Shepard v. Barron

Court Case Details
  • Case Name: Shepard v. Barron
  • Court: Supreme Court of the United States
  • Filed: May 31, 1904
  • Precedential Status: Published
  • Citations: 194 U.S. 553, 24 S. Ct. 737, 48 L. Ed. 1115, 1904 U.S. LEXIS 792
  • Docket #: 217
  • Judges: Peckham, After Making the Above Statement of Facts
Court Case Opinion
194 U.S. 553 (1904)


No. 217.

Supreme Court of United States.

Argued April 14, 15, 1904.
Decided May 31, 1904.

*560 Mr. David F. Pugh for appellants.

Mr. Henry A. Williams and Mr. Augustus T. Seymour for appellee.

*564 MR. JUSTICE PECKHAM, after making the above statement of facts, delivered the opinion of the court.

Both parties in this case seem to agree that the statute of 1890, under which these proceedings were taken, is void as in violation of the state constitution. As authority for that proposition the case of Hixson v. Burson, 54 Ohio St. 470, is cited. The case holds that a statute of a nature similar to the one under consideration violated the provision of the Ohio constitution, because, while its subject matter was general, its operation and effect were local, thus violating the provisions of section 26 of article 2 of the constitution of that State, which provides that "All laws of a general nature shall have a uniform operation throughout the State." The act under consideration in the case at bar seems to come within the principle of the above case.

The invalidity of the act as in violation of the state constitution has also been recognized by the Circuit Court of Appeals in the Sixth Circuit, in the case of Board of Commissioners v. Gardiner Savings Institution, 119 Fed. Rep. 36.

The bonds were held in that case to be valid obligations of the county, notwithstanding the unconstitutionality of the act under which they were issued, because at the time of their issue, which was before the decision in Hixson v. Burson, the Supreme Court of Ohio had held in State v. Board of Franklin County Commissioners, 35 Ohio St. 458, that an act which was in all respects similar in its nature to the one under consideration was constitutional and valid, and the Circuit Court of Appeals, therefore, held that under those circumstances the law as it had been declared at the time when the bonds were issued was the law applicable to them.

But the plaintiffs also insist that the act is void as a violation of the Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments to the Federal Constitution. The assessment per foot front, it is contended, leads in this case to a confiscation of the property of the plaintiffs, and is not based upon the fact of benefits received, and *565 it results in taking the property of plaintiffs without due process of law.

Before coming to the consideration of the validity of these objections to the statute the defendant insists that by virtue of the facts already detailed in the foregoing statement the plaintiffs are not in a position to raise the question. We regard this objection as well taken.

The facts upon which the defence rests are above set forth at length, not including the paper, which does not appear to have been received in evidence. A defence of this nature and upon these facts need not be placed entirely upon the strict and technical principles of an estoppel. While it partakes very strongly of that character, it also assumes the nature of a contract, implied from the facts, by which the party obtaining the benefit of the work agrees to pay for it in the manner provided in the statute under which it is done, even though the statute turn out to be unconstitutional. It does not in the least matter what we may call the defence, whether it be estoppel or implied contract, or one partaking of the nature of both, the result arrived at being that the plaintiffs are told that under all the facts proved in the case they cannot set up the unconstitutionality of the act or that they are bound by their contract to pay the assessment. Where, as in this case, the work is done and the assessment made at the instance and request of the plaintiffs and the other owners, and pursuant to an act (in form, at least) of the legislature of the State, and in strict compliance with its provisions and with the petition of the land owners; there is an implied contract arising from such facts that the party at whose request and for whose benefit the work has been done will pay for it in the manner provided for by the act under which the work was done.

In this case the manner of payment was, as provided for in the act, by an assessment upon the land by the foot front. The money thus collected would form a fund to be used to pay the bonds which were to be issued in accordance with the act by the county commissioners acting for the county. The *566 county thus became the debtor for a debt which was incurred entirely for the benefit and at the request of the owners of the land. Under such facts the county has the right to look at the assessment upon the land as the fund out of which to pay the bonds. In this view the constant and frequent promises and representations made by the plaintiffs after the work was embarked upon are material evidence of the implied contract to pay for the work arising from the request for its performance. It is, therefore, upon these facts, immaterial that the law under which the proceedings were conducted was unconstitutional, because the work was done at the special request of the owners, under the provisions of the act and upon a contract, both implied and in substance expressed, that the bonds would be paid and the assessment to be imposed for the raising of a fund to pay them would be legal and proper.

Although the land owners have been greatly disappointed in the results of the improvement and the affair has proved somewhat disastrous, yet they have obtained just such an improvement as they asked for and expected, and they are the ones to bear the disappointment and loss.

