Lynch v. United States Wilner v. Same

Citation292 U.S. 571,54 S.Ct. 840,78 L.Ed. 1434
Decision Date04 June 1934
Docket Number861,Nos. 855,s. 855
CourtU.S. Supreme Court

Messrs. Rowland W. Fixel and Arthur E. Fixel, both of Detroit, Mich., for petitioner Lynch.

Mr. Edward H. S. Martin, of Chicago, Ill., for petitioner Wilner.

The Attorney General and Mr. J. Crawford Biggs, Sol. Gen., of Washington, D.C., for the United States.

[Argument of Counsel from pages 572-574 intentionally omitted] Mr. Justice BRANDEIS delivered the opinion of the Court.

These cases, which are here on certiorari, present for decision the same question. In each, the plaintiff is the beneficiary under a policy for yearly renewable term insurance1 issued during the World War pursuant to the War Risk Insurance Act of October 6, 1917, c. 105 article 4, §§ 400—405 (40 Stat. 409). The actions were brought in April, 1933, in federal District Courts to recover amounts alleged to be due. In each case it is alleged that the insured had, before September 1, 1919, and while the policy was in force, been totally and permanently disabled; that he was entitled to compensation sufficient to pay the premiums on the policy until it matured by death; that no compensation had ever been paid; that the claim for payment was presented by the beneficiary after the death of the insured; that payment was refused; and that thereby the disagreement arose which the law makes a condition precedent to the right to bring suit. In No. 855, which comes here from the Fifth Circuit, the insured died November 27, 924. In No. 861, which comes here from the Seventh Circuit, the insured died May 15, 1929.

In each case, the United States demurred to the petition on the ground that the court was without jurisdiction to entertain the suit, because the consent of the United States to be sued had been withdrawn by the Act of March 20, 1933, c. 3, 48 Stat. 8, commonly called the Economy Act (38 USCA § 701 et seq.).

The plaintiffs duly claimed that the act deprived them of property without due process of law in violation of the Fifth Amendment. The District Courts overruled the objection, sustained the demurrers, and dismissed the complaints. Their judgments were affirmed by the Circuit Courts of Appeals. 67 F.(2d) 490; 68 F.(2d) 442. The only question requiring serious consideration relates to the construction and effect to be given to the clause of section 17 of the Economy Act (38 USCA § 717) upon which the government relies; for the character and incidents of War Risk Insurance and the applicable rules of constitutional law have been settled by decisions of this Court. The clause in question is:

'* * * All laws granting or pertaining to yearly renewable term insurance are hereby repealed. * * *' First. War Risk Insurance policies are contracts of the United States. As consideration for the government's obligation, the insured paid prescribed monthly premiums. White v. United States, 270 U.S. 175, 180, 46 S.Ct. 274, 70 L.Ed. 530. True, these contracts, unlike others, were not entered into by the United States for a business purpose. The policies granted insurance against death or total disability without medical examination, at net premium rates based on the american Experience Table of Mortality and 3 1/2 per cent. interest; the United States bearing both the whole expense of administration and the excess mortality and disability cost resulting from the hazards of war. In order to effect a benevolent purpose, heavy burdens were assumed by the Government.2 But the policies, although not entered into for gain, are legal obligations of the same dignity as other contracts of the United States and possess the same legal incidents.

War risk insurance, while resembling in benevolent purpose pensions, compensation allowances, hospital and other privileges accorded to former members of he Army and Navy or their dependents, differs from them funda- mentally in legal incidents. Pensions, compensation allowances, and privileges are gratuities. They involve no agreement of parties; and the grant of them creates no vested right. The benefits conferred by gratuities may be redistributed or withdrawn at any time in the discretion of Congress. United States v. Teller, 107 U.S. 64, 68, 2 S.Ct. 39, 27 L.Ed. 352; Frisbie v. United States, 157 U.S. 160, 166, 15 S.Ct. 586, 39 L.Ed. 657; United States v. Cook, 257 U.S. 523, 527, 42 S.Ct. 200, 66 L.Ed. 350. On the other hand, war risk policies, being contracts, are property and create vested rights. The terms of these contracts are to be found in part in the policy, in part in the statutes under which they are issued and the regulations promulgated thereunder.

