253 U.S. 170 (1920), 294, Calhoun v. Massie

Docket Nº:No. 294
Citation:253 U.S. 170, 40 S.Ct. 474, 64 L.Ed. 843
Party Name:Calhoun v. Massie
Case Date:May 17, 1920
Court:United States Supreme Court

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253 U.S. 170 (1920)

40 S.Ct. 474, 64 L.Ed. 843




No. 294

United States Supreme Court

May 17, 1920

Argued March 11, 1920




An agreement that the fee of an attorney for successfully prosecuting a claim against the United States shall be a lien upon any warrant that may be issued in payment of the claim is void under Rev.Stats., § 3477. P. 175.

Section 4 of the Omnibus Claims Act of March 4, 1915, c. 140, 38 Stat. 962, in its limitation of the amount that may be paid to or received by an attorney on account of services rendered or advances made in connection with any claim for which the act made appropriation does not refer merely to the specific funds received from the government, but makes payment or receipt in excess of the limitation unlawful whatever the source. Id.

This broader prohibition is within the power of Congress as applied

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to a contract made and substantially performed by the attorney, before Congress and in the Court of Claims, before the act was passed but respecting a claim as to which no right of recovery existed under any act of Congress when the contract was made and which depended for its recognition on the action of Congress in making an appropriation. P. 175.

In such a case, the attorney's contract being to secure the appropriation, the passage of the appropriation is a condition precedent to his client's liability to him, and, Congress having power to condition such appropriations and having been accustomed so to limit attorney's fees, such a limitation may be taken to have been within the contemplation of the parties, and impliedly assented to by the attorney in making his contract. P. 176.

Where an attorney for a claimant receives the full amount allowed him out of the specific fund appropriated under an act which limits his fee to that amount, any contract to the contrary notwithstanding, he takes under the act, and cannot repudiate its provisions, and any verbal reservation of his rights under the contract is futile. P. 177.

123 Va. 673 affirmed.

The case is stated in the opinion.

BRANDEIS, J., lead opinion

MR. JUSTICE BRANDEIS delivered the opinion of the Court.

The Omnibus Claims Act (Act March 4, 1915, c. 140, 38 Stat. 962) made appropriations for the payment of 1,115 claims arising out of the Civil War which had, from time to time during the preceding 28 years, been referred by resolution of the House or of the Senate to the Court of Claims for investigation, either under the Bowman Act (Act March 3, 1883, c. 116, 22 Stat. 485) or under the Tucker Act (Act March 3, 1887, c. 359, 24 Stat.

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505), or under § 151 of the Judicial Code. Among the claims which that court reported favorably was one of Bland Massie, which had been referred to it by resolution of the House on February 3, 1911.1 By § 1 of the Omnibus Claims Act (p. 989), the Secretary of the Treasury was directed to pay Massie $1,900. Section 4 of the act (p. 996), provided as follows:

That no part of the amount of any item appropriated in this bill in excess of twenty percentum thereof shall be paid or delivered to or received by any agent or agents, attorney or attorneys on account of services rendered or advances made in connection with said claim.

It shall be unlawful for any agent or agents, attorney or attorneys to exact, collect, withhold, or receive any sum which in the aggregate exceeds twenty percentum of the amount of any item appropriated in this bill on account of services rendered or advances made in connection with said claim, any contract to the contrary notwithstanding. Any person violating the provisions of this Act shall be deemed guilty of a misdemeanor, and, upon conviction thereof, shall be fined in any sum not exceeding $1,000.

Massie had executed on April 18, 1911, an agreement as follows:

Fee Agreement. This agreement witnesseth that I, Bland Massie, of Tyro, Nelson county, Virginia, have employed C.C. Calhoun, of Washington, D.C., as my attorney to prosecute my claim against the government of the United States for property taken by the federal forces during the late Civil War, and in consideration of his professional services in the prosecution of said claim, I hereby agree and bind my heirs and legal representatives to pay him, his heirs or legal representatives as a fee a sum equal to 50 percent of the amount which may

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be collected upon said claim, said fee to be a lien on any warrant which may be issued in payment of said claim.

Calhoun prosecuted Massie's claim before the Court of Claims and secured the allowance of a motion to transmit its report to Congress, which thereafter made the appropriation above stated. On May 5, 1915, the government paid the $1,900 by means of two treasury warrants, one for $380 (twenty percent thereof), made payable to Calhoun, the other for $1,520 (80 percent thereof), made payable to Massie. Calhoun demanded of Massie a further sum of $570, equal to 30 percent of the claim. Payment was refused, and he brought this suit in a state court of Virginia to recover the amount, claiming that the warrant for twenty percent had been accepted by him without waiving or releasing his right under the contract to the balance. A declaration setting forth in substance the above facts was demurred to on the ground that recovery was prohibited by § 4 of the act under which the appropriation was made. The demurrer was sustained, and judgment entered thereon was affirmed by the Supreme Court of Appeals of the State of Virginia (123 Va. 673). The case comes here on writ of certiorari (249 U.S. 596), Calhoun having contended in both lower courts, as here, that § 4 deprives him of liberty and property guaranteed by the Fifth Amendment to the federal Constitution, and hence is void.

For nearly three-quarters of a century, Congress has...

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