Stellwagen v. Clum, 89

CourtUnited States Supreme Court
Writing for the CourtDAY
Citation245 U.S. 605,38 S.Ct. 215,62 L.Ed. 507
Docket NumberNo. 89,89
Decision Date04 February 1918

[Syllabus from 605-606 intentionally omitted] Messrs. Bernard B. Selling and James McNamara, both of Detroit, Mich., for Stellwagen.

Messrs. Alfred Clum, George B. Marty, and Harvey D. Goulder, all of Cleveland, Ohio, for Clum.

Mr. Justice DAY delivered the opinion of the Court.

This case is here upon certificate from the United States Circuit Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit. From the statement accompanying the certificate it appears that Stellwagen, trustee for Margaret Zengerle, filed a petition in the United States District Court to require the surrender and transfer to him of a quantity of white pine lumber and balance due upon a certain open account then in possession of Clum as trustee in bankruptcy of the Georgian Bay Company. The order was denied, the petition dismissed, and appeal taken to the Circuit Court of Appeals.

The questions are whether certain provisions of the statutes of Ohio are suspended by virtue of the Bankruptcy Act of 1898. The facts upon which the questions arise, and in view of which they are to be answered, are thus stated:

'The Georgian Bay Company, an Ohio corporation, was at the time of the transactions in dispute engaged in the wholesale and retail lumber business at Cleveland, Ohio. February 2, 1910, the company delivered to appellant's predecessor (A. L. McBean), as trustee for Margaret Zengerle and the Dime Savings Bank of Detroit, its bill of sale, describing 433,500 feet of white pine lumber then in the company's yards, and stating a total price of $14,013; crediting the trustee with certain promissory notes of the company for a like sum and payable in different amounts, to the order of Margaret Zengerle, C. M. Zengerle, agent, and the Dime Savings Bank, respectively. Neither the bill of sale nor a copy was filed with the recorder of Cuyahoga county, Ohio; but the lumber so in terms sold consisted of piles (stacked in the ordinary way) which were to be and at the time in fact were each dis- tinctly marked: 'Sold to A. L. McB., Agt.' May 3, 1910, the company with consent of McBean sold this lumber and certain of its own lumber then in the yards, to Schuette & Co. of Pittsburgh. Payment was to be made by Schuette & Co., part in cash, part in notes maturing at fixed times between date of sale and the following September 10th and the balance in cash on or before October 1st. Two days later, May 5th, the Georgian Bay Company transferred to appellant 'the balance, twenty-five per cent. of in oice value or what may show due on the 1st of October, A. D. 1910, of the purchase price of the lumber' (so sold to Schuette & Co.), to secure payment in full of all moneys that should be advanced by, and 'payment pro rata of all moneys' then owing to, the Dime Savings Banks, Mrs. Zengerle and C. M. Zengerle, agent; and any surplus remaining was to be returned to the company. Schuette & Co., while owing a balance of $7,500 on portions of the lumber it had received, rejected the rest; this can be identified and is worth about $4,000. It was the transfer of this balance and the surrender of this rejected lumber that appellant sought in the court below.

'October 31, 1910, the Georgian Bay Company made a general assignment for the benefit of its creditors, which was properly filed the following November 7th; and on the 9th of that month the company was adjudicated a bankrupt. At the time there remained due from the bankrupt to Mrs. Zengerle $7,100. C. M. Zengerle is the husband of Margaret Zengerle, and was the president of the Georgian Bay Company; the notes payable to his wife represented loans of money belonging to her; and in negotiating those loans and in the transaction had under the bill of sale, he acted as her agent and as president of the company. The theory of the court below was that the bill of sale (February 2, 1910) was intended merely as security and, not having been deposited in accordance with section 4150 (2 Bates' Ann. Ohio Stat. p. 2302) concerning chattel mortgages, was null and void; that the transfer (May 5th) of balance accruing October 1st from Schuette & Co. was made with intent to hinder and delay creditors, when, according to the laws and the rule of judicial decision of the state of Ohio, the Georgian Bay Company was insolvent, though not according to the Bankruptcy Act; that Margaret Zengerle was, through her agent, C. M. Zengerle chargeable with knowledge of such intent and insolvency, and the Savings Bank was not; that as to Margaret Zengerle the transfer was null and void and so was set aside, but that the Savings Bank was entitled to be paid out of the balance of the Schuette account. No appeal was taken from the portion of the decree which allowed recovery by the Savings Bank.'

