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BAKER V. CUMMINGS, 169 U. S. 189 (1898)

U.S. Supreme Court

Baker v. Cummings, 169 U.S. 189 (1898)

Baker v. Cummings

No. 189

Argued January 14, 17, 1898

Decided February 21, 1898

169 U.S. 189


Stuart v. Hayden, 169 U. S. 1, affirmed to the point that, when two courts have reached the same conclusion on a question of fact, their finding will not be disturbed unless it be clear that their conclusion was erroneous.

Metropolitan National Bank v. St. Louis Dispatch Co., 149 U. S. 436, affirmed to the point that courts of equity, in cases of concurrent jurisdiction, consider themselves bound by the statutes of limitation which govern actions at law.

In this case, the court arrives at the conclusion, on the evidence, that if the false representations as to the earned fees were made by Baker as alleged, there was entire knowledge thereof by Cummings more than three years before the filing of his bill, which is the time in which an action at law for such a cause is barred in the District of Columbia, and that the conduct of Cummings in permitting Baker to go on and prosecute the claims as if they were his own debars him from proceeding in a court of equity; but in so holding, the Court must not be considered as intimating that it concludes that there was either clear and convincing proof, or even a preponderance of proof, that the sale was as claimed by Cummings.

This suit was commenced by appellee, Cummings, on February

Page 169 U. S. 190

1, 1890, by a bill filed on the equity side of the Supreme Court of the District of Columbia against Baker, the appellant. In substance, the bill set forth the formation about the year 1874 of a partnership between Cummings and Baker for the practice of law in the City of Washington; that the expenses were to be borne and the profits shared equally between the partners; that the firm some years thereafter became attorneys for the collection of claims against the United States in favor of certain inspectors of customs for arrears of pay claimed to be due them. It alleged that on September 6, 1886, Cummings sold to Baker all his interest in the fees earned, but not then divided, and those yet to be earned from such claims, and that there was consequently a dissolution of the partnership as to these matters, but that it continued as to all other business until September, 1889, when the partnership was dissolved. The object of the bill was to procure a cancellation and annulment of the sale of the fees in inspector cases made as above stated, and of the written instrument of assignment by which it was evidenced, on the ground of false representations claimed to have been made by Baker to Cummings in the negotiations for the sale, which representations were averred to have brought about the consent to the sale, and the execution of the assignment to carry out the same. The fraud specified was in substance, this: that Baker had misrepresented the amount of the fees then actually earned by the firm, and undivided between the partners, on the inspectors' claims, for which appropriations had then been made by Congress, by stating to Cummings that the then earned fees only equaled about $20,000, when in truth and in fact they were, to the knowledge of Baker, about $32,000; that, as to the future claims then in the hands of the firm but not then allowed by the Treasury Department or appropriated for by Congress, Baker had knowingly largely understated the amount thereof by representing them to be only $80,000 when in fact they then amounted to about $275,000. The relief prayed was an annulment of the sale, a full settlement of the partnership affairs, treating the fees in the inspector cases as being a part of the partnership assets, and, in aid of the final settlement which

Page 169 U. S. 191

was asked, there was also a prayer that Baker be enjoined from prosecuting an action instituted by him against Cummings in December, 1889, to recover $2,712.81 and interest, it being averred that Baker's right to this amount was involved in a settlement of the entire partnership affairs.

The answer of Baker denied that there had been any fraud practiced upon Cummings in the purchase of his interest in the fees in the inspector cases, and the alleged misrepresentations as to both classes of fees, whether earned or to be earned, was expressly denied. The averment that the complainant had sold his interest in the fees on a basis of his ownership of one-half therein was directly traversed, and, on the contrary, it was alleged that the assignment resulted from the following circumstances, and had been made upon these conditions: that the existence of claims by inspectors of customs against the government had been discovered by Baker, and that he had procured the business of prosecuting them for the firm for a compensation, in most cases, of twenty-five percent of the sum collected, and had, substantially by his own labors, pressed them to a successful issue, and that the result of his exertions had been to earn for the partnership a considerable sum of money, which had been, prior to 1886, divided between the partners equally; that during the course of the business, Cummings had given little or no attention to the inspectors' claims, but on the contrary had neglected not only these claims, but the partnership affairs generally; that in consequence of these facts, for months prior to September, 1886, Baker had determined to put an end to the partnership, and had so informed Cummings; that for the purpose of preventing this dissolution and securing a continued association with him (Baker) in business, which Cummings desired, an agreement had been entered into between the partners that Cummings, instead of taking an equal interest in the earnings of the firm from the inspectors' cases, should dispose of his rights therein on the basis of his having only a one-third, instead of a one-half, interest; that, on this agreement as to the proportion in which the partners should be entitled to the fees, and Cummings' judgment of the future result of claims unallowed and unappropriated

Page 169 U. S. 192

for, which were in their very nature largely conjectural, the sale was made for a consideration of $15,000 cash to be paid by Baker to Cummings, the latter to retain in addition the full amount of all fees due to him for his services as assignee of an insolvent banking firm, which latter amount, without the release, it was averred, would have been an asset of the partnership, and was estimated to equal $10,000, of which Baker's share would have been one-half.

The answer, moreover, averred that, at the time of the sale, Cummings had full information of the condition of the business in the inspector cases, and dealt with his eyes open; that, as a partner, he was not only familiar with the general manner in which the business was conducted, but also, about two weeks prior to the sale, he received from Baker papers and documents which fully informed him of the exact condition of the claims, his interest in which it was proposed to sell, the papers and documents in question having been handed to Cummings during the pendency of the negotiations, in order that he might ascertain the precise situation.

In addition, the answer averred that, immediately after the sale and before Cummings had cashed a check for $15,000 given him by Baker in payment of the amount of the purchase price, Cummings was put in possession of papers and documents which were acted upon by him, and which, if any fraudulent representation had been made in relation to the sale, fully informed him of the fact in ample time to have protected his interest, and, although this full information was given him before the purchase price was collected, Cummings made no pretense of any deceit practiced upon him, or made any complaint as to the contract, but continued in the partnership as a member of the firm as to other business, and that the first complaint which was made by him of any unfairness in the transaction was nearly three years after the sale, and then only after Baker had insisted upon payment to him by Cummings of a sum which Baker claimed was due him, and had moreover expressed his unalterable intention to dissolve the partnership. The defense of the bar of the statute of limitations was specially pleaded.

Page 169 U. S. 193

At the hearing, a decree was entered for complainant and a reference was made to an auditor to state the accounts between the parties. Pending the hearing on such reference, an appeal from the interlocutory decree was prosecuted to the Court of Appeals of the District of Columbia, where a judgment of affirmance was rendered. 4 App.D.C. 230. Subsequently, on confirmation of the report of the auditor, a final decree was entered in favor of the complainant for the sum of $32,772.14, with interest thereon from the 1st day of July, 1895, until paid, in which sum was embraced a credit to Baker of the items claimed by him in his action at law against Cummings. From this final decree an appeal was taken to the Court of Appeals for the District, by which it was affirmed. 8 App.D.C. 515. This appeal was then taken.

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