Cromwell v. County of Sac

Decision Date01 October 1876
Citation94 U.S. 351,24 L.Ed. 195
CourtU.S. Supreme Court

ERROR to the Circuit Court of the United States for the District of Iowa.

The action was on certain bonds and coupons thereto attached, issued by the county of Sac, in the State of Iowa. The facts are sufficiently stated in the opinion of the court. The defendant obtained judgment, and the plaintiff brought the case here.

Mr. John N. Rogers for the plaintiff in error.

Mr. Galusha Parsons, contra.

MR. JUSTICE FIELD delivered the opinion of the court.

This was an action on four bonds of the county of Sac, in the State of Iowa, each for $1,000, and four coupons for interest, attached to them, each for $100. The bonds were issued in 1860, and were made payable to bearer, in the city of New York, in the years 1868, 1869, 1870, and 1871, respectively, with annual interest at the rate of ten per cent a year.

To defeat this action, the defendant relied upon the estoppel of a judgment rendered in favor of the county in a prior action brought by one Samuel C. Smith upon certain earlier maturing coupons on the same bonds, accompanied with proof that the plaintiff Cromwell was at the time the owner of the coupons in that action, and that the action was prosecuted for his sole use and benefit.

The questions presented for our determination relate to the operation of this judgment as an estoppel against the prosecution of the present action, and the admissibility of the evidence to connect the present plaintiff with the former action as a real party in interest.

In considering the operation of this judgment, it should be borne in mind, as stated by counsel, that there is a difference between the effect of a judgment as a bar or estoppel against the prosecution of a second action upon the same claim or demand, and its effect as an estoppel in another action between the same parties upon a different claim or cause of action. In the former case, the judgment, if rendered upon the merits, constitutes an absolute bar to a subsequent action. It is a finality as to the claim or demand in controversy, concluding parties and those in privity with them, not only as to every matter which was offered and received to sustain or defeat the claim or demand, but as to any other admissible matter which might have been offered for that purpose. Thus, for example, a judgment rendered upon a promissory note is conclusive as to the validity of the instrument and the amount due upon it, although it be subsequently alleged that perfect defences actually existed, of which no proof was offered, such as forgery, want of consideration, or payment. If such defences were not presented in the action, and established by competent evidence, the subsequent allegation of their existence is of no legal consequence. The judgment is as conclusive, so far as future proceedings at law are concerned, as though the defences never existed. The language, therefore, which is so often used, that a judgment estops not only as to every ground of recovery or defence actually presented in the action, but also as to every ground which might have been presented, is strictly accurate, when applied to the demand or claim in controversy. Such demand or claim, having passed into judgment, cannot again be brought into litigation between the parties in proceedings at law upon any ground whatever.

But where the second action between the same parties is upon a different claim or demand, the judgment in the prior action operates as an estoppel only as to those matters in issue or points controverted, upon the determination of which the finding or verdict was rendered. In all cases, therefore, where it is sought to apply the estoppel of a judgment rendered upon one cause of action to matters arising in a suit upon a different cause of action, the inquiry must always be as to the point or question actually litigated and determined in the original action, not what might have been thus litigated and determined. Only upon such matters is the judgment conclusive in another action.

The difference in the operation of a judgment in the two classes of cases mentioned is seen through all the leading adjudications upon the doctrine of estoppel. Thus, in the case of Outram v. Morewood, 3 East, 346, the defendants were held estopped from averring title to a mine, in an action of trespass for digging out coal from it, because, in a previous action for a similar trespass, they had set up the same title, and it had been determined against them. In commenting upon a decision cited in that case, Lord Ellenborough, in his elaborate opinion, said: 'It is not the recovery, but the matter alleged by the party, and upon which the recovery proceeds, which creates the estoppel. The recovery of itself in an action of trespass is only a bar to the future recovery of damages for the same injury; but the estoppel precludes parties and privies from contending to the contrary of that point or matter of fact, which, having been once distinctly put in issue by them, or by those to whom they are privy in estate or law, has been, on such issue joined, solemnly found against them.' And in the case of Gardner v. Buckbee, 3 Cowen, 120, it was held by the Supreme Court of New York that a verdict and judgment in the Marine Court of the city of New York, upon one of two notes given upon a sale of a vessel, that the sale was fraudulent, the vessel being at the time unseaworthy, were conclusive upon the question of the character of the sale in an action upon the other note between the same parties in the Court of Common Pleas. The rule laid down in the celebrated opinion in the case of the Du hess of Kingston was cited, and followed: 'That the judgment of a court of concurrent jurisdiction directly upon the point is as a plea a bar, or as evidence conclusive between the same parties upon the same matter directly in question in another court.'

These cases, usually cited in support of the doctrine that the determination of a question directly involved in one action is conclusive as to that question in a second suit between the same parties upon a different cause of action, negative the proposition that the estoppel can extend beyond the point actually litigated and determined. The argument in these cases, that a particular point was necessarily involved in the finding in the original action, proceeded upon the theory that, if not thus involved, the judgment would be inoperative as an estoppel. In the case of Miles v. Caldwell, reported in the 2d of Wallace, a judgment in ejectment in Missouri, where actions of that kind stand, with respect to the operation of a recovery therein, as a bar or estoppel, in the same position as other actions, was held by this court conclusive, in a subsequent suit in equity between the parties respecting the title, upon the question of the satisfaction of the mortgage under which the plaintiff claimed title to the premises in the ejectment, and the question as to the fraudulent character of the mortgage under which the defendant claimed, because these questions had been submitted to the jury in that action, and had been passed upon by them. The court held, after full consideration, that in cases of tort, equally as in those arising upon contract, where the form of the issue was so vague as not to show the questions of fact submitted to the jury, it was competent to prove by parol testimony what question or questions of fact were thus submitted and necessarily passed upon by them; and by inevitable implication also held that, in the absence of proof in such cases, the verdict and judgment were inconclusive, except as to the particular trespass alleged, whatever possible questions might have been raised and determined.

But it is not necessary to take this doctrine as a matter of inference from these cases. The precise point has been adjudged in numerous instances. It was so adjudged by this court in the case of The Washington, Alexandria, & Georgetown Steam Packet Co. v. Sickles, reported in the 24th of Howard. In that case, an action was brought upon a special parol contract for the use of Sickles's cut-off for saving fuel in the working of steam-engines, by which the plaintiffs, who had a patent for the cut-off, were to attach one of their machines to the engine of the defendants' boat, and were to receive for its use three-fourths of the saving of fuel thus produced, the payments to be made from time to time when demanded. To ascertain the saving of fuel an experiment was to be made in a specified manner, and the result taken as the rate of saving during the continuance of the contract. The plaintiffs in their declaration averred that the experiment had been made, at the rate of saving ascertained, and that the cut-off had been used on the boat until the commencement of the suit. In a prior action against the same defendant for an instalment due, where the declaration set forth the same contract in two counts, the first of which was similar to the counts in the second action, and also the common counts, the plaintiffs had obtained verdict and judgment; and it was insisted that the defendant was estopped by the verdict and judgment produced from proving that there was no such contract as that declared upon, or that no saving of fuel had been obtained, or that the experiment was not made pursuant to the contract, or that the verdict was rendered upon all the issues, and not upon the first count specially. The Circuit Court assented to these views, and excluded the testimony offered by the defendants to prove those facts. But this court reversed the decision, and held that the defendants were not thus estopped.

'The record produced by the pla ntiffs,' said the court, 'showed that the first suit was brought apparently upon the same contract as the second, and that the existence and validity of that contract might have been litigated. But the verdict might have been rendered upon the entire declaration, and...

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