Federal Crop Ins Corporation v. Merrill

Decision Date10 November 1947
Docket NumberNo. 45,45
Citation92 L.Ed. 10,332 U.S. 380,175 A.L.R. 1075,68 S.Ct. 1
CourtU.S. Supreme Court

Mr. Harry I. Rand, of Washington, D.C., for petitioner.

A. A. Merrill, of Idaho Falls, Idaho, for respondents.

Mr. Justice FRANKFURTER delivered the opinion of the Court.

We brought this case here because it involves a question of importance in the administration of the Federal Crop Insurance Act. 331 U.S. 798, 67 S.Ct. 1199.

The relevant facts may be briefly stated. Petitioner (hereinafter called the Corporation) is a wholly Government-owned enterprise, created by the Federal Crop Insurance Act, as an 'agency of and within the Department of Agriculture.' Sec. 503 of Chapter 30, Act of February 16, 1938, 52 Stat. 72, 7 U.S.C. § 1503, as amended, 7 U.S.C.A. § 1503. To carry out the purposes of the Act, the Corporation, 'Commencing with the wheat * * * crops planted for harvest in 1945' is empowered 'to insure, upon such terms and conditions not inconsistent with the provisions of this title as it may determine, producers of wheat * * * against loss in yields due to unavoidable causes, including drought * * *.' 52 Stat. 74, § 508(a), as amended, 55 Stat. 255, in turn amended by the Act of December 23, 1944, Chapter 713, 58 Stat. 918, 7 U.S.C.Supp. V, § 1508(a), 7 U.S.C.A. § 1508(a). In pursuance of its authority, the Corporation on February 5, 1945, promulgated its Wheat Crop Insurance Regulations, which were duly published in the Federal Register on February 7, 1945. 10 F.R. 1586.

On March 26, 1945, respondents applied locally for insurance under the Federal Crop Insurance Act to cover wheat farming operations in Bonneville County, Idaho. Respondents informed the Bonneville County Agricultural Conservation Committee, acting as agent for the Corporation, that they were planting 460 acres of spring wheat and that on 400 of these acres they were reseeding on winter wheat acreage. The Committee advised respondents that the entire crop was insurable, and recommended to the Corporation's Denver Branch Office acceptance of the application. (The formal application itself did not disclose that any part of the insured crop was reseeded.) On May 28, 1945, the Corporation accepted the application.

In July, 1945, most of the respondents' crop was destroyed by drought. Upon being notified, the Corporation, after discovering that the destroyed acreage had been reseeded, refused to pay the loss, and this litigation was appropriately begun in one of the lower courts of Idaho. The trial court rejected the Corporation's contention, presented by a demurrer to the complaint, that the Wheat Crop Insurance Regulations barred recovery as a matter of law. Evidence was thereupon permitted to go to the jury to the effect that the respondents had no actual knowledge of the Regulations, insofar as they precluded insurance for reseeded wheat, and that they had in fact been misled by petitioner's agent into believing that spring wheat reseeded on winter wheat acreage was insurable by the Corporation. The jury returned a verdict for the loss on all the 460 acres and the Supreme Court of Idaho affirmed the resulting judgment. 67 Idaho 196, 174 P.2d 834. That court in effect adopted the theory of the trial judge, that since the knowledge of the agent of a private insurance company, under the circumstances of this case, would be attributed to, and thereby bind, a private insurance company, the Corporation is equally bound.

The case no doubt presents phases of hardship. We take for granted that, on the basis of what they were told by the Corporation's local agent, the respondents reasonably believed that their entire crop was covered by petitioner's insurance. And so we assume that recovery could be had against a private insurance company. But the Corporation is not a private insurance company. It is too late in the day to urge that the Government is just another private litigant, for purposes of charging it with liability, whenever it takes over a business theretofore conducted by private enterprise or engages in competition with private ventures.1 Government is not partly public or partly private, depending upon the governmental pedigree of the type of a particular activity or the man- ner in which the Government conducts it. The Government may carry on its operations through conventional executive agencies or through corporate forms especially created for defined ends. See Keifer & Keifer v. Reconstruction Finance Corp., 306 U.S. 381, 390, 59 S.Ct. 516, 518, 83 L.Ed. 784. Whatever the form in which the Government functions, anyone entering into an arrangement with the Government takes the risk of having accurately ascertained that he who purports to act for the Government stays within the bounds of his authority. The scope of this authority may be explicitly defined by Congress or be limited by delegated legislation, properly exercised through the rule-making power. And this is so even though, as here, the agent himself may have been unaware of the limitations upon his authority. See, e.g., Utah Power & Light Co. v. United States, 243 U.S. 389, 409, 37 S.Ct. 387, 391, 61 L.Ed. 791; United States v. Stewart, 311 U.S. 60, 70, 61 S.Ct. 102, 108, 85 L.Ed. 40, and see, generally, In re Floyd Acceptances, 7 Wall. 666, 19 L.Ed. 169.

If the Federal Crop Insurance Act had by explicit language prohibited the insurance of spring wheat which is reseeded on winter wheat acreage, the ignorance of of such a restriction, either by the respondents or the Corporation's agent, would be immaterial and recovery could not be had against the Corporation for loss of such reseeded wheat. Congress could hardly define the multitudinous details appropriate for the business of crop insurance when the Government entered it. Inevitably 'the terms and conditions' upon which valid governmental insurance can be had must be defined by the agency acting for the Government. And so Congress has legislated in this instance, as in modern regulatory enactments it so often does by conferring the rule-making power upon the agency created for carrying out its policy. See § 516(b), 52 Stat. 72, 77, 7 U.S.C. § 1516(b), 7 U.S.C.A. § 1516(b). Just as everyone is charged with knowledge of the United States Statutes at Large Congress has provided that the appearance of rules and regulations in the Federal Register gives legal notice of their contents. 49 Stat. 502, 44 U.S.C. § 307, 44 U.S.C.A. § 307.

Accordingly, the Wheat Crop Insurance Regulations were binding on all who sought to come within the Federal Crop Insurance Act, regardless of actual knowledge of what is in the Regulations or of the hardship resulting from innocent ignorance. The oft-quoted observation in Rock Island, Arkansas & Louisiana R. Co. v. United States, 254 U.S. 141, 143, 41 S.Ct. 55, 56, 65 L.Ed. 188, that 'Men must turn square corners when they deal with the Government,' does not reflect a callous outlook. It merely expresses the duty of all courts to observe the conditions defined by Congress for charging the public treasury. The 'terms and conditions' defined by the Corporation, under authority of Congress, for creating liability on the part of the Government preclude recovery for the loss of the reseeded wheat no matter with what good reason the respondents thought they had obtained insurance from the Government. Indeed, not only do the Wheat Regulations limit the liability of the Government as if they had been enacted by Congress directly, but they were in fact incorporated by reference in the application,2 as specifically required by the Regulations.3

We have thus far assumed, as did the parties here and the courts below, that the controlling regulation in fact precluded insurance coverage for spring wheat reseeded on winter wheat...

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