United States v. Emory

Decision Date15 December 1941
Docket NumberNo. 33,33
Citation314 U.S. 423,62 S.Ct. 317,86 L.Ed. 315
CourtU.S. Supreme Court

Messrs. Francis Biddle, Atty. Gen., and Melvin H. Siegel, of Washington, D.C., for petitioner.

No appearance for respondents.

Mr. Justice BYRNES delivered the opinion of the Court.

This case involves the application of § 3466 of the Revised Statutes, 31 U.S.C.A. § 191, to a claim of the United States under the National Housing Act in an equity receivership proceeding in a state court.

The St. James Distillery, a corporation, executed a note to the Industrial Bank and Trust Company of St. Louis on September 23, 1935. On July 14, 1936 the Bank endorsed the note and delivered it to the Federal Housing Administration, acting on behalf of the United States, under a contract of insurance and guaranty provided for in Title I of the National Housing Act, 12 U.S.C.A. § 1701 et seq. The United States, through the Federal Housing Administration, on that date reimbursed the Bank in the amount of $5988.88, the balance due on the note. Emory, claiming wages due him, filed a petition on August 27, 1936 in the Circuit Court of Phelps County, Missouri, alleging that the St. James Distillery was hopelessly insolvent and praying that a receiver be appointed. On September 9 the Circuit Court found all the issues in Emory's favor and appointed a receiver who took possession of the corporate assets.

After deductions for the costs of the receivership, the assets available for distribution totaled $678. Against this amount the wage claims of 'about twelve individuals' were filed. The separate amounts of these claims were neither stipulated nor determined by the courts below; their aggregate was 'about $900'. The United States, on behalf of the Federal Housing Administration, filed a claim for the $5988.88 due on the note. The wage claim- ants asserted priority under § 1168 of the Revised Statutes of Missouri; 1 the United States asserted priority under § 3466 of the Revised Statutes of the United States.2

The Circuit Court of Phelps County decided that the claim of the United States should be treated as an ordinary claim against the estate, and that the wage claims should be paid first. On appeal, the Springfield Court of Appeals held that the claim of the United States on behalf of the Federal Housing Administration was accorded preference over ordinary claims by § 3466 of the Revised Statutes of the United States. Consequently, it was of the opinion that the Circuit Court had erred in treating the claim of the United States as an ordinary claim. However, it held further that the error was of no consequence, since the Missouri statute granted priority to wage claims even over other preferred claims and no assets would remain after they had been satisfied. Rehearing was denied, and the Supreme Court of Missouri denied a petition for certiorari. We granted certiorari, 313 U.S. 552, 61 S.Ct. 836, 85 L.Ed. 1515, because of the importance of the question and because of an asserted conflict of decisions.

The applicability of § 3466 to this case is clear. The section applies in terms to cases '(1) in which a debtor, not having sufficient property to pay all his debts, makes a voluntary assignment thereof, or (2) in which the estate and effects of an absconding, concealed, or absent debtor are attached by process of law, * * * (or) (3) in which an act of bankruptcy is committed.' This case falls within the third category. It is agreed that the St. James Distillery was insolvent 'on or before August 1936' and that in response to a creditor's petition a receiver was appointed to liquidate the corporate assets. The appointment of a receiver under such circumstances is among the most common examples of an 'act of bankruptcy'. Cf. § 3, sub. a(4) of the Bankruptcy Act, U.S.C., Title 11, § 21(a)(4), 11 U.S.C.A. § 21, sub. a(4).

Just such proceedings as this, therefore, are governed by the plain command of § 3466 that 'debts due to the United States shall be first satisfied.' The purpose of this section is 'to secure an adequate public revenue to sustain the public burden' (United States v. State Bank of North Carolina, 6 Pet. 29, 35, 8 L.Ed. 308), and it is to be construed liberally in order to effectuate that purpose. Bramwell v. United States Fidelity & Guaranty Co., 269 U.S. 483, 487, 46 S.Ct. 176, 70 L.Ed. 368. In view of this language, purpose, and rule of construction, the priority asserted here by the United States appears to be securely established.

The court below, however, held otherwise. In granting priority to the wage claims over that of the United States, it relied upon Missouri law. It recognized, as the authorities obliged it to recognize,3 that the state statute could not prevail if it was in conflict with § 3466. But it decided that no such conflict arose, for the reason that § 3466 had been impliedly modified by § 64, sub. a of the Bankruptcy Act,4 which, like the Missouri statute, requires that wage claims be satisfied before those of the United States.

