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Swift Company v. United States, 111 U.S. 22 (1884)

Swift Company v. United States

Argued March 5-6, 1884

Decided March 17, 1884

111 U.S. 22


Under the Act of July 14, 1870, c. 255, § 4, 16 Stat. 257, the proprietor of friction matches who furnished his own dies was entitled to a commission of ten percent payable in money upon the amount of adhesive stamps over $500 which he at any one time purchased for his own use from the Bureau of Internal Revenue. Swift Company v. United States, 105 U. S. 691, considered and affirmed.

A payment made to a public officer in discharge of a fee or tax illegally exacted

Page 111 U. S. 23

is not such a voluntary payment as will preclude the party from recovering it back.

A course of business and a periodical settlement between the Commissioner of Internal Revenue and a regular periodical purchaser of revenue stamps entitled by statute to commission on his purchases payable in money, which shows that the Commissioner asserted and the purchaser accepted that the business should be conducted upon the basis of payments of the commissions in stamps at their par value instead of in money, does not preclude the purchaser from asserting his statutory right, if he had no choice, and if the only alternative was to submit to an illegal exaction or discontinue his business.

When the Commissioner of Internal Revenue adopted a rule of dealing with purchasers of stamps which deprived them of a statutory right to be paid their commissions in money, and obliged them to take them in stamps, and made known to those interested that the rule was adopted and would not be changed, the rule dispensed with the necessity of proving, in each instance of complying with it, that the compliance was forced.

In a course of dealing between a regular purchaser through a series of years of stamps and the Commissioner of Internal Revenue, where a separate written order was given for each purchase, and the Commissioner answered each by sending the stamps asked for "in satisfaction of the order," and where remittances were made from time to time by the purchaser on a general credit, which the Commissioner so applied, and where accounts were made and balanced monthly between the parties, and where in each transaction the Commissioner withheld from the purchaser a part of the commission due him by law, the right of action accrued in each transaction as the commission was withheld, and the statute of limitations in each case began to run at that time.

This case was heard at October Term, 1881, on a demurrer to the petition. The judgment of the Court of Claims sustaining the demurrer was overruled, and the case remanded for a hearing on the merits, 105 U. S. 105 U.S. 691. The Court of Claims found that the claimants from 1870 to 1878, were manufacturers of matches, furnished their own dies, and gave bonds for payment of stamps furnished within sixty days after delivery under the statute. Each order was for stamps of a stated value. The Commissioner from the commencement held that the amount allowed by statute was to be computed as commissions upon the amount of money paid. All business between the parties was transacted and all accounts stated and adjusted by the accounting officers on that basis. The manner in which the parties did business under that ruling is stated below in the opinion of the Court. The Court of Claims held that the facts

Page 111 U. S. 24

showed an acquiescence by the claimant in the construction of the statute by the Commissioner, and such repeated settlements and voluntary acceptances of stamps in payment of their commissions in lieu of money as to preclude them from recovering, and gave judgment in favor of the United States. From this judgment the corporation appealed. On the hearing in this Court, the argument was on the following points: 1st, whether the former construction of the statute was correct; 2d, whether the long acquiescence of the company in the construction given to the statute by the Commissioner, and its frequent and regular settlement of its accounts on that basis and acceptance of stamps in lieu of money, precluded it from disputing the legality of the transactions, and 3d, what was the effect of the failure to protest against the settlements which it made under the rulings of the Commissioner.

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