for that the government is not liable."

The petition of the claimants was dismissed, and they brought the case here.

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