Bank of America Nat. Trust and Sav. Ass'n v. Dowdy

Decision Date25 November 1960
Citation186 Cal.App.2d 690,9 Cal.Rptr. 779
PartiesBANK OF AMERICA NATIONAL TRUST AND SAVINGS ASSOCIATION, a national banking association, Plaintiff and Appellant, v. H. M. DOWDY and General Casualty Company of America, a Washington Corporation, et al., Defendants, General Casualty Company of America, Respondent. Civ. 24728.
CourtCalifornia Court of Appeals Court of Appeals

Samuel B. Stewart, San Francisco, Hugo A. Steinmeyer, Robert H. Fabian and William H. Taylor, Jr., Los Angeles, for appellant.

Maurice H. Wallbert, Los Angeles, for respondent.

HERNDON, Justice.

This is an appeal by the plaintiff from a judgment in favor of the defendant General Casualty Company (hereinafter called 'the Casualty Company') in an action against a notary public and his bonding company on his official bond to recover for damages alleged to have resulted from the fraud and deception of the notary. Dowdy, the notary, failed to appear and no appeal has been taken from the default judgment entered against him.

The facts are not in dispute and were stipulated to be as follows: '[T]hat H. M. Dowdy was appointed a notary public and that on July 9, 1954, the defendant casualty company issued its indemnity bond which was recorded; that thereafter on May 15, 1956, defendant Dowdy, using his official seal, forged the name of M. L. Johnson to the jurat on a Certificate of Business Fictitious Firm Name, which certificate stated that defendant Dowdy was the owner of Supreme Supply Company; that Dowdy was at that time an employe of Supreme Supply Company which was a sole proprietorship owned by Carl P. Kriwanek. By the use of the Certificate of Business Fictitious Firm Name, bearing the forgery, defendant Dowdy was able to open a bank account with the plaintiff in the name of Supreme Supply Company and to process checks aggregating $8,117.10, payable to Supreme Supply Company through said bank account.

'Plaintiff guaranteed the validity of the endorsements on said checks and became liable to Kriwanek. Kriwanek assigned his claim against Dowdy to the Bank.'

The plaintiff contends (1) that Dowdy's use of a fictitious name on the notarial acknowledgment was an act of misconduct within his official capacity as notary public and thus covered by the insurer's bond, and (2) that Dowdy's official misconduct was the proximate cause of the loss.

The contract of insurance issued by the Casualty Company was an agreement to act as surety for the notary (Government Code, § 8212). As early as 1891 the court, in Heidt v. Minor, 89 Cal. 115 at page 118, 26 P. 627 at page 628, stated the universal rule applicable to construction of surety bonds as follows: 'The sureties upon an official bond undertake for nothing which is not within the letter of their contract. 'The obligation is strictissimi juris * * *. They have consented to be bound to a certain extent only, and their liability must be found within the terms of that consent.'' See also Bloom v. Bender, 48 Cal.2d 793, 803, 313 P.2d 568; Brock v. Fidelity and Deposit Co., 10 Cal.2d 512, 518, 75 P.2d 605. The Casualty Company insists that its obligation be construed in the light of this rule. However, reference to section 2837 of the Civil Code indicates that a surety contract is to be interpreted by the same rules as in the case of other contracts. Thus, it is only after the meaning of the terms of the contract has been ascertained that the rule of strictissimi juris comes into operation. Bridges v. Price, 95 Cal.App. 394, 397, 273 P. 72; Bloom v. Bender, supra, 48 Cal.2d at page 803, 313 P.2d at page 574.

Where a surety bond is given pursuant to the requirements of a particular statute, the statutory provisions are incorporated into the bond. Hartford Ace. & Indem. Co. v. City of Tulare, 30 Cal.2d 832, 837, 186 P.2d 121; see 46 Cal.Jur., Suretyship, § 29. Here the bond was given pursuant to sections 8212, 8213 and 8214 of the Government Code. The latter section provides as follows: 'For the official misconduct or neglect of a notary public, he and the sureties on his official bond are liable to the persons injured thereby for all the damages sustained.' (Emphasis supplied.) The bond executed by the Casualty Company provided, in part, that '* * * if the said H. M. Dowdy shall well, truly and faithfully perform all official duties required of him by law * * * then the above obligation to be void, otherwise to remain in full force and virtue'. (Emphasis supplied.) Under the above rule of construction, the statutory phrase 'official misconduct' is read into the surety contract. We must therefore examine Dowdy's conduct to determine whether or not it was either 'official misconduct' or the unfaithful performance of an 'official duty'.