It is true this action is not between the bondholders and the owners of the land. The representations and agreement of the land owners were, however, made for the purpose of obtaining a market for the sale of the bonds, and, in order that there should not be any suspicion of their invalidity, the land owners agreed that the work was legally done and the improvement legally constructed. The representation and agreement were, in fact, directed to all who might be interested in the matter, including the county commissioners, who were to issue the bonds as representatives of the county. The effect was to provide, in substance, that the lien of the assessment should be valid and the assessment should create a fund for the payment of the bonds. The defendant, representing the county, must be permitted to take advantage of the representations and agreement of the land owners, as the county has a direct interest in sustaining the validity of the assessment, and the representations *567 were made, among others, to the county commissioners, who represented the county in issuing the bonds and in doing the work.

On principles of general law, we are satisfied that the plaintiffs are not in a position to assert the unconstitutionality of the act under which they petitioned that proceedings should be taken and that the assessment should be made in accordance with those provisions. This principle has been recognized in Ohio many times. See State v. Mitchell, 31 Ohio St. 592, 609; Tone v. Columbus, 39 Ohio St. 281, 296; City of Columbus v. Sohl, 44 Ohio St. 479, 481; City of Columbus v. Slyh, 44 Ohio St. 484; Mott v. Hubbard, 59 Ohio St. 199, 211.

In Wight v. Davidson, 181 U.S. 371, this court, while not positively deciding the proposition, yet strongly intimated, (p. 377,) that by reason of the acts of the appellees they were not in a position to question the validity of the statute there under consideration, but as there were others than the appellees concerned, and a decision of the Court of Appeals had declared the act void as to the appellees, it was thought better to pass by the question whether they were estopped by having made the dedication provided for in the act, and to decide the question of the constitutionality of the act of Congress under which the proceedings were had. The act was held to be valid.

Under some circumstances a party who is illegally assessed may be held to have waived all right to a remedy by a course of conduct which renders it unjust and inequitable to others that he should be allowed to complain of the illegality. Such a case would exist if one should ask for and encourage the levy of the tax of which he subsequently complains; and some of the cases go so far in the direction of holding that a mere failure to give notice of objections to one who, with the knowledge of the person taxed, as contractor or otherwise, is expending money in reliance upon payment from the taxes, may have the same effect. Cooley on Taxation, p. 573, and cases cited in note 5; Tagh v. Adams, 10 Cush. 252; Bidwell v. City of Pittsburg, 85 Pa. St. 412; Shutte v. Thompson, 15 Wall. 151.

*568 Provisions of a constitutional nature, intended for the protection of the property owner, may be waived by him, not only by an instrument in writing, upon a good consideration, signed by him, but also by a course of conduct which shows an intention to waive such provision, and where it would be unjust to others to permit it to be set up. Certainly when action of this nature has been induced at the request and upon the instigation of an individual, he ought not to be thereafter permitted, upon general principles of justice and equity, to claim that the action which he has himself instigated and asked for, and which has been taken upon the faith of his request, should be held invalid and the expense thereof, which he ought to pay, transferred to a third person.

Plaintiffs argue that, although the work was to be done under the provisions of the act of 1890, yet they had the right to assume that the assessment to be imposed for the payment of the bonds would be what they term a valid assessment; or, in other words, would be made as they insist, not upon the foot front, (as provided for in the act,) but according to the actual benefit received from the improvement, and they cite Birdseye v. Village of Clyde, 61 Ohio St. 27, as authority for the proposition.

In that case it was held that the land owner was not estopped to object to the assessment because he had acquiesced in the construction of the improvement and had petitioned therefor, and thereby consented to the raising of a certain proportion of its cost by an assessment on all abutting property. There was, however, a statute which provided that no assessment should be made on any lot or land for an improvement in excess of twenty-five per cent of the value of the property as assessed for taxation. Although the plaintiff had petitioned for the improvement, it was held that he was not on that account estopped from objecting to any assessment which was over twenty-five per cent of the value of the property. It was not to be assumed that the plaintiff waived the benefit of the general statute because he asked for the work. The case has *569 no application, as we think, to the one before us. Certainly in the Birdseye case the plaintiff had a right to assume, notwithstanding his petition that the work should be done, that the assessment on his land should not be greater than the law provided for. But in the case at bar the petition asked for the doing of the work under the very statute which in terms provided that the assessment should be made by the foot front, exactly as in fact it was made, and in making such assessment the commissioners but complied with the request of the petitioners.

