First National Bank of Ottawa v. Converse, 200 U.S. 425 (1906)

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Author: Justice White

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First National Bank of Ottawa v. Converse, 200 U.S. 425 (1906)

MR. JUSTICE WHITE, after making the foregoing statement, delivered the opinion of the Court.

The questions principally discussed at bar relate to the alleged repugnancy to the Constitution of the United States of the Minnesota law of 1899, by virtue of which the receiver asserted his power and authority to sue in a court of another jurisdiction than that of Minnesota to enforce the assessment made by the court of Minnesota on the stockholders of the thresher company. But antecedent to that question we must consider and dispose of the propositions arising from the tenth ground of the demurrer -- that is that, under the averments of the bill, there was no liability on the bank as the facts alleged from which it is asserted the liability arose showed that the act of the bank in subscribing to the stock was ultra vires and prohibited by the provisions of the National Banking Act. We say this is antecedent because if, from the averments of the declaration, aside from the validity or invalidity of the act of 1899, there could be no liability on the bank to pay the assessment, it will be unnecessary to consider whether the Minnesota statute added such conditions to the obligation resulting from the stock subscription at the time it was made as to cause the statute to be repugnant to the contract or any other clause of the Constitution of the United States.

At the time the bank took the stock in the thresher company, it was provided in Section 3 of Article X of the Constitution of Minnesota as follows:

Each stockholder in any corporation (excepting those organized for the purpose of carrying on any kind of manufacturing or mechanical business) shall be liable to the amount of stock held or owned by him.

If the thresher company was organized solely for manufacturing purposes, it is, of course, apparent that, under this provision of the Minnesota Constitution the stockholders of the company would not be liable for its debts. Senour Mfg. Co. v. Church Paint & Mfg. Co., 81 Minn. 294. It has, however, been decided by the Supreme Court of Minnesota that, unless it unquestionably appears that a Minnesota corporation claiming to be a manufacturing corporation was organized for the exclusive purpose of engaging in manufacturing and such incidental business as might be reasonably necessary for effecting that purpose, the exception in the Minnesota Constitution to which reference has been made would not apply, and the double liability would result. State v. Minnesota Thresher Co., 40 Minn. 213; Merchants’ Nat. Bank v. Thresher Mfg. Co., 90 Minn. 144. These cases, it is to be observed, referred to the very act of incorporation, upon which the liability of the bank, if at all, must rest. It clearly appears, from the comments of the Supreme Court of Minnesota upon the charter, that in the articles of association the thresher company was declared to be organized under the law of Minnesota relating to manufacturing corporations as a class exempt from double liability, and that the motives of the incorporators were to obtain immunity from the double liability. The court, however, held that the mere law under which the corporation was organized, and the motive therefor, would not suffice to bring the incorporators within the control of the exemption accorded by the constitutional provision if, from the articles of association, it did not clearly appear that the corporation was confined solely to a manufacturing business and its incidents. The doctrine of the court was thus clearly stated (90 Minn. p. 147):

It is immaterial that the corporation was organized under the statute providing for organizing manufacturing corporations, or what the actual intention of the incorporators was, or that the corporation in fact carried on only a manufacturing business, but its articles of incorporation are the sole criterion as to such intention and the purposes for which the corporation was organized; and, unless it fairly appears therefrom that it was organized for the exclusive purpose of engaging in manufacturing and such incidental business as may be reasonably necessary for effectuating the purpose of its organization, its stockholders are not within the exception to the general rule of constitutional liability of stockholders for the debts of their corporation.

And further along in the opinion, the declaration was reiterated (p. 148) that the intention of the corporators could not be ascertained by reference to matters not appearing on the face of the articles of association, and that the articles were the sole criterion as to the purpose for which a corporation was formed; "that is, for ascertaining the intention of the associates." Applying this rule to the articles of association of the thresher company, the court found that the acquisition of the stock, etc., of the car company was a business independently to be engaged in, and was not incidental to that of manufacturing, and, hence, that the corporation was not within the exception embodied in the constitutional provision imposing a double liability upon stockholders.

Now, the exclusive and only ground upon which the Supreme Court of Minnesota, in construing the articles of association of the thresher company, held that the articles embodied a distinct business from that of manufacturing, is plainly made manifest by the opinions expressed by the court in the two cases to which we have referred. In the earlier case, the court said (40 Minn. 223):

It is clear therefore to our minds that, under the act of 1873, a corporation can only be organized for carrying on an exclusively manufacturing or mechanical business, which, of course, includes anything that is properly incidental to or necessarily connected with such business. A corporation organized to carry on manufacturing and also some other lawful, but independent, business, belongs to the class authorized by title 2, c. 34 (sections 109-119).

With this construction of the law in mind, it is not difficult, on examination of respondent’s articles of association, to determine to what class it belongs. One of the declared objects of its formation is to purchase the capital stock and evidences of indebtedness of the car company, a business in no way incident to or properly connected with that of manufacturing. The contention of counsel to the contrary cannot be seriously entertained for a moment. If a manufacturing corporation desires to buy the plant of another corporation formerly engaged in the same business, that is legitimate, and if, in order to get it, it becomes necessary to buy with it some other property, not needed for nor connected with the manufacturing business, this also would be permissible, if done as incidental to the main purpose of securing the plant; but no such reason or excuse existed for buying the stock and indebtedness of the car company. Indeed, it would be difficult to imagine anything more foreign to or inconsistent with a legitimate manufacturing business than for a corporation to invest all its capital in the stock and indebtedness of another and insolvent corporation. Under title 2, a corporation can be organized to carry on any lawful business, and, if parties desire to deal in such speculative property, they can do so under that title, but not under the act of 1873, even by connecting it with manufacturing. Our conclusion therefore is that respondent is a corporation of the class authorized by title 2. That is what the corporators themselves have characterized it by their statement of the objects of its formation.

In the latter case, after restating the rule that the face of the articles of association was the sole criterion as to the purpose for which the corporation was formed, the court said (90 Minn. 148):

Now, taking the articles in question by the four corners, and reading them in the light of the rule we have stated, without resorting to technicalities, does it fairly appear therefrom that the corporation was organized for the exclusive purpose of engaging in manufacturing and business incidental thereto and reasonably necessary for carrying into effect such purpose? We answer the question in the negative. There are two general purposes for which the corporation was organized, as declared by the articles -- one, the purchase of the capital stock, evidence of indebtedness, and assets of an existing