Great Lakes Dredge Dock Co v. Huffman

Citation87 L.Ed. 1407,319 U.S. 293,63 S.Ct. 1070
Decision Date24 May 1943
Docket NumberNo. 849,849
PartiesGREAT LAKES DREDGE & DOCK CO. et al. v. HUFFMAN, Administrator, Division of Employment Security, Louisiana Department of Labor
CourtU.S. Supreme Court

Mr. R. Emmett Kerrigan, of New Orleans, La., for petitioners.

Mr. W. C. Perrault, of Baton Rouge, La., for respondents.

Mr. Chief Justice STONE delivered the opinion of the Court.

Petitioners brought this suit in the district court against respondent, a state officer charged with the administration and enforcement of the Louisiana Unemployment Compensation Law (Act 97 of 1936, as amended by Act 164 of 1938, Act 16 of the First Extraordinary Session of 1940, and Acts 10 and 11 of 1940). The complaint alleges that petitioners have numerous classes of employees engaged in the navigation and operation of dredges and pile drivers and in the operation of quarter boats, tugs, launches barges and other vessels, all used in deepening, dredging, extending and otherwise improving channels underlying the navigable waters of the state' and that the tax or contribution to the state unemployment insurance fund which the state law would exact from each of petitioners exceeded, when the suit was brought, the sum of $3,000. The relief prayed is a declaratory judgment that the state law as applied to petitioners and their employees is unconstitutional and void.

After a trial the district court held the statute applicable to petitioners and their employees and, as applied to them, a valid exercise of state power. 43 F.Supp. 981. The formal judgment ordered dismissal of the suit, but it is to be interpreted in the light of the court's opinion, findings, and conclusions of law. Metropolitan Water Co. v. Kaw Valley Drainage Dist., 223 U.S. 519, 523, 32 S.Ct. 246, 247, 56 L.Ed. 533; Gulf Refining Co. v. United States, 269 U.S. 125, 135, 46 S.Ct. 52, 53, 70 L.Ed. 195; Clark v. Williard, 292 U.S. 112, 118, 54 S.Ct. 615, 617, 78 L.Ed. 1160; American Propeller & Mfg. Co. v. United States, 300 U.S. 475, 479, 480, 57 S.Ct. 521, 523, 81 L.Ed. 751. So interpreted it rests wholly on the court's declaration that the statute applied to petitioners is constitutional; it is thus in effect a declaratory judgment.

The Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit affirmed, 134 F.2d 213, holding that the statute, in exacting from employers contributions to the state unemployment compensation fund, is a valid exercise of the state taxing power (see Steward Mach. Co. v. Davis, 301 U.S. 548, 57 S.Ct. 883, 81 L.Ed. 1279, 109 A.L.R. 1293; Carmichael v. Southern Coal & Coke Co., 301 U.S. 495, 57 S.Ct. 868, 81 L.Ed. 1245, 109 A.L.R. 1327); that the application of the Act to petitioners would not interfere with any characteristic feature of the general maritime law in its interstate and international aspects so as to fall under the ban of Southern Pac. Co. v. Jensen, 244 U.S. 205, 37 S.Ct. 524, 61 L.Ed. 1086, L.R.A.1918C, 451, Ann.Cas.1917E, 900, and cases following it; and that the Federal Social Security Act, 26 U.S.C. § 1607(c)(4), 26 U.S.C.A. Int.Rev.Code, § 1607(c)(4), by exempting from its operation officers and crews of vessels, has not 'preempted the field' or otherwise precluded the state from applying its law with respect to the employees in question.

Because of the public importance of the questions decided, we granted certiorari, 318 U.S. 754, 63 S.Ct. 860, 87 L.Ed. —-, and set the case for argument with No. 722, Standard Dredging Corporation v. Murphy, and No. 723, International Elevating Co. v. Murphy, 319 U.S. 306, 63 S.Ct. 1067, 87 L.Ed. —-, which are here on appeal. In our order granting the writ, we requested counsel 'to discuss in their briefs and on oral argument the question whether the declaratory judgment procedure can be appropriately used in this case where the complaint seeks a judgment against a state officer to prevent enforcement of a state statute'.