The plaintiffs have referred to O'Brien v. Wheelock, 184 U.S. 450, as the chief authority to support their contentions as to estoppel. In that case, while the estoppel contended for was denied, yet, (at page 491,) it is stated, in the opinion of the court, which was delivered by the Chief Justice, that: "The result is not inconsistent with the cases that hold that, although a law is found to be unconstitutional, a party who has received the full benefit under it may be compelled to pay for that benefit according to the terms of the law. This is upon the theory of an implied contract, the terms of which may be sought in the invalid law and which arises when the full consideration has been received by the party against whom the contract is sought to be enforced."

In the case at bar it is seen that the plaintiffs did in fact receive the full consideration for the contract. They obtained the improvement asked for, so far as the doing of the work was concerned, although the results arising therefrom were a great disappointment to them.

Looking at the facts in the case cited, they show that the scheme proposed and under which the proceedings were taken was of large proportions, and consisted of a plan to redeem from overflow by the Mississippi River a large amount of land, from three to five miles in width, extending along the river for more than fifty miles, containing over one hundred thousand acres, lying in portions of three different counties, varying greatly in condition and value, and owned severally by a great *570 number of people. The work was to be done by building levees and digging drains and ditches, and doing other work by which to drain the land and render it valuable for agricultural purposes. Certain of the land owners had at all times opposed the proceedings instituted to assess their land. The permanent success of the scheme rested in the character of the work and in its maintenance by compulsory process after it had been constructed in its various branches. The case is one seldom equalled in respect to the size of the tract to be reclaimed at the expense of the land owners, the numbers interested as such owners, and the immense expense of the work. The first requisite was a valid act of the legislature authorizing the work and providing a means for its accomplishment. To that end the act of 1871 was passed. The history of the proceeding thereafter is given, commencing at page 457 of the report in 184 U.S., but it is entirely too long to be referred to here in detail. It is enough to say that, after perusing it, there will be found great difficulty in perceiving even a slight analogy to the case before us. The facts cannot be summarized. They must be appreciated in all their fullness and detail, and when thus examined the result arrived at will, as we think, seem inevitable. The case was sui generis.

The one great purpose was, not alone to build, but to maintain a work which in its nature would require constant supervision and repair. Unless the work could be maintained by compulsion when necessary, it plainly would have appeared at the very beginning to involve an idle waste of money. It could not be maintained unless the act upon which the whole scheme rested was valid, and could from time to time and always be enforced. But that act was held to be unconstitutional long before the work was completed, and the land owners, on account of the inability to compel either the completion or the maintenance of the work, were unable to receive the benefit which it had been supposed would accrue under the act thus declared illegal. The work never was *571 fully and in all things completed, while the credit of the bonds, which were issued to the contractors for doing the work and sold by them, was maintained by reference simply to the law under which they were issued and upon the opinion of counsel as to its validity.

It also appears that the land owners never gave any assurances to the contractors for the work or to those who purchased the bonds after they were delivered to the contractors, regarding their validity or value, but they supposed if the work were done it could and would be kept up under the sanction of the law which provided for it.

Upon the facts as detailed in the report the court held that there was nothing in the general principles of implied contract which would prevent the land owners from resisting the enforcement of the lien of the bonds upon the land.

In contrast with these facts it is seen that in the case at bar the plaintiffs and other land owners have received full consideration for their promise, and have obtained precisely what they asked for and in the manner they asked it. We have also the written petition for the improvement, an active participation of the plaintiffs in carrying it out under the act, the frequent statements on their part and upon the part of the other land owners of the validity of the work and the regularity of the assessment to be made under the terms of the act, and the specific statement, made for the purpose of inducing the issuing of the bonds and their purchase by the individuals who took them, that practically the work had been done properly and there was no defence to the bonds. This is equivalent to saying the assessment to be laid as requested, under the act of 1890, would be valid and no defence interposed to its collection. The differences of fact in the two cases show that the O'Brien case furnishes no authority for the plaintiffs herein. We concur in the remarks of the District Judge in this case, when he said that: "The complainants invoked the action of the county commissioners to enhance the value of their land; they actively promoted the improvement, knowing that its *572 cost must be paid by a front foot assessment on their property; they recognized the justice of the assessment from time to time during the progress of the work, and afterwards by paying annual installments of the assessment for seven years and until they were tempted by the decision of the Supreme Court, in Baker v. Norwood, to cast their burden upon the general public, and it is now too late to complain of the method of the assessment or of the lack of the special benefits which were dissipated by the collapse of the `boom.'"

We do not consider the validity of the contention on the part of the plaintiffs, that the act or the assessment in furtherance of its provisions violates in any particular the Federal Constitution. For the reason given above we are of opinion the judgment is right, and it is


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