Spalding v. Vilas

Decision Date02 March 1896
Docket NumberNo. 81,81
Citation16 S.Ct. 631,40 L.Ed. 780,161 U.S. 483
CourtU.S. Supreme Court

W. Willoughby, for plaintiff in error.

Asst. Atty. Gen. Dickinson, for defendant in error.

Mr. Justice HARLAN delivered the opinion of the court.

This writ of error brings up for review a judgment of the supreme court of the District of Columbia in general term, which affirmed a final order in the same court in special term, sustaining a demurrer to the declaration filed by the plaintiff in error, Spalding, against the defendant, Vilas, and dismissing the plaintiff's action.

The question presented for determination is whether the plaintiff's declaration stated a valid cause of action against the defendant.

The plaintiff alleged that he was a citizen of the District of Columbia, and had been for more than 20 years an attorney at law, practicing his profession in the city of Washington, and that the defendant, from March 4, 1885, until January 16, 1888, was the postmaster general of the United States;

That 'in or about the year 1871 he, the said plaintiff, was employed by a considerable number of persons, who were and had been postmasters at different post offices in the United States, to obtain a review and readjustment of their salaries, in accordance with the provisions of the act of congress of June 12, 1866, relating thereto, and which enacted that when the quarterly returns of the postmasters of the third, fourth, and fifth classes, mentioned therein, showed that their salary allowed is 10 per centum less than they would be on the basis of commissions under the act of June 22, 1854, fixing their compensation, they were entitled to have their compensation reviewed and readjusted under the provisions of said act of 1854, by reason of which a large number of such postmasters had just and valid claims against the United States, arising from such readjustment, and a large number of them entered into written contracts with the plaintiff, employing him, and providing a reasonable compensation to him for procuring the same, and gave to him written powers of attorney to act for them in the prosecution of said claims and to receive the drafts which might be issued in payment thereof'; and——

That 'upon making and filing applications at the post office department, in behalf of his clients, for such readjustment and review, the same was denied, notwithstanding such act of congress, whereupon the plaintiff took measures to procure mandatory legislation by congress, and appropriations necessary, pressing such legislation, by all lawful means in his power, in the different congresses from 1871 to 1886, giving to such efforts a great amount of his time, and in the meantime procuring similar contracts and applications and powers of attorney from several thousands of postmasters of the said classes throughout different parts of the United States, and filing in the post-office department such applications and powers of attorney, and expending a good many thousands of dollars in building up a business in the collection of such claims, relying upon the justice thereof, and finally obtaining the passage of the acts of congress of March 3, 1883, requiring the postmaster general of the United States, upon proper presentation of such claims, to compute and pay the same, an act of congress of July 7, 1884, making appropriations for the payment of such claims, a further act of congress of March 3, 1885, making a like appropriation, and a similar act of congress of August 4, 1886, making further appropriations therefor, all of which acts were brought about in consequence of the continual and persistent efforts of the plaintiff, under which acts the plaintiff proceeded to make out papers and proofs for the presentation of such claims in behalf of his clients, and filed the same, with powers of attorney to him, as aforesaid, in the said post-office department, and commenced the collection of the same,—a large number of said claims prior to March, 1885, and which were good and valid, being, however, repudiated by the post-office department, and the prosecution of such claims being made more difficult by great hostility of the persons managing such department to the collection of this class of claims.'

The declaration also alleged that 'soon after the 3d day of March, 1885, the plaintiff made application to the defendant, in his capacity of postmaster general of the United States, to adjust and pay the said claims which had been disallowed, and also to review and readjust claims of the same character which had not before been presented, which applications were refused, and an acrimonious controversy arose between the said defendant and this plaintiff in relation thereto, the said defendant, among other things, endeavoring to obtain legislation by congress to impair and destroy the rights of the plaintiff under the said contracts, in which, however, he failed; but to further harass the plaintiff, and to injure him in his good name and in his business, without any good reason therefor, and with malicious intent, the said defendant interposed all possible obstacles to the collection of said claims, and undertook to induce the clients of the plaintiff to repudiate the contracts they had made, and for such purpose, and with such malicious intent, caused the drafts for the payment of such claims to be sent directly to the claimants, and for the malicious purpose of causing the claimants to disregard the contracts they had made with the plaintiff for fees, and to cause them to believe that the same were null and void, and that plaintiff had rendered them no service, and that he was attempting falsely to claim for valuable services rendered under said contracts, falsely claimed to be valid, and using his official character for such purpose, thus placing the plaintiff before the country as a common swindler; and to bring him into public scandal, infamy, and disgrace, and to injure his business, with each letter of transmittal of drafts to said claimants caused to be issued and sent to them, between September, 1886, and January 17, 1888, to a great number, to wit, four thousand, of the said claimants, clients of the plaintiff, residing in the states of New York, North Carolina, Ohio, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, Vermont, Virginia, West Virginia, Wisconsin, and the territories of Utah, Washington, and Wyoming, the circular of which the following is a copy, the same being dated and addressed to each claimant, respectively, stating the sum transmitted, and the name and post office of such claimant, respectively, and having added thereto, in print, section 8 of the act of August 7, 1886, and section 3477 of the Revised Statutes of the United States, to wit:

'Post-Office Department,

'Office of the Third Assistant Postmaster General,

'Division of Finance,

'Washington, D. C., _____, 188_.

'Sir: Herewith inclosed you will find warrant payable to your order for $_____, which is in full liquidation of your claim for the balance unpaid of the readjusted salary of _____, postmaster at _____, state of _____.

'In transmitting it I am directed by the postmaster general to advise you that in the act of 1883, which provided for readjustments of salary, the congress directed that all checks or warrants should be made payable to the claimants, and transmitted direct to them, and that in the appropriation and enactment on this subject by congress, a copy of which is printed at the foot of this note, the direction was repeated. This was done because no attorney's services were necessary to the presentation of the claim before the department, and the congress desired all the proceeds to reach the person really entitled thereto. After a claim of this character is filed in the department, its examination, and the readjustment of the salary, if found proper, are made directly from the books and papers in the department, by its officers, and without further evidence.

'You are further advised that by section 3477 of the Revised Statutes, a copy of which is also printed at the foot of this note, any transfer of this claim or power of attorney for receiving payment of this warrant is null and void.

'Yours, respectfully,

J. H. Harris,

'Third Assistant Postmaster General.



'See statutes referred to on next leaf.'

It was alleged that the said circular was intended to deceive, and did deceive, the said claimants, who believed what the defendant meant and intended, as hereinbefore stated, of and concerning the plaintiff, and was false in the following respects, to wit: (1) That 'in the act of 1883, which provided for readjustments of salary, the congress directed that all checks or warrants should be transmitted direct to the claimants, and that such direction was repeated in the act of 1886'; (2) that 'this was done because no attorney's services were necessary to the presentation of the claim before the department'; (3) that 'this was done because the congress desired all the proceeds to reach the person really entitled thereto'; (4) that 'the statement that claims of this character, after being filed in the department, were examined and readjusted directly from the books and papers in the department, without further evidence, besides being untrue, in many cases, was unnecessary to protect the interests of the government or the claimant, was not required by law, and was maliciously intended to cause the claimants to believe that the plaintiff's claim for valuable services was false and fraudulent, and the same was inserted for no other purpose.'

The declaration further alleged that 'the reference to section 3477 in said circular, and the printing of the whole of said section, was for the malicious purpose only of causing the claimants to believe that the said contracts for fees, before suggested in said circular, were null and void, according to a pretended official ruling of the post-office department, while...

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