Aetna Life Ins Co of Hartford, Conn v. Haworth

Citation81 L.Ed. 617,108 A.L.R. 1000,300 U.S. 227,57 S.Ct. 461
Decision Date01 March 1937
Docket NumberNo. 446,446
CourtUnited States Supreme Court

Mr. E. R. Morrison, of Kansas City, Mo., for petitioner.

[Argument of Counsel from pages 228-232 intentionally omitted] Mr. Rees Turpin, of Kansas City, Mo., for respondents.

[Argument of Counsel from Pages 233-235 intentionally omitted] Mr. Chief Justice HUGHES delivered the opinion of the Court.

The question presented is whether the District Court had jurisdiction of this suit under the Federal Declaratory Judgment Act. Act of June 14, 1934, 48 Stat. 955, Jud.Code § 274d, 28 U.S.C. § 400 (28 U.S.C.A. § 400 and note).1

The question arises upon the plaintiff's complaint which was dismissed by the District Court upon the ground that it did not set forth a 'controversy' in the constitutional sense and hence did not come within the legitimate scope of the statute. 11 F.Supp. 1016. The decree of dismissal was affirmed by the Circuit Court of Appeals. 84 F.(2d) 695. We granted certiorari. November 16, 1936. 299 U.S. 536, 57 S.Ct. 190, 81 L.Ed. —-.

From the complaint it appears that plaintiff is an insurance company which had issued to the defendant Edwin P. Haworth five policies of insurance upon his life, the defendant Cora M. Haworth being named as beneficiary. The complaint set forth the terms of the policies. They contained various provisions which for the present purpose it is unnecessary fully to particularize. It is sufficient to observe that they all provided for certain benefits in the event that the insured became totally and permanently disabled. In one policy, for $10,000, issued in 1911, the company agreed, upon receiving the requisite proof of such disability and without further payment of premiums, to pay the sum insured, and dividend additions, in twenty annual installments, or a life annuity as specified, in full settlement. In four other policies issued in 1921, 1928, and 1929, respectively, for amounts aggregating $30,000, plaintiff agreed upon proof of such disability to waive further payment of premiums, promising in one of the policies to pay a specified amount monthly and in the other three to continue the life insurance in force. By these four policies the benefits to be payable at death, and the cash and loan values to be available, were to be the same whether the premiums were paid or were waived by reason of the described disability.

The complaint alleges that in 1930 and 1931 the insured ceased to pay premiums on the four policies last mentioned and claimed the disability benefits as stipulated. He continued to pay premiums on the first mentioned policy until 1934 and then claimed disability benefits. These claims, which were repeatedly renewed, were presented in the form of affidavits accompanied by certificates of physicians. A typical written claim on the four policies is annexed to the complaint. It states that while these policies were in force, the insured became totally and permanently disabled by disease and was 'prevented from performing any work or conducting any business for compensation or profit'; that on October 7, 1930, he had made and delivered to the company a sworn statement 'for the purpose of asserting and claiming his right to have these policies continued under the permanent and total disability provision contained in each of them'; that more than six months before that date he had become totally and permanently disabled and had furnished evidence of his disability within the stated time; that the annual premiums payable in the year 1930 or in subsequent years were waived by reason of the disability; and that he was entitled to have the policies continued in force without the payment of premiums so long as the disability should continue.

With respect to the policy first mentioned, it appears that the insured claimed that prior to June 1, 1934, when he ceased to pay premiums, he had become totally and permanently disabled; that he was without obligation to pay further premiums and was entitled to the stipulated disability benefits including the continued life of the policy.

Plaintiff alleges that consistently and at all times it has refused to recognize these claims of the insured and has insisted that all the policies had lapsed according to their terms by reason of the non-payment of premiums, the insured not being totally and permanently disabled at any of the times to which his claims referred. Plaintiff further states that taking loans into consideration four of the policies have no value and the remaining policy (the one first mentioned) has a value of only $45 as extended insurance. If, however, the insured has been totally and permanently disabled as he claims, the five policies are in full force, the plaintiff is now obliged to pay the accrued installments of cash disability benefits for which two of the policies provide, and the insured has the right to claim at any time cash surrender values accumulating by reason of the provisions for waiver of premiums, or at his death, Cora M. Haworth, as beneficiary, will be entitled to receive the face of the policies less the loans thereon.