The state act, as the court below held, exacts of employers payments into the state unemployment insurance fund, in the nature of an excise tax upon the exercise of the right or privilege of employing individuals and measured by a percentage of the wages paid. See Carmichael v. Southern Coal & Coke Co., supra. Petitioners have challenged the state's right to collect the tax, and have interposed, as a barrier to the collection, the present suit in the federal court for a declaratory judgment. The district court, as we have indicated, has in substance given a declaratory judgment, which the Circuit Court of Appeals has sustained. Save for that purpose those courts had no occasion to entertain the suit, or pronounce any judgment in it. Neither court, nor any of the parties, has questioned the sufficiency of the pleadings to present a case for a declaratory judgment. Without raising that issue here we pass at once to the question, submitted to counsel, whether the declaratory judgment procedure may be appropriately resorted to in the circumstances of this case.

In answering it the nature of the remedy afforded to taxpayers by state law for the illegal exaction of the tax is of importance. Section 18 of Article 10 of the Constitution of Louisiana of 1921 directs that: 'The Legislature shall provide against the issuance of process to restrain the collection of any tax and for a complete and adequate remedy for the prompt recovery by every taxpayer of any illegal tax paid by him.' And Act 330 of 1938, sets up a complete statutory scheme to carry into effect the constitutional provision. By it the courts of the state are forbidden to restrain the collection of any state tax; and any person aggrieved and 'resisting the payment of any amount found due, or the enforcement of any provision of such laws in relation thereto' shall pay the tax to the appropriate state officer and file suit for its recovery in either the state or federal courts. Pending the suit the amount collected is required to be segregated and held subject to any judgment rendered in the suit. If the taxpayer prevails in the suit, interest at two per cent per annum is added to the amount of taxes refunded.

This Court has recognized that the federal courts, in the exercise of the sound discretion which has traditionally guided courts of equity in granting or withholding the extraordinary relief which they may afford, will not ordinarily restrain state officers from collecting state taxes where state law affords an adequate remedy to the taxpayer. Matthews v. Rodgers, 284 U.S. 521, 52 S.Ct. 217, 76 L.Ed. 447. This withholding of extraordinary relief by courts having authority to give it is not a denial of the jurisdiction which Congress has conferred on the federal courts, or of the settled rule that the measure of inadequacy of the plaintiff's legal remedy is the legal remedy afforded by the federal not the state courts. Stratton v. St. Louis S.W.R. Co., 284 U.S. 530, 533, 534, 52 S.Ct. 222, 223, 76 L.Ed. 465; Di Giovanni v. Camden Fire Ins. Ass'n, 296 U.S. 64, 69, 56 S.Ct. 1, 4, 80 L.Ed. 47. On the contrary, it is but a recognition that the jurisdiction conferred on the federal courts embraces suits in equity as well as at law, and that a federal court of equity, which may in an appropriate case refuse to give its special protection to private rights when the exercise of its jurisdiction would be prejudicial to the public interest (United States v. Dern, 289 U.S. 352, 359, 360, 53 S.Ct. 614, 617, 77 L.Ed. 1250; Virginian Ry. v. System Federation, 300 U.S. 515, 549—553, 57 S.Ct. 592, 600, 602, 81 L.Ed. 789), should stay its hand in the public interest when it reasonably appears that private interests will not suffer. See Commonwealth of Pennsylvania v. Williams, 294 U.S. 176, 185, 55 S.Ct. 380, 385, 79 L.Ed. 841, 96 A.L.R. 1166, and cases cited.

It is in the public interest that federal courts of equity should exercise their discretionary power to grant or withhold relief so as to avoid needless obstruction of the domestic policy of the states.

'The scrupulous regard for the rightful independence of state governments which should at all times actuate the federal courts, and a proper reluctance to interfere by injunction with their fiscal operations, require that such relief should be denied in every case where the asserted federal right may be preserved without it. Whenever the question has been presented, this Court has uniformly held that the mere illegality or unconstitutionality of a state or municipal tax is not in itself a ground for equitable relief in the courts...

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