356 U.S. 595 (1958), 146, United States v. McNinch

Docket Nº:No. 146
Citation:356 U.S. 595, 78 S.Ct. 950, 2 L.Ed.2d 1001
Party Name:United States v. McNinch
Case Date:May 26, 1958
Court:United States Supreme Court
 
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Page 595

356 U.S. 595 (1958)

78 S.Ct. 950, 2 L.Ed.2d 1001

United States

v.

McNinch

No. 146

United States Supreme Court

May 26, 1958

Argued April 1, 1958

CERTIORARI TO THE UNITED STATES COURT OF APPEALS

FOR THE FOURTH CIRCUIT

Syllabus

1. A claim against the Commodity Credit Corporation is a claim "against the Government of the United States, or any department or officer thereof" within the meaning of the civil provisions of the False Claims Act. Rainwater v. United States, ante, p. 590. Pp. 595-596.

2. The Federal Housing Administration, an unincorporated agency in the Executive Department created by the President pursuant to congressional authority to administer a number of federal housing programs and operating with funds originally appropriated by Congress, is a part of the "Government of the United States" within the meaning of the civil provisions of the False Claims Act. Pp. 596-598.

3. A lending institution's application to the Federal Housing Administration for credit insurance is not a "claim" as that term is used in the False Claims Act. Pp. 598-600.

242 F.2d 359, affirmed in part, reversed in part, and cause remanded.

BLACK, J., lead opinion

MR. JUSTICE BLACK delivered the opinion of the Court.

This case was argued with Rainwater v. United States, ante, p. 590, also decided today. In involves three separate actions by the Government to recover damages and

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forfeitures under the False Claims Act.1 These actions -- which will be referred to, after the principal defendant in each instance, as Cato, Toepleman, and McNinch -- were initially brought in different Federal District Courts, but, on appeal, were disposed of by the Court of Appeals in a single opinion. 242 F.2d 359.2

In Cato and Toepleman, the District Court found the defendants had submitted false claims for crop support loans to the Commodity Credit Corporation, and entered judgment in favor of the Government for the forfeitures provided by the False Claims Act. The Court of Appeals reversed on the ground that a false claim against Commodity was not a claim "against the Government of the United States, or any department or officer thereof" within the meaning of that Act. The sole question before us, so far as these two actions are concerned, is whether the Court of Appeals erred in so deciding. For the reasons set forth in Rainwater, we hold that it did.

McNinch raises different questions concerning alleged false claims against the Federal Housing Administration. By statute, the FHA is authorized to insure qualified banks and other private lending institutions against a substantial portion of any losses sustained by them in

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lending money for the repair or alteration of homes.3 After a lending institution has been approved by the FHA, that agency promises to insure, upon payment of a specified premium, any home improvement loan made by the institution. A borrower desiring to obtain an insured loan applies directly to the private lender, which has final authority to decide whether the loan should be made. If a loan is granted, the lender reports the details to the FHA which automatically insures the loan as soon as the required premium is paid.

The Government's complaint in McNinch charged the defendants with causing a qualified bank to present a number of false applications for credit insurance to the FHA.4 The defendants moved to dismiss the complaint, asserting that it [78 S.Ct. 952] failed to state a cause of action. The District Court granted the motion, holding that an application for credit insurance was not a "claim" within the meaning of the False Claims Act. The Court of Appeals affirmed on that same basis, as well as on the alternative ground that a false claim against the FHA was not a claim "against the Government of the United States, or any department or officer thereof."

Page 598

1. In our judgment, the Court of Appeals quite plainly erred in holding that the FHA was not part of the "Government of the United States" for purposes of the False Claims Act. The FHA is an unincorporated agency in the Executive Department created by the President pursuant to congressional authorization. Its head, the Federal Housing Commissioner, is appointed by the President with the Senate's consent, and the powers of the agency are vested in him. The agency is responsible for the administration of a number of federal housing programs, and operates with funds originally appropriated by Congress. In short, the FHA is about as much a part of the Government as any agency can be.

2. Although the problem is not easy, we believe the courts below were correct in holding that a lending institution's application for credit insurance under the FHA program is not a "claim" as that term is used in the False Claims Act. We acknowledge the force in the Government's argument that, literally, such an application could be regarded as a claim, in the sense that the applicant asserts a right or privilege to draw upon the Government's credit. But it must be kept in mind, as we explained in Rainwater, that, in determining the meaning of the words "claim against the Government," we are actually construing the provisions of a criminal statute.5 Such provisions must be carefully restricted not only to their literal terms, but to the evident purpose of Congress in using those terms, particularly where they are broad and susceptible to numerous definitions. See United States ex rel. Marcus v. Hess, 317 U.S. 537, 542; United States v. Wiltberger, 5 Wheat. 76, 95-96.

In normal usage or understanding, an application for credit insurance would hardly be thought of as a "claim

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against the government." As the Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit said in this same context, "the conception of a claim against the government normally connotes a demand for money or for some transfer of public property." United States v. Tieger, 234 F.2d 589, 591. In agreeing to insure a home improvement loan, the FHA disburses no funds, nor does it otherwise suffer immediate financial detriment. It simply contracts, for a premium, to reimburse the lending institution in the event of future default, in any.6

The False Claims Act was originally adopted following a series of sensational congressional investigations into the sale of provisions and munitions to the War Department. Testimony before the Congress painted a sordid picture of how the United States had been billed for nonexistent or worthless goods, charged exorbitant prices for goods delivered, and generally robbed in purchasing the necessities of war.7 Congress wanted to stop this plundering of the [78 S.Ct. 953] public treasury.8 At the same time, it is equally clear that the False Claims Act was not designed to reach every kind of fraud practiced on the Government. From the language of that Act, read as a whole in the light of normal usage, and the available legislative history, we are led to the conclusion that an application for credit insurance does not fairly come within the scope that Congress intended the Act to have.9 This question has

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now been considered by the Courts of Appeals for the Third, Fourth, and Fifth Circuits, as well as by District Courts in those circuits, and all have reached the same conclusion.10

The judgment of the Court of Appeals is affirmed in McNinch and...

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