The judgment below must have rested upon either of the following theories: that Congress intended by § 64, sub. a of the Bankruptcy Act to subordinate claims of the United States to wage claims in non-bankruptcy proceedings generally; or that Congress intended by § 64, sub. a to modify § 3466 only so far as to grant priority over the United States to wage claimants in state non-bankruptcy proceedings when they would be entitled to such priority by otherwise applicable state law.

There is a difficulty common to both theories which we regard as insurmountable. Neither the language of § 64, sub. a nor the Congressional history of the legislation here involved supports the proposition that § 64, sub. a was intended to eliminate, either partially or wholly, the priority of claims of the United States in non-bankruptcy proceedings.

The provisions of § 3466 have been in force since 1797, without significant modification. 1 Stat. 515. The first three federal bankruptcy acts5 specifically preserved the priority of the United States over all other claimants in bankruptcy proceedings in the federal courts. Section 64 of the Bankruptcy Act of 1898,6 however, disturbed this state of affairs. It provided an order of distribution of the assets of bankrupt estates in which certain wage claims preceded non-tax claims of the United States. While § 64 has been altered since 1898 in several particulars, the priority of wage claims over non-tax claims of the United States has continued. Consequently, we must look to the Act of 1898 for evidence that the priority accorded to wage claims by § 64 was intended to apply to more than bankruptcy proceedings in the more than bankruptcy proceedings in the

We find no such evidence. The entire Act of 1898, as § 2, 11 U.S.C.A. § 11, in particular plainly reveals, was designed to create federal courts of bankruptcy and to define their functions. Indeed, § 64 itself, in subdivision a, refers to the 'court'; § 1, 11 U.S.C.A. § 1, provides that, as used in the Act, 'court' means 'the court of bankruptcy in which the proceedings are pending'; and § 1 also provides that 'courts of bankruptcy', as used in the Act, mean the federal district courts and a few other federal courts. There is no internal sign that any part of § 64 was intended to apply to state courts or to non-bankruptcy proceedings in the federal courts. We have looked in vain in the committee reports and the debate upon the bill for any external hint of such an intention.

It is not strange, therefore, that both courts and commentators have assumed that the application of § 64 of the Act of 1898 was limited to federal bankruptcy proceedings, and that the priority of claims of the United States in non-bankruptcy proceedings remained unaffected. Bramwell v. United States Fidelity & Guaranty Co., 269 U.S. 483, 46 S.Ct. 176, 70 L.Ed. 368; Price v. United States, 269 U.S. 492, 46 S.Ct. 180, 70 L.Ed. 373; Stripe v. United States, 269 U.S. 503, 46 S.Ct. 182, 70 L.Ed. 379; United States v. Butter-worth-Judson, 269 U.S. 504, 46 S.Ct. 179, 70 L.Ed. 380; Mellon v. Michigan Trust Co., 271 U.S. 236, 238, 239, 46 S.Ct. 511, 512, 70 L.Ed. 924; Spokane County v. United States, 279 U.S. 80, 49 S.Ct. 321, 73 L.Ed. 621; New York v. Maclay, 288 U.S. 290, 53 S.Ct. 323, 77 L.Ed. 754. See Rogge, The Differences in Priority of the United States in Bankruptcy and in Equity Receiverships, 43 Harv.L.Rev. 251; Blair, The Priority of the United States in Equity Receiverships, 39 Harv.L.Rev. 1. We are aware of but a single case in which an appellate court has specifically passed upon the contention that the priority granted to the United States in non-bankruptcy proceedings by § 3466 has been modified by § 64 of the Bankruptcy Act. And in that case, the contention was rejected. Matter of Kupshire Coats, Inc., v. United States, 272 N.Y. 221, 5 N.E.2d 715.7

While the point was not discussed in the courts below, it is now urged that the objectives and provisions of the National Housing Act require us to hold that claims of the United States arising under it are not entitled to the priority awarded by § 3466. We are aware of no canon of statutory construction compelling us to hold that the word 'first' in a 150 year old statute means 'second' or 'third', unless Congress later has said so or implied it unmistakably.

Certainly there is no provision in the National Housing Act expressly relinquishing the priority of the United States with respect to claims arising under it. At best, therefore, such an intention on the part of Congress must be found in some patent inconsistency between the purposes of the Housing Act and § 3466. The plain objective of the Housing Act was to stimulate the building trades and to increase employment. In order to induce banks and other lending institutions to get the program under way, Congress promised that the United States would make good up to 20% on the losses they...

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