337 U.S. 682 (1949), 31, Larson v. Domestic and Foreign Commerce Corp.

Docket Nº:No. 31
Citation:337 U.S. 682, 69 S.Ct. 1457, 93 L.Ed. 1628
Party Name:Larson v. Domestic and Foreign Commerce Corp.
Case Date:June 27, 1949
Court:United States Supreme Court
 
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337 U.S. 682 (1949)

69 S.Ct. 1457, 93 L.Ed. 1628

Larson

v.

Domestic and Foreign Commerce Corp.

No. 31

United States Supreme Court

June 27, 1949

Argued November 12, 1948

CERTIORARI TO THE UNITED STATES COURT OF APPEALS

FOR THE DISTRICT OF COLUMBIA CIRCUIT

Syllabus

1. Plaintiff, a private corporation, brought suit in a Federal District Court against the Administrator of the War Assets Administration, an agency of the United States, in his official capacity. The complaint alleged that the Administration had sold certain surplus coal to the plaintiff, but had refused to deliver it and had made a new contract to sell it to others. The prayer was for an injunction prohibiting the Administrator, his agents and all persons acting under their direction, from selling or delivering the coal to anyone other than the plaintiff and for a declaration that the sale to the plaintiff was valid and the sale to the second purchaser invalid. There was no allegation that the contract of sale was with the Administrator personally, no allegation of any statutory limitation on his powers as a sales agent, and no claim that his action constituted an unconstitutional taking of property.

Held: The suit was one against the United States and, in the absence of consent by the United States, the District Court was without jurisdiction. Pp. 684-705.

2. In determining whether a suit nominally against an office is against the officer individually or against the sovereign, the crucial question is whether the relief sought is relief against the sovereign. Pp. 687-688.

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3. If the actions of an officer do not conflict with the terms of his valid statutory authority, then they are actions of the sovereign, whether or not they are tortious under general law, if they would be regarded as the actions of a private principal under the normal rules of agency. A government officer is not thereby necessarily immunized from liability if his action is such that liability would be imposed by the general law of torts. But the action itself cannot be enjoined or directed, since it is also the action of the sovereign. United States v. Lee, 106 U.S. 196, distinguished. Pp. 689-697.

4. The action of an officer of the sovereign (be it holding, taking or otherwise legally affecting a plaintiff's property) can be regarded as so "illegal" as to permit a suit for specific relief against the officer as an individual only if it is not within the officer's statutory powers or, if within those powers, only if the powers, or their exercise in the particular case, are constitutionally void. Goldberg v. Daniels, 231 U.S. 218, followed; Goltra v. Weeks, 271 U.S. 536, discussed. Pp. 697-702.

5. Since the very basis of plaintiff's action is that the Administrator was authorized to enter into a binding contract to sell the Government's coal, there is no allegation of any statutory limitation on his authority, as sales agent, to deliver only when he believed he was required to do so under the contract, and there is no claim that his action in refusing to deliver constituted an unconstitutional taking of plaintiff's property, the Administrator's action in so refusing was that of the United States, and the effort to enjoin it must fail as an effort to enjoin the United States. P. 703.

6. In the absence of a claim of constitutional limitation, the necessity of permitting the Government to carry out its functions unhampered by direct judicial intervention outweighs the possible disadvantage to the citizen in being relegated to the recovery of money damages after the event. Pp. 703-704.

7. It is not for this Court to examine the necessity of immunity of the particular Government agency involved, since that is a function of the Congress. Pp. 704-705.

83 U.S.App.D.C. 13,165 F.2d 235, reversed.

A suit against the Administrator of the War Assets Administration was dismissed by the District Court, for want of jurisdiction, as a suit against the United States.

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The Court of Appeals reversed. 83 U.S.App.D.C. 13, 165 F.2d 235. This Court granted certiorari, and Larson was substituted for Littlejohn as the party petitioner. 333 U.S. 872. Reversed, p. 705.

VINSON, J., lead opinion

MR. CHIEF JUSTICE VINSON delivered the opinion of the Court.

This suit was brought in the United States District Court for the District of Columbia by the Domestic & Foreign Commerce Corporation against Robert M. Littlejohn, the then head of the War Assets Administration.1 The complaint alleged that the Administration had sold certain surplus coal to the plaintiff; that the Administrator refused to deliver the coal but, on the contrary, had entered into a new contract to sell it to others. The prayer was for an injunction prohibiting the Administrator from selling or delivering the coal to any one other than the plaintiff and for a declaration that the sale to the plaintiff was valid and the sale to the second purchaser invalid.

A temporary restraining order was issued ex parte. At the subsequent hearing on the issuance of a preliminary injunction, the defendant moved to dismiss the complaint on the ground, among others, that the court did not have jurisdiction because the suit was one against the United

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States. The motion was granted. The Court of Appeals reversed, holding that the jurisdictional capacity of the court depended on whether or not title to the coal had passed.2 Since this was also one of the questions on the merits, it remanded the case for trial. We granted certiorari, 333 U.S. 872.3

The controversy on the merits concerns the interpretation to be given to the contract of sale. The War Assets Administration construed the contract as requiring the plaintiff to deposit funds to pay for the coal in advance and, when an unsatisfactory letter of credit was offered in place of a deposit, it considered that the contract was breached. The respondent, on the other hand, construed the contract as requiring payment only on delivery of the documents covering the coal shipment. In its view, it was not obliged to deposit any funds in advance of shipment, and therefore had not breached the contract by failing to do so.

A second question, related to but different from the question of breach, was whether legal title to the coal had passed to the respondent when the contract was made. If the contract required the deposit of funds, then, of course, title could not pass until the contract terms were complied with. If, on the other hand, the contract required payment only on the delivery of documents, a question remained as to whether title nevertheless passed at the time the contract was made.

Since these questions were not decided by the courts below, we do not pass on them here. They are important only insofar as they illuminate the basis on which it

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was claimed that the district court had jurisdiction over the suit. It was not alleged that the contract for the sale of the coal was a contract with the officer personally.4 The basis of the action, on the contrary, was that a contract had been entered into with the United States. Nor was it claimed that the Administrator had any personal interest in this coal or, indeed, that he himself had taken any wrongful action. The complaint was directed against him because of his official function as chief of the War Assets Administration.5 It asked for an injunction against him in that capacity, and against "his agents, assistants, deputies and employees and all persons acting or assuming to act under their direction." The relief sought was, in short, relief against the Administration for wrongs allegedly committed by subordinate officials in that Administration. The question presented to the courts below was whether [69 S.Ct. 1460] such an injunction was barred by the sovereign's immunity from suit.

Before answering that question, it is perhaps advisable to state clearly what is and what is not involved. There is not involved any question of the immunization of Government officers against responsibility for their wrongful actions. If those actions are such as to create a personal liability, whether sounding in tort or in contract, the fact that the officer is an instrumentality of the sovereign does not, of course, forbid a court from taking jurisdiction over a suit against him. Sloan Shipyards Corp. v. Emergency Fleet Corp., 258 U.S. 549, 567 (1922). As was said in Brady

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v. Roosevelt S.S. Co., 317 U.S. 575, 580 (1943), the principle that an agent is liable for his own torts "is an ancient one, and applies even to certain acts of public officers or public instrumentalities." But the existence of a right to sue the officer is not the issue in this case. The issue here is whether this particular suit is not also, in effect, a suit against the sovereign. If it is, it must fail, whether or not the officer might otherwise be suable.

If the denomination of the party defendant by the plaintiff were the sole test of whether a suit was against the officer individually or against his principal, the sovereign, our task would be easy. Our decision then would be that the United States is not being sued here, because it is not named as a party. This would be simple, and would not leave room for controversy. But controversy there has been, in this field above all others, because it has long been established that the crucial question is whether the relief sought in a suit nominally addressed to the officer is relief against the sovereign.6 In a suit against the officer to recover damages for the agent's personal actions, that question is easily answered. The judgment sought will not require action by the sovereign or disturb the sovereign's property. There is, therefore, no jurisdictional difficulty.7 The question becomes difficult,

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and the area of controversy is entered, when the suit is not one for damages, but for specific relief: i.e., the recovery...

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