The statutes of the state of Ohio in question are sections 6343 and 6344 of the Revised Statutes of Ohio as amended April 30, 1908, 99 Ohio Laws, 241, 242. These sections were arranged under the General Code of Ohio approved February 15, 1910, wherein they appear as sections 11102 to 11107 inclusive. (These sections are given in the certificate, as they stood February 2, 1910, and are found in the margin.1)

The claim is stated to be that section 6343 when considered in connection with the chapter concerning insolvent debtors is suspended by the Bankruptcy Act. Reliance is had for this contention upon the following portion of section 6343 which provides:

'A receiver may be appointed who shall take charge of all the assets of such debtor or debtors, including the property so sold, conveyed, transferred, mortgaged, or assigned, which receiver shall administer all the assets of the debtor or debtors for the equal benefit of all the creditors of the debtor or debtors in proportion to the amount of their respective demands, including those which are unmatured.'

The questions propounded are:

'(a) Whether the Bankruptcy Act of the United States, in force on the dates herein mentioned, operated to suspend section 6343 of the Revised Statutes of Ohio, as such section stood February 2, 1910.

'(b) Whether the Bankruptcy Act operated to suspend the sections into which section 6343 was divided and numbered, February 15, 1910, by the General Code of Ohio, to wit, sections 11102, 11103, 11104 and 11105 as such sections existed May 5, 1910.

'(c) If the Bankruptcy Act did not operate to suspend in their entirety the several sections of the Ohio statutes mentioned in the preceding questions, whether such suspension extended only to the portions thereof which in terms appropriated, for the benefit of all the creditors, the property of the debtor not specifically described in the bill of sale and transfer of account in dispute.'

The Circuit Court of Appeals also sends an opinion in re the certification aforesaid, in which the court says that it is disposed to hold that if the provisions of the Ohio statutes were suspended, the appellant is entitled in behalf of Margaret Zengerle to recover, otherwise the trustee in bankruptcy is entitled to hold the balance due from Schuette & Co. and the lumber rejected by them, and administer the same as the part of the estate of the bankrupt for the benefit of its general creditors. The court states that as between Mrs. Zengerle and the general creditors of the Georgian Bay Company, there was sufficient delivery of possession of lumber covered by the bill of sale to dispense with the necessity of depositing the instrument with the county recorder. The sale subsequently made to Schuette & Co., upon the consent of Mrs. Zengerle's trustee, was a distinct recognition of the intent and effect of the bill of sale, and the marking of the piles of lumber, and the transfer of account made two days later was manifestly designed at once to execute the transaction involved under the bill, and transfer the rights thereunder of Mrs. Zengerle, as well as of the Savings Bank, to the sales's proceeds. The court further says, upon the hypothesis that the state statutes are suspended, that because more than four months elapsed between the delivery of the bill of sale, as also of the transfer of account, and the bankruptcy, the trustee cannot by virtue of the Bankruptcy Act alone question the validity of either of those instruments. The court adds that if the state statutes were not suspended, the general creditors were not suspended, the instruments in dispute set aside because, under the facts shown, the company was not able to meet its debts as they fell due, and so was insolvent; and, further, the instruments in terms were made to a trustee. The rights so vested in the creditors being enforceable at any time within four years under the Ohio law.

The federal Constitution, article I, section 8 gives Congress the power to establish uniform laws on the subject of bankruptcy throughout the United States. In view of this grant of authority to the Congress it has been settled from an early date that state laws to the extent that they conflict with the laws of Congress, enacted under its constitutional authority, on the subject of bankruptcies are suspended. While this is true, state laws are thus suspended only to the extent of actual conflict with the system provided by the Bankruptcy Act of Congress. Sturges v. Crowninshield, 4 Wheat. 122, 4 L. Ed. 529; Ogden v. Saunders, 12 Wheat. 213, 6 L. Ed. 606.

Notwithstanding this requirement as to uniformity the bankruptcy acts of Congress may recognize the laws of the state in certain particulars, although such recognition may lead to different results in different states. For example, the Bankruptcy Act recognizes and enforces the laws of the states affecting dower, exemptions, the validity of mortgages, priorties of payment and the like. Such recognition in the application of state laws does not affect the constitutionality of the Bankruptcy Act, although in these particulars the operation...

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