Seaboard Air Line Ry Co v. United States

Decision Date05 March 1923
Docket NumberNo. 407,407
Citation67 L.Ed. 664,43 S.Ct. 354,261 U.S. 299
CourtU.S. Supreme Court

Messrs. Forney Johnston, of Washington, D. C., and Geo. L. Buist, of Charleston, S. C., for plaintiffs in error.

Mr. Alfred A. Wheat, of New York City, for the United States.

[Argument of Counsel from pages 299-302 intentionally omitted] Mr. Justice BUTLER delivered the opinion of the Court.

The plaintiff in error, the Seaboard Air Line Railway Company, was the owner of 2.6 acres of land at Charleston, South Carolina, adjoining he Charleston Port Terminal, subject to a mortgage to the Guaranty Trust Company and William C. Cox.1 On May 23, 1919, the United States, under authority of section 10 of the Lever Act (Comp. St. 1918, Comp. St. Ann. Supp. 1919, § 3115 1/8 ii),2 requisitioned and took possession of such land to provide storage facilities for supplies necessary to the support of the army and other uses connected with the public defense.

The President, through the War Department Board of Appraisers, determined the compensation to be the sum of $235.80, with interest thereon at the rate of 6 per cent. per annum from the date of the taking to the date of voucher for final payment. The amount was not satisfactory to the owner, and the United States was so notified. Demand was made for 75 per cent. of the award, but no part of the amount was paid. The owner sued to recover such further sum as, when added to such 75 per cent., would amount to just compensation for the property so taken.

The jury returned a verdict as follows:

'We find that the fair and reasonable value which would constitute a just compensation to be paid for the taking for public purposes on May 23, 1919, of the lands mentioned and described in the petition, under the issue herein, to be six thousand dollars.'

Judgment was entered for $6,000, with interest from May 23, 1919, at the rate of 7 per cent. per annum (the statutory rate in South Carolina).

The United States objected to the interest allowed, and took the case to the Circuit Court of Appeals, and that court reversed the judgment of the District Court and awarded a new trial, unless the owner file a remittitur abating all interest. The owner refused and brought the case here on writ of error.

Did the District Court err in allowing interest on the amount of the verdict?

The rule is that, in the absence of a stipulation to pay interest or a statute allowing it, none can be recovered against the United States upon unpaid accounts or claims. United States v. Rogers et al., 255 U. S. 163, 169, 41 Sup. Ct. 281, 65 L. Ed. 566; United States v. North American Transportation & Trading Co., 253 U. S. 330, 40 Sup. Ct. 518, 64 L. Ed. 935; United States v. North Carolina, 136 U. S. 211, 216, 10 Sup. Ct. 920, 34 L. Ed. 336; Angarica v. Bayard, 127 U. S. 251, 260, 8 Sup. Ct. 1156, 32 L. Ed. 159; Harvey v. United States, 113 U. S. 243, 5 Sup. Ct. 465, 28 L. Ed. 987.

Section 10 of the Lever Act authorizes the taking of property for the public use on payment of just compensation. There is no provision in respect of interest. Just compensation is provided for by the Constitution and the right to it cannot be taken away by statute. Its ascertainment is a judicial function. Monongahela Navigation Co. v. United States, 148 U. S. 312, 327, 13 Sup. Ct. 622, 37 L. Ed. 463.

The compensation to which the owner is entitled is the full and perfect equivalent of the property taken. Monongahela Navigation Co. v. United States, 148 U. S. 312, 327, 13 Sup. Ct. 622, 37 L. Ed. 463. It rests on equitable principles and it means substantially that the owner shall be put in as good position pecuniarily as he would have been if his property had not been taken. United States v. Rogers et al. (C. C. A. Eighth Circuit) 257 Fed. 397, 400, 168 C. C. A. 437. He is entitled to the damages inflicted by the taking. Northern Pacific Railway Co. v. North American Telegraph Co. (C. C. A. Eighth Circuit) 230 Fed. 347, 352, 144 C. C. A. 489, L. R. A. 1916E, 572, and cases there cited.

The United States in effect claims that the owner is entitled to no more than the value of the land, as of date of taking, to be paid at a later time, when ascertained. The owner has been deprived of the land and its use since the taking, May 23, 1919. The value of the property, as ascertained by the President, was $235.80, and this was allowed with interest from date of taking. But, as judicially determined later, the value when taken was $6,000.

The owner's right does not depend on contract, express or implied. A promise to pay is not necessary. None is alleged. This suit is a part of the authorized procedure initiated by the United States for the condemnation of the land. The owner was not satisfied with the amount fixed by the President and sued. A necessary condition of the taking is the ascertainment and payment of just compensation. Monongahela Navigation Co. v. United States, 148 U. S. 312, 337, 13 Sup. Ct. 622, 37 L. Ed. 463; Searl v. School District, Lake County, 133 U. S. 553, 562, 10 Sup. Ct. 374, 33 L. Ed. 740; United States v. Jones, 109 U. S. 513, 518, et seq., 3 Sup. Ct. 346, 27 L. Ed. 1015; United States v. Sargent, 162 Fed. 81, 83, 89 C. C. A. 81. It is not suggested in this case that the provisions of section 10 of the Lever Act do not meet the constitutional requirement. The only question here is whether payment at a subsequent date of the value of the land as of the date of taking possession is sufficient to constitute just compensation.

In support of its contention the government cites United States v. North American Transportation & Trading Co., 253 U. S. 330, 40 Sup. Ct. 518, 64 L. Ed. 935. That case does not sustain its contention. That was a suit in the Court of Claims based on an implied promise of the...

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