309 U.S. 495 (1940), 570, United States v. Shaw

Docket NºNo. 570
Citation309 U.S. 495, 60 S.Ct. 659, 84 L.Ed. 888
Party NameUnited States v. Shaw
Case DateMarch 25, 1940
CourtUnited States Supreme Court

Page 495

309 U.S. 495 (1940)

60 S.Ct. 659, 84 L.Ed. 888

United States

v.

Shaw

No. 570

United States Supreme Court

March 25, 1940

Argued February 27, 1940

CERTIORARI TO THE SUPREME COURT OF MICHIGAN

Syllabus

1. A suit against the United States may be brought only with consent given, and in the courts designated, by statute. P. 500.

2. The United States, by filing a claim against an estate in a state probate proceeding, does not subject itself to a binding, though not enforceable, ascertainment and allowance of a cross-claim against itself in excess of set-off. The Thekla, 266 U.S. 328, distinguished. Pp. 501-504.

3. By taking over the assets of the Fleet Corporation and assuming its obligations, the United States did not waive its immunity from suit in a state court on a counterclaim based on the corporation's breach of contract. P. 505.

290 Mich. 311, 287 N.W. 477, reversed.

Certiorari, 308 U.S. 548, to review the affirmance of a decree in probate holding the United States indebted to a decedent's estate on a counterclaim.

Page 497

REED, J., lead opinion

MR. JUSTICE REED delivered the opinion of the Court.

In 1918, Sydney C. McLouth contracted to construct nine tugs for the United States Shipping Board Emergency Fleet Corporation. On May 24, 1920, the contract was cancelled, and the parties entered into a settlement agreement providing that McLouth was to keep as bailee certain materials furnished him for use in building the tugs and that the Fleet Corporation was to assume certain of McLouth's subcontracts and commitments. Among the commitments assumed was a contract of McLouth's

Page 498

to purchase lumber from the Ingram-Day [60 S.Ct. 660] Lumber Company. The Lumber Company obtained a judgment against McLouth for $42,789.96 for breach of this contract,1 and, McLouth having died in 1923, filed its claim on the judgment in the probate court of St. Clair County, Michigan. Subsequently the Unites States obtained a judgment of $40,165.48 against McLouth's administrator2 representing damages for the conversion of the materials left with McLouth as bailee, and claim on this judgment was filed in the probate court. The administrator, respondent here, having presented without success the Lumber Company's judgment to the General Accounting Office,3 sought to set off that judgment against the judgment of the United States. The probate court allowed the claim of the United States and denied the set-off, but its ruling as to the set-off was reversed on appeal to the Michigan Supreme Court.4 The administrator then petitioned the probate court to grant statutory judgment of the balance due the estate. The court found that the claim of the United States, with interest, amounted to $49,442.41, and the Lumber Company's claim to $73,071.38, and "ordered, adjudged and ascertained" that the United States was indebted to the estate for the difference, $23,628.97,

and that such indebtedness be and the same is hereby allowed as and determined to be a proper claim which is owing to said estate by the United States of America.

The probate court's judgment was affirmed on appeal.5

Page 499

On this certiorari, we are concerned with the question whether the United States, by filing a claim against an estate in a state court, subjects itself, in accordance with local statutory practice, to a binding, though not immediately enforceable, ascertainment and allowance by the state court of a cross-claim against itself.

Because of different views of other federal courts as to the decisions of this Court in the important federal field of cross-claims against the United States,6 we granted certiorari.7 United States v. United States Fidelity and Guaranty Company8 involves this question.

The statute of Michigan under which this ascertainment of indebtedness was made, so far as pertinent, is set out in the footnote.9 There is no contention on the [60 S.Ct. 661] part of respondent that the judgment is enforceable against the United States even in the limited sense of statutory direction to report the judgment to Congress as in the Court

Page 500

of Claims Act10 or the Merchant Marine Act.11 Execution against property of governmental agencies subjected to such procedure by statute is sometimes allowed.12 The position taken is that the probate court judgment is a "final determination" of the rights of the litigants, howsoever such rights may later become important. We are not here concerned with the manner of collection. Such was the holding of the Supreme Court of Michigan.13

The state procedure for the determination of the balance against or in favor of an estate, which was employed here, was the recognized method of closing an estate at the time of the probate judgment. The probate judge was empowered to act as commissioner under the statute quoted above.14 His decision unreviewed was considered final.15 The determination of the probate court between private parties was enforceable without reexamination in the circuit court.16 Even the right to execution is not essential to a complete judicial process.17 The order entered was a final determination of the amounts due the estate by the United States on this claim and cross-claim if the probate court had jurisdiction to render the order against the petitioner.

