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Meath v. Board of Mississippi Levee Comm'rs, 109 U.S. 268 (1883)

Meath v. Board of Mississippi Levee Commissioners

Argued November 8, 1883

Decided November 19, 1883

109 U.S. 268


1. When the court below finds generally for a defendant, and also makes special findings on the issues, no error can be assigned on the special findings.

2. The subject of the action in this suit being an instrument under seal, and the cause having accrued in the Mississippi on the 1st day of April, 1871, the action is subject to the provisions of the Code of the State of Mississippi of 1857 so far as it affects the limitation of the action.

3. When it appeared in a suit prosecuted in the Mississippi that the plaintiff at the time when the action was begun had no legal title to the matter which was the subject of the suit, but acquired his interest therein subsequently to the commencement of the suit, and judgment was rendered accordingly, that was not a judgment on "a matter of form" in the sense in which that expression is used in § 2163 of the Mississippi Code of 1871, but one which may be pleaded in answer to another suit brought for the same cause of action.

Action upon a sealed instrument.

The plaintiff in error, Patrick G. Meath, who was the plaintiff below, brought this suit, on December 21, 1878, against the Board of Mississippi Levee Commissioners. It was founded on a contract in writing, under seal, between Meath and the defendants, dated April 13, 1869, by which Meath covenanted to construct certain levees in the State of Mississippi on or before April 1, 1871, and the defendants covenanted to pay him a specified price per cubic yard in coupon bonds of the board of levee commissioners maturing on January 1, 1876.

The declaration averred that the plaintiff expended large sums of money in the purchase of tools, etc., for the performance of said work, and while he was actually engaged therein, and with ample means to accomplish it, the defendants, on January 10, 1870, without any fault or negligence of plaintiff, ordered and coerced him to desist from work on said levees

Page 109 U. S. 269

until further orders from them; that he was ready, able, and willing to go on with the work, and remained awaiting the orders of defendants until April 1, 1871, and was prevented from resuming the work by the wrongful acts of the defendants. The declaration further averred that

"On March 26, 1877, plaintiff brought his suit in the Circuit Court of the United States for the Southern District of Mississippi on said contract, and the same was tried on or about April 5, 1878, and was defeated for matter of form, in this, to-wit, because, though it appeared in the evidence that one Thomas Boyle had purchased, for the sole use and benefit of plaintiff, the said claim under said covenant against defendants at a sale thereof, made by plaintiff's assignee in bankruptcy, the formal assignment made by him to plaintiff had not in fact been executed and delivered until after the bringing of said action, though antedated to conform to the fact, and therefore that the said action should have been brought in the name of the said Boyle, for plaintiff's use."

The plaintiff claimed in the present action the sum of $70,000, as due him for work done and accepted under said contract, and a large sum for damages, because he was not permitted to complete the work.

The defendant filed eight pleas, but as the judgment of the court below was based exclusively on the sixth and seventh pleas, the others need not be noticed. The sixth plea averred that

"the several supposed causes of action in said declaration mentioned, if any such there were or still are, did not, nor did any or either of them, accrue to the said plaintiff at any time within seven years next preceding the commencement of this suit."

The seventh plea set out the facts in regard to such former suit, begun March 26, 1877, referred to in the declaration, denied that it was decided against the plaintiff for matter of form only, and averred that it was so decided on matter of substance, and concluded by averring that "the present action was not brought within seven years after the cause of action accrued," and was therefore barred by the statute.

Page 109 U. S. 270

The plaintiff demurred to these pleas, and his demurrer was overruled. Thereupon he filed his replication, taking issue. The parties waived a jury, and submitted the issues of fact to the court by the following agreement:

"In this cause a jury is waived, and it is agreed to submit the cause to the court in lieu of a jury, to be decided on the law and the evidence, and separate findings thereof to be rendered by the court, so that the decision may be finally reviewed by the Supreme Court of the United States. The court having, in the decision of the questions arising upon the demurrers to sixth and seventh pleas filed, expressed the opinion that the pending of the former suit could not be availed of to prevent the bar of the statute of limitations, and that this action is barred by limitation, it is agreed that that sole question shall be presented upon the pleadings and proof, and that only such evidence as in the judgment of the court bears upon that issue shall be incorporated in its findings and presented to the Supreme Court of the United States, and that the record for said court shall consist of the pleadings and exhibits, the orders of the court, the findings of fact and law in the cause, and this agreement. And it is further agreed that should the supreme court differ in opinion with and reverse the circuit court the cause shall be remanded for trial on its merits on all the other questions in the case."

The cause was tried under this agreement, and the court made both a general and special finding of facts. The general finding was as follows:

"The court having heard the evidence upon the sixth and seventh pleas of the defendant, and replications thereto, etc., finds said issues in favor of defendants, and that said plaintiff's right of action when this suit was brought was barred by the statute of limitations."

The court found, by its special findings, as follows: the plaintiff's cause of action accrued in this case on April 1, 1871, and, what the record also shows, this action was brought December 21, 1878; on March 26, 1877, the plaintiff brought an action against the defendant on the contract set out in and

Page 109 U. S. 271

exhibited with the declaration in this cause; the defendant pleaded a transfer of all interest in said contract to an assignee in bankruptcy, under the bankrupt law; to said plea the plaintiff replied that his assignee in bankruptcy had sold the said contract to one Boyle, who purchased it for the plaintiff, and assigned it to him sometime in January, 1877; issue was joined to this replication; this issue was submitted to the court for trial; on the trial, it was shown that the assignment by Boyle to Meath was made on January 28, 1878; on this state of facts the court found that the plaintiff did not have the legal title to the claim sued on when the action was commenced, and judgment therein was rendered in that suit for the defendants.

Upon the general and special findings, the court found, as matter of law, that this action was barred by the limitation of seven years, and rendered judgment for the defendants. To this conclusion of law the plaintiff excepted and sued out the present writ of error.

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