In order to promote efficiency in administration and justice in the distribution of war risk insurance benefits, the administration was given power to prescribe the form of policies and to make regulations. The form prescribed provided that the policy should be subject to all amendments to the original act, to all regulations then in force or thereafter adopted. Within certain limits of application, this form was deemed authorized by the act, White v. United States, 270 U.S. 175, 180, 46 S.Ct. 274, 70 L.Ed. 530, and, as held in that case, one whose vested rights were not thereby disturbed could not complain of subsequent legislation affecting the terms of the policy. Such legislation has been frequent.3 Moreover, from time to time, privileges granted were voluntarily enlarged and new ones were given by the government. 4 But no power to curtail the amount of the benefits which Congress contracted to pay was reserved to Congress; and none could be given by any regulation promulgated by the Administrator. Prior to the Economy Act, no attempt was made to lessen the obligation of the government.5 Then, Congress, by a clause of thirteen words included in a very long section dealing with gratuities, repealed 'all laws granting or pertaining to yearly renewable term insurance.' The repeal, if valid, abrogated outstanding contracts and relieved the United States from all liability on the contracts without making compensation to the beneficiaries.

Second. The Fifth Amendment commands that property be not taken without making just compensation. Valid contracts are property, whether the obligor be a private individual, a municipality, a state, or the United States. Rights against the United States arising out of a contract with it are protected by the Fifth Amendment. United States v. Central Pacific R. Co., 118 U.S. 235, 238, 6 S.Ct. 1038, 30 L.Ed. 173; United States v. Northern Pacific Ry. Co., 256 U.S. 51, 64, 67, 41 S.Ct. 439, 65 L.Ed. 825. When the United States enters into contract relations, its rights and duties therein are governed generally by the law applicable to contracts between private individuals.6 That the contracts of war risk insurance were valid when made is not questioned. As Congress had the power to authorize the Bureau of War Risk Insurance to issue them, the due process clause prohibits the United States from annulling them, unless, indeed, the action taken falls within the federal police power or some other paramount power.7

The Solicitor General does not suggest either in brief or argument that there were supervening conditions which authorized Congress to abrogate these contracts in the exercise of the police or any other power. The title of the Act of March 20, 1933, repels any such suggestion. Although popularly known as the Economy Act, it is entitled an 'Act to maintain the credit of the United States.' Punctilious fulfillment of contractual obligations is essential to the maintenance of the credit of public as well as private debtors. No doubt there was in March, 1933, great need of economy. In the administration of all government business economy had become urgent because of lessened revenues and the heavy obligation to be issued in the hope of relieving widespread distress. Congress was free to reduce gratuities deemed excessive. But Congress was without power to reduce expenditures by abrogating contractual obligations of the United States. To abrogate contracts, in the attempt to lessen government expenditure, would be not the practice of economy, but an act of repudiation. 'The United States are as much bound by their contracts as are individuals. If they repudiate their obligations, it is as much repudiation, with all the wrong and reproach that term implies, as it would be if the repudiator had been a State or a municipality or a citizen.' The Sinking Fund Cases, 99 U.S. 700, 719, 25 L.Ed. 496.

Third. Contracts between individuals or corporations are impaired within the meaning of the Constitution (article 1, § 10, cl. 1) whenever the right to enforce them by legal process is taken away or materially lessened.8 A different rule prevails in respect to contracts of sovereigns. Compare Principality of Monaco v. Mississippi, 292 U.S. 313, 54 S.Ct. 745, 78 L.Ed. —-, decided May 21, 1934. 'The contracts between a Nation and an individual are only binding on the conscience of the sovereign and have no pretensions to compulsive force. They confer no right of action independent of the sovereign will.'9 The rule that the United States may not be sued without its consent is all-embracing.

In establishing the system of war risk insurance, Congress vested in its administrative agency broad power in making determinations of essential facts—power similar to that exercised in respect to pensions, compensation, allowances, and other gratuitous privileges provided for veterans and their dependents. But, while the statutes granting gratuities contain no specific provision for suits against the United States,10 Congress, as if to emphasize the contractual obligation assumed by the United States when issuing war risk policies, conferred upon beneficiaries substantially the same legal remedy which beneficiaries enjoy under policies issued by private corporations. The original act (40 Stat. 410)...

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