Whether that jurisdiction exists depends upon the effect of the voluntary submission to the Michigan court by the United States of its claim against the estate. As a foundation for the examination of that question, we may lay the postulate that, without specific statutory consent, no suit may be brought against the United

Page 501

States.18 No officer, by his action, can confer jurisdiction.19 Even when suits are authorized, they must be brought only in designated courts.20 The reasons for this immunity are imbedded in our legal philosophy. They partake somewhat of dignity and decorum, somewhat of practical administration, somewhat of the political desirability of an impregnable legal citadel where government as distinct from its functionaries may operate undisturbed by the demands of litigants. A sense of justice has brought a progressive relaxation by legislative enactments of the rigor of the immunity rule. As representative governments attempt to ameliorate inequalities as necessities will permit, prerogatives of the government yield to the needs of the citizen. By the act of March 3, 1797, and its successor legislation, as interpreted by this Court, cross-claims are allowed to the amount of the government's claim, where the government voluntarily sues.21 Specially designated claims against the United States may be sued upon in the Court of Claims or the district courts under the Tucker Act.22 Special government activities, set apart as corporations or individual agencies, have been made suable freely. When authority is given, it is liberally construed.23 As to these matters, no controversy exists.

[60 S.Ct. 662] Respondent contends this immunity extends, however, only to original suits; that, when a sovereign voluntarily seeks the aid of the courts for collection of its indebtedness

Page 502

it takes the form of a private suitor, and thereby subjects itself to the full jurisdiction of the court. The principle of a single adjudication is stressed, as is the necessity for a complete examination into the cross-claim, despite attendant dislocation of government business by the appearance of important officers at distant points and the production of documents as evidence, to justify the allowance of an offset to the government's claim.24 It is pointed out that surprise is not involved, as no cross-claim may be proven until after submission to and refusal by the government accounting officers.25 Respondent further insists that his position is supported by The Thekla26 and subsequent decisions quoting its language.27 Emphasis is placed upon the fact that these probate proceedings are in rem or quasi in rem,28 as were the libels in admiralty in The Thekla.

It is not our right to extend the waiver of sovereign immunity more broadly that has been directed by the Congress. We, of course, intimate no opinion as to the desirability of further changes. That is immaterial. Against the background of complete immunity, we find no Congressional action modifying the immunity rule in favor of cross-actions beyond the amount necessary as a set-off.

The Thekla turns upon a relationship characteristic of claims of collision in admiralty but entirely absent in claims and cross-claims in settlement of estates. The subject matter of a suit for damages in collision is not the vessel libelled, but the collision. Libels and cross-libels for collision are one litigation, and give rise to one

Page 503

liability.29 In equal fault, the entire damage is divided. As a consequence, when the United States libels the vessel of another for collision damages and a cross-libel is filed, it is necessary to determine the cross-libel as well as the original libel to reach a conclusion as to liability for the collision. That conclusion must be stated in terms of responsibility for damages. In The Thekla opinion, the cases of Illinois Central Railroad Company v. Public Utilities Commission30 and Nassau Smelting Works v. United States31 were cited in support of the statement that, " . . . generally speaking, a claim that would not constitute a cause of action against the sovereign cannot be asserted as a counterclaim." This Court then said: "We do not qualify the foregoing decisions in any way." In the Smelting case, this Court had said, two weeks before, on a certificate as to the jurisdiction of the district court to consider a counterclaim:

The objection to a suit against the United States is fundamental, whether it be in the form of an original action or a set-off or a counterclaim. Jurisdiction in either case does not exist unless there is specific congressional authority for it. Nor is there...