The duties of a notary public are defined by statute (Government Code, § 8205) and include the taking of '* * * the acknowledgment or proof of powers of attorney, mortgages, deeds, grants, transfers, and other instruments of writing executed by any person, and to give a certificate of such proof or acknowledgment, endorsed on or attached to the instrument. Such certificates shall be signed by him in his own handwriting * * *.' Sec. 8205(b), Gov.Code. It is clear, then, that Dowdy's act of signing the Fictitious Firm Name Certificate, while wrongful and false, was in no way connected with his duties as a notary. If he had done nothing else, the Casualty Company could not conceivably be held on the bond. However, Dowdy additionally made a certificate of acknowledgment. It is clear that both the notary and his sureties are liable for 'official misconduct' for making a false certificate of acknowledgment. Joost v. Craig, 131 Cal. 504, 508, 63 [186 Cal.App.2d 694] P. 840, 82 Am.St.Rep. 374; Hemet Home Builders Ass'n v. Wells, 3 Cal.App.2d 65, 79-80, 39 P.2d 233. It is obvious also that a notary cannot avoid such liability by the subterfuge of signing the jurat with a fictitious name. The name under which an act is committed is not controlling; rather, it is the person who commits the act that incurs the liability. Nihil facit error nominis cum de corpore constat. Anderson v. De Urioste, 96 Cal. 404, 407, 31 P. 266; Cf. People v. Ryan, 74 Cal.App. 125, 128, 239 P. 419.

If Dowdy had executed the jurat in his own name, instead of in the fictitious name 'M. L. Johnson', he would have taken his own acknowledgment. It is without question that a notary public cannot act in any matter in which he has a financial or beneficial interest. Bank of Woodland v. Oberhaus, 125 Cal. 320, 324, 57 P. 1070; see also 1 Cal.Jur.2d, Acknowledgments, § 22, et seq. Thus, for a notary to acknowledge his own signature would clearly be 'official misconduct' within the statutory enactment (Government Code, § 8214). And the notary here cannot escape the impact of liability for this misfeasance of his official duties by signing the jurat with a fictitious name.

Additionally, Dowdy used his official office to commit another false act, the use itself of the fictitious name 'M. L. Johnson' on the jurat. He also utilized his knowledge of notarial procedures and his official seal to commit the fraud. Since the seal of a notary is the subject of judicial notice by the court (Code Civ.Proc., § 1875, subd. (8)), it follows that any use thereof by a notary is an official act and the wrongful use of the seal is 'official misconduct'.

The Casualty Company correctly contends that even though the notary's conduct be construed as official misconduct, that misconduct must be the proximate though not the sole and only cause of the loss. Inglewood Park Mausoleum Co. v. Ferguson, 9 Cal.App.2d 217, 219, 49 P.2d 305; Jordan v. O'Connor, 99 Cal.App.2d 632, 642, 222 P.2d 322. And it is clear that where the action is founded upon the negligence or misfeasance of the notary, the intervening negligence of the plaintiff is a bar to recovery. Burck v. Buchen, 46 Cal.App.2d 741, 746-747, 116 P.2d 958. The insurer thus contends that the plaintiff's intervening negligence and the notary's other wrongful acts interrupted the natural and continuous sequence of events which are necessary to establish proximate cause. The contentions are without merit.

First, it is argued that the plaintiff was under a duty to take precautions to determine whether or not Civil Code sections 2466 and 2468, which require the publication and filing with the clerk of the county all Certificates of Fictitious Firm Names, were complied with. However, there is nothing in the transcript of the proceedings nor in the findings of the court which would support even an implied finding that such an examination of the county records would have revealed the facts that the Certificate was false. Matter not in the record or findings cannot be considered by an appellate court on suggestion of counsel in the briefs. Altman v. Poole, 151 Cal.App.2d 589, 593, 312 P.2d 6; People v. Jaquish, 170 Cal.App.2d 376, 378, 338 P.2d 974. Moreover, the insurer has cited no authority and we can find none which indicates that the bank was under any duty to conduct such an investigation.

Finally, the casualty company contends that after opening the account with the plaintiff, Dowdy forged endorsements on checks abstracted from his employer and that these acts were the proximate cause of the loss. The company conceded that it was not essential that the notary's wrongful act be the sole and only cause of the loss; however, 'it must be an efficient cause of the loss'. Jordan v. O'Connor, supra, 99 Cal.App.2d 632, 642, 222 P.2d 322, 328. It is evident that the forging and cashing of the checks were natural and probable consequences following...

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