Mississippi Mills v. Cohn

CourtUnited States Supreme Court
Citation37 L.Ed. 1052,150 U.S. 202,14 S.Ct. 75
Docket NumberNo. 27,27
PartiesMISSISSIPPI MILLS et al. v. COHN et al
Decision Date13 November 1893

Statement by Mr. Justice BREWER:

The facts in this case are as follows: On March 29, 1881, Joel Wood and William H. Lee, citizens of the state of Missouri, partners as Wood & Lee, obtained a judgment in the eighth district court of the parish of East Carroll, La., against Simon Cohn, a citizen of the state of Louisiana, for $529.25, with interest, for goods sold by them to him on October 30, 1880. On April 2, 1881, S. B. Newman and S. D. Stockman, composing the firm of S. B. Newman & Co., also obtained a judgment in the same court against said Cohn for $24,282.16, which judgment, subject to a credit of $5,452, the proceeds of certain attachment proceedings accompanying the action, was duly assigned to Wood & Lee. Newman and Stockman were both citizens of Louisiana. On November 30, 1885, Wood & Lee filed their bill in equity in the circuit court of the United States for the western district of Lousiana against Simon Cohn, his wife, Fannie Cohn, and his wife's mother, Henrietta Steinhardt, all citizens of Louisiana, the purpose and object of which was to set aside, as fraudulent, a judgment in favor of Mrs. Cohn against Simon Cohn, and to subject certain property standing in the name of Mrs. Steinhardt, and alleged to be the property, in fact, of Simon Cohn, to the payment of these judgments. On July 11, 1882, the Mississippi Mills, a corporation organized under the laws of the state of Mississippi, obtained a judgment in the eighth district court of the parish of East Carroll, La., against Simon Cohn, for $751.46. On July 5, 1883, it commenced in that court a suit of substantially the same nature as that commenced by Wood & Lee. This suit was duly removed to the circuit court of the United States for the Western district of Louisiana. After such removal, and on October 29, 1886, these cases were consolidated by an order of the circuit court, and from that time on they proceeded as one case. Pleadings having been perfected, and proofs taken, the consolidated case was submitted to the circuit court, and on July 18, 1889, a decree was entered dismissing the bills of plaintiffs for want of jurisdiction. To reverse this decree of dismissal, appellants have brought their appeal to this court.

Edward Cunningham, Jr., for appellants.

Mr. Justice BREWER, after stating the facts in the foregoing language, delivered the opinion of the court.

No appearance has been made for the appellees in this court, and we should be at a loss to know the grounds for the decision of the circuit court, were it not for the opinion of District Judge Boarman, before whom the case was heard, (39 Fed. Rep. 865,) which gives his reasons for entering the decree of dismissal.

It may be premised that no objection arises on account of the amount in controversy in either suit, for at the time these suits were brought the circuit court had jurisdiction where such amount exceeded the sum of $500. Rev. St. § 629. Nor can there be any doubt of the jurisdiction of this court over the appeals of either appellant, treating them as separately appealing, because the case in the trial court involved the question of the jurisdiction of that court. 25 Stat. 693. The decision of the circuit court was to the effect that no relief could be had in equity, because, under the practice prescribed in that state, there was a remedy by an action at law. We quote from the opinion:

'If it be true that Cohn, notwithstanding said purchases, transfers, etc., were ostensibly made by Mrs. Steinhardt, and the title of record is in her name, is the real owner of the property now sought to be subjected to the payment of Cohn's debts, the complainants have a well-known and adequate remedy at law to make the property liable for their claims.

'The issues made up by the pleadings and evidence involve, fundamentally, the title to, or the real ownership of, the property in question. The complainants charge that Cohn, in fact and law, is the owner thereof. The defendants deny his ownership, and contend that the sales were real sales to Mrs. Steinhardt. Such issues are not determinable in this court in equity proceedings. * * * In the view and purpose of complainants' charges, Cohn now owns the property; and they have not presented, or sought to present, such an action as should be heard in equity, and it is ordered that their suit be dismissed.'

We are unable to concur in these views. It is well settled that the jurisdiction of the federal courts, sitting as courts of equity, is neither enlarged nor diminished by state legislation. Though by it all differences in forms of action be abolished though all remedies be administered in a single action at law, and so far, at least, as form is concerned, all distinction between equity and law be ended, yet the jurisdiction of the federal court, sitting as a court of equity, remains unchanged. Thus, in Payne v. Hook, 7 Wall. 425, 430, it was said, citing several cases: 'We have repeatedly held 'that the jurisdiction of the courts of the United States over controversies between citizens of different states cannot be impaired by the laws of the states, which prescribe the modes of redress in their courts, or which regulate the distribution of their judicial power.' If legal remedies are sometimes modified to suit the changes in the laws of the states, and the practice of their courts, it is not so with equitable. The equity jurisdiction conferred on the federal courts is the same that the high court of chancery in England possesses; is subject to neither limitation nor restraint by state legislation, and is uniform throughout the different states of the Union.' And in McConihay v. Wright, 121 U. S. 201, 205, 7 Sup. Ct. Rep. 940: 'The contention of the appellants, however, is that by the statute of West Virginia the complaint might have maintained an action of ejectment. Reference is made in support of this to the West Virginia Code of 1868, c. 90, to show that an action of ejectment in that state will lie against one claiming title to or interest in land, though not in possession. Admitting this to be so, it, nevertheless, cannot have the effect to oust the jurisdiction in equity of the courts of the United States, as previously established. That jurisdiction, as has often been decided, is vested, as a part of the judicial power of the United States, in its courts, by the constitution, and acts of congress in execution thereof. Without the assent of congress, that jurisdiction cannot be impaired or diminished by the statutes of the several states regulating the practice of their own courts.' See, also, Scott v. Neely, 140 U. S. 106, 11 Sup. Ct. Rep. 712; Cates v. Allen, 149 U. S. 451, 13 Sup. Ct. Rep. 883, 977, —in which a state statute extending the jurisdiction of equity to matters of a strictly legal nature was held inapplicable to the federal courts, and unavailing to vest a like jurisdiction in such courts, sitting as courts of equity.


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