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482 practice notes
  • Banks v. United States, 053116 TXEDC, 15-cv-00341-GHD
    • United States
    • Federal Cases United States District Courts 5th Circuit Eastern District of Texas
    • 31 May 2016
    ...to suit. See United States v. Sherwood, 312 U.S. 584, 586-87, 61 S.Ct. 767, 85 L.Ed. 1058 (1941); United States v. Shaw, 309 U.S. 495, 501, 60 S.Ct. 659, 84 L.Ed. 888 (1940); Bank One Tex. v. Taylor, 970 F.2d 16, 33 (5th Cir. 1992), cert, denied, 508 U.S. 906, 113 S......
  • 207 F.Supp. 216 (S.D.N.Y. 1962), United States v. Frank
    • United States
    • Federal Cases United States District Courts 2nd Circuit Southern District of New York
    • 25 July 1962
    ...of sovereign immunity, that 'without specific statutory consent, no suit may be brought against the United States.' United States v. Shaw, 309 U.S. 495, 500-501, 60 S.Ct. 659, 84 L.Ed. 888 (1940); Nassau Smelting Works v. United States, 266 U.S. 101, 106, 45 S.Ct. 25, 69 L.Ed. 190 (1924). P......
  • 219 F.2d 479 (D.C. Cir. 1954), 11844, Clackamas County, Or. v. McKay
    • United States
    • Federal Cases United States Courts of Appeals Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit
    • 30 April 1954
    ...[25] Keifer & Keifer v. Reconstruction Finance Corp., 1939, 306 U.S. 381, 59 S.Ct. 516, 83 L.Ed. 784; United States v. Shaw, 1940, 309 U.S. 495, 501, 60 S.Ct. 659, 84 L.Ed. 888. [26] 1803, 1 Cranch 137, 5 U.S. 137, 2 L.Ed. 60. [27] Id., 1 Cranch at 166, 5 U.S. at 166, 2 L.Ed. at 70. [28......
  • 324 F.Supp. 287 (N.D.Ga. 1971), Civ. A. 13932, United States v. Northside Realty Associates, Inc.
    • United States
    • Federal Cases United States District Courts 11th Circuit Northern District of Georgia
    • 4 March 1971
    ...the United States unless it has given specific statutory consent. 3 Moore's Federal Practice 2d ed. § 13.28; United States v. Shaw, 309 U.S. 495, 84 L.Ed. 888, 60 S.Ct. 659. No such consent has been given to suits such as this. United States v. Faneca, 332 F.2d 872, 875 (5th Cir. The defend......
  • Request a trial to view additional results
474 cases
  • Banks v. United States, 053116 TXEDC, 15-cv-00341-GHD
    • United States
    • Federal Cases United States District Courts 5th Circuit Eastern District of Texas
    • 31 May 2016
    ...to suit. See United States v. Sherwood, 312 U.S. 584, 586-87, 61 S.Ct. 767, 85 L.Ed. 1058 (1941); United States v. Shaw, 309 U.S. 495, 501, 60 S.Ct. 659, 84 L.Ed. 888 (1940); Bank One Tex. v. Taylor, 970 F.2d 16, 33 (5th Cir. 1992), cert, denied, 508 U.S. 906, 113 S......
  • 207 F.Supp. 216 (S.D.N.Y. 1962), United States v. Frank
    • United States
    • Federal Cases United States District Courts 2nd Circuit Southern District of New York
    • 25 July 1962
    ...of sovereign immunity, that 'without specific statutory consent, no suit may be brought against the United States.' United States v. Shaw, 309 U.S. 495, 500-501, 60 S.Ct. 659, 84 L.Ed. 888 (1940); Nassau Smelting Works v. United States, 266 U.S. 101, 106, 45 S.Ct. 25, 69 L.Ed. 190 (1924). P......
  • 219 F.2d 479 (D.C. Cir. 1954), 11844, Clackamas County, Or. v. McKay
    • United States
    • Federal Cases United States Courts of Appeals Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit
    • 30 April 1954
    ...[25] Keifer & Keifer v. Reconstruction Finance Corp., 1939, 306 U.S. 381, 59 S.Ct. 516, 83 L.Ed. 784; United States v. Shaw, 1940, 309 U.S. 495, 501, 60 S.Ct. 659, 84 L.Ed. 888. [26] 1803, 1 Cranch 137, 5 U.S. 137, 2 L.Ed. 60. [27] Id., 1 Cranch at 166, 5 U.S. at 166, 2 L.Ed. at 70. [28......
  • 324 F.Supp. 287 (N.D.Ga. 1971), Civ. A. 13932, United States v. Northside Realty Associates, Inc.
    • United States
    • Federal Cases United States District Courts 11th Circuit Northern District of Georgia
    • 4 March 1971
    ...the United States unless it has given specific statutory consent. 3 Moore's Federal Practice 2d ed. § 13.28; United States v. Shaw, 309 U.S. 495, 84 L.Ed. 888, 60 S.Ct. 659. No such consent has been given to suits such as this. United States v. Faneca, 332 F.2d 872, 875 (5th Cir. The defend......
  • Request a trial to view additional results
8 books & journal articles
  • Damages under the Privacy Act: sovereign immunity and a call for legislative reform.
    • United States
    • Harvard Journal of Law & Public Policy Vol. 34 Nbr. 2, March 2011
    • 22 March 2011
    ...contains no clear statement of the sovereign immunity doctrine. (83.) 282 U.S. 656 (1931). (84.) Id. at 659. (85.) United States v. Shaw, 309 U.S. 495, 500-01 (1940). (86.) 312 U.S. 584, 590 (1941). (87.) Other Supreme Court cases that insist on strict interpretation and statutory consent w......
  • The continuing drift of federal sovereign immunity jurisprudence.
    • United States
    • William and Mary Law Review Vol. 50 Nbr. 2, November 2008
    • 1 November 2008
    ...example" of the trend in legislative waivers of sovereign immunity and quoting, without acknowledgment, United States v. Shaw, 309 U.S. 495, 501 (1940)). (140.) See supra Part I.B.1-3. (141.) See, e.g., Federal Tort Claims Act, 28 U.S.C. [section] 2674 (2000) (excluding punitive damage......
  • Sovereign immunity and informant defectors: the United States' refusal to protect its protectors.
    • United States
    • Stanford Law Review Vol. 58 Nbr. 2, November - November 2005
    • 1 November 2005
    ...from prosecution in a court of justice at the suit of individuals.... It is enough for us to declare its existence."). (86.) 309 U.S. 495 (1940). (87.) Id. at 501. (88.) There are other, arguably weaker, justifications for sovereign immunity, but they are not applicable to sovereign im......
  • Alternatives to the Judicially Promulgated Feres Doctrine
    • United States
    • Military Law Review Nbr. 192, October 2007
    • 1 October 2007
    ...v. Sherwood, 312 U.S. 584 (1941) (holding that relinquishment of sovereign immunity is strictly interpreted); United States v. Shaw, 309 U.S. 495 (1940) (holding that courts cannot broaden a congressional waiver of sovereign immunity); Schillinger v. United States, 155 U.S. 163 (1894) (hold......
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