284 U.S. 521 (1932), 84, Matthews v. Rodgers

Docket NºNo. 84
Citation284 U.S. 521, 52 S.Ct. 217, 76 L.Ed. 447
Party NameMatthews v. Rodgers
Case DateFebruary 15, 1932
CourtUnited States Supreme Court

Page 521

284 U.S. 521 (1932)

52 S.Ct. 217, 76 L.Ed. 447




No. 84

United States Supreme Court

Feb. 15, 1932

Argued December 1, 2, 1931

Reargued January 11, 1932




1. Objection to the equity jurisdiction of the District Court held to have been properly raised by motion to dismiss the bill, and preserved by assignments of error in this Court. P. 524.

2. The rule, emphasized by Jud.Code § 267, that suits in equity shall not be maintained in the federal courts in any case where a plain, adequate, and complete remedy may be had at law is of peculiar force in cases in which it is sought to enjoin the collection of state taxes. P. 525.

3. That refusal to pay an allegedly unconstitutional state tax will result in civil and criminal penalties and irreparable damage to the plaintiff's business is not basis for a suit in the federal court to enjoin collection if the legal remedy of paying under protest and suing the collector to recover is afforded by the state law. P. 526.

4. Such a legal remedy exists under the statutes and decisions of Mississippi. P. 527.

5. Such legal remedy, although against the collecting officer, rather than the state or municipality, is to be deemed adequate, where the bill does not allege special circumstances showing inability of the plaintiff to pay the tax, or of the collecting officer to respond to judgment. P. 528.

Page 522

6. The equity jurisdiction of the inferior federal courts is that of the English Court of Chancery at the time of the separation of the two countries; it cannot be enlarged by state legislation creating new equitable remedies in the state courts. P. 529.

7 Therefore, the fact that a state has provided a remedy against illegal state taxes by injunction does not authorize the federal courts to enjoin where the legal remedy is adequate. Id.

8. In general, the jurisdiction of equity to avoid multiplicity of actions at law is restricted to cases where there would otherwise b some necessity for the maintenance of numerous suits between the same parties, involving the same issues of law or fact. It does not extend to cases where there are numerous parties plaintiff and the issues between them and the adverse party are not necessarily identical. Id.

9. Where the alleged unconstitutionality of a state tax depend in the case of each of many taxpayers upon its effect upon his particular business in interstate commerce, a suit by or on behalf of all to enjoin the collector cannot be supported as one to avoid a multiplicity of actions. P. 530.


Appeal from a decree of the District Court of three judges, which enjoined the county sheriff and ex officio tax collector and three members of the state Board of Tax Commissioners from collecting certain "privilege" taxes. The bill was filed by numerous plaintiffs on behalf of themselves and of all others similarly situated.

STONE, J., lead opinion

MR. JUSTICE STONE delivered the opinion of the Court.

This is an appeal, §§ 238, 266 of the Judicial Code, from a decree of a District Court of three judges, for the Northern District of Mississippi, enjoining the collection from the several appellees of a state tax, as an unconstitutional burden on interstate commerce. After argument here on

Page 523

the merits, the cause was restored to the docket

for reargument, limited to the question of the jurisdiction of the District Court both with respect to the amount involved in the suit and the jurisdiction of the court as a court of equity;

reargument has been had accordingly.

The bill of complaint assails the constitutionality of § 56, c. 88, 1930 Laws of Mississippi, as applied to appellees. The section imposes an annual license or "privilege" tax of $100, payable in advance by "every individual . . . engaged in the business of buying or selling cotton for himself." It also requires employers engaged in the business [52 S.Ct. 219] of buying or selling cotton to pay a similar "tax of twenty-five dollars ($25.00) for every employee engaged in their business as buyer or seller." Penalties are imposed in double the amount of the tax for its nonpayment. Section 225. Failure to make application for the license, or engaging in the business without having procured the license or paid the tax, are misdemeanors, punishable by fine not exceeding $500 or imprisonment not exceeding six months, or both. Section 242.

The bill, which is in the form of a class bill, filed by the numerous appellees for the benefit of themselves and others similarly situated, alleges that they are engaged in interstate and foreign commerce, in the course of which they purchase cotton within the state and sell and ship it in interstate or foreign commerce to purchasers outside the state; that the business of each of the several appellees and the right to conduct it is of a value of more than $3,000, the jurisdictional amount for suits brought in a District Court of the United States; that the tax imposed by the state statute is, as to them, an unconstitutional burden on interstate commerce, and that appellants, state officers, charged with the duty of collecting the tax, threaten to enforce its collection by criminal proceedings and the imposition of penalties. The bill states that resort to equity to prevent collection of the tax is either

Page 524

necessary or authorized for the following, among other, reasons:

(1) That the enforcement of the unconstitutional statute would irreparably injure or destroy the business of each of the appellees.

(2) That the taxes, if paid, cannot be recovered by any action or proceeding at law.

(3) That § 304 of Hemingway's Annotated Mississippi Code of 1927 has conferred on the appellees the right to proceed in equity in the state courts to enjoin the collection of an unconstitutional tax, and that that remedy is available in the federal District Court.

(4) That resort to equity is necessary in order to avoid a multiplicity of separate suits by the appellees and others similarly situated, three hundred in all, to enjoin collection of the tax, or otherwise necessary in order to recover it if paid or to prevent successive prosecutions for the violation of the act, in all of which suits or proceedings the issue of the constitutionality of the tax would be substantially the same.

The right of appellees, if any, to maintain the present suit, is conferred by § 24(1) of the Judicial Code, 28 U.S.C. § 41(1), which, regardless of the citizenship of the parties to the suit, vests in district courts of the United States jurisdiction over suits at law or in equity "arising under the Constitution or laws of the United States" where the matter in controversy exceeds $3,000. Although the present suit arises under the Constitution of the United States, see Davis v. Wallace, 257 U.S. 478, and it be assumed, without deciding, that the jurisdictional amount is involved, it cannot be maintained if not within the equity jurisdiction of the district court. The want of equity jurisdiction, if obvious, may and should be objected to by the court of its own motion. In other cases, this jurisdictional requirement, unlike the...

To continue reading

Request your trial