Plaintiff thus contends that there is an actual controversy with defendants as to the existence of the total and permanent disability of the insured and as to the continuance of the obligations asserted despite the nonpayment of premiums. Defendants have not instituted any action wherein the plaintiff would have an opportunity to prove the absence of the alleged disability and plaintiff points to the danger that it may lose the benefit of evidence through disappearance, illness, or death of witnesses; and meanwhile, in the absence of a judicial decision with respect to the alleged disability, the plaintiff in relation to these policies will be compelled to maintain reserves in excess of $20,000.

The complaint asks for a decree that the four policies be declared to be null and void by reason of lapse for nonpayment of premiums and that the obligation upon the remaining policy be held to consist solely in the duty to pay the sum of $45 upon the death of the insured, and for such further relief as the exigencies of the case may require.

First.—The Constitution (article 3, § 2) limits the exercise of the judicial power to 'cases' and 'controversies.' 'The term 'controversies,' if distinguishable at all from 'cases,' is so in that it is less comprehensive than the latter, and includes only suits of a civil nature.' Per Mr. Justice Field in Re Pacific Railway Commission (C.C.) 32 F. 241, 255, citing Chisholm v. Georgia, 2 Dall. 419, 431, 432, 1 L.Ed. 440. See Muskrat v. United States, 219 U.S. 346, 356, 357, 31 S.Ct. 250, 55 L.Ed. 246; Old Colony Trust Co. v. Commissioner, 279 U.S. 716, 723, 724, 49 S.Ct. 499, 501, 502, 73 L.Ed. 918. The Declaratory Judgment Act of 1934, in its limitation to 'cases of actual controversy,' manifestly has regard to the constitutional provision and is operative only in respect to controversies which are such in the constitutional sense. The word 'actual' is one of emphasis rather than of definition. Thus the operation of the Declaratory Judgment Act is procedural only. In providing remedies and defining procedure in relation to cases and controversies in the constitutional sense the Congress is acting within its delegated power over the jurisdiction of the federal courts which the Congress is authorized to establish. Turner v. Bank of North America, 4 Dall. 8, 10, 1 L.Ed. 718; Stevenson v. Fain, 195 U.S. 165, 167, 25 S.Ct. 6, 49 L.Ed. 142; Kline v. Burke Construction Co., 260 U.S. 226, 234, 43 S.Ct. 79, 82, 67 L.Ed. 226, 24 A.L.R. 1077. Exercising this control of practice and procedure the Congress is not confined to traditional forms or traditional remedies. The judiciary clause of the Constitution 'did not crystallize into changeless form the procedure of 1789 as the only possible means for presenting a case or controversy otherwise cognizable by the federal courts.' Nashville, Chattanooga & St. Louis R. Co. v. Wallace, 288 U.S. 249, 264, 53 S.Ct. 345, 348, 77 L.Ed. 730, 87 A.L.R. 1191. In dealing with methods within its sphere of remedial action the Congress may create and improve as well as abolish or restrict. The Declaratory Judgment Act must be deemed to fall within this ambit of congressional power, so far as it authorizes relief which is consonant with the exercise of the judicial function in the determination of controversies to which under the Constitution the judicial power extends.

A 'controversy' in this sense must be one that is appropriate for judicial determination. Osborn v. Bank of United States, 9 Wheat. 738, 819, 6 L.Ed. 204. A justiciable controversy is thus distinguished from a difference or dispute of a hypothetical or abstract character; from one that is academic or moot. United States v. Alaska S.S. Co., 253 U.S. 113, 116, 40 S.Ct. 448, 449, 64 L.Ed. 808. The controversy must be definite and concrete, touching the legal relations of parties having adverse legal interests. South Spring Gold Co. v. Amador Gold Co., 145 U.S. 300, 301, 12 S.Ct. 921, 36 L.Ed. 712; Fairchild v. Hughes, 258 U.S. 126, 129, 42 S.Ct. 274, 275, 66 L.Ed. 499; Massachusetts v. Mellon, 262 U.S. 447, 487, 488, 43 S.Ct. 597, 601, 67 L.Ed. 1078. It must be a real and substantial controversy admitting of specific relief through a decree of a conclusive character, as distinguished from an opinion advising what the law would be upon a hypothetical state of facts. See Muskrat v. United States, supra; Texas v. Interstate Commerce Commission, 258 U.S. 158, 162, 42 S.Ct. 261, 262, 66 L.Ed. 531; New Jersey v. Sargent, 269 U.S. 328, 339, 340, 46 S.Ct. 122, 125, 70 L.Ed. 289; Liberty Warehouse Co. v. Grannis, 273 U.S. 70, 47 S.Ct. 282, 71 L.Ed. 541; New York v. Illinois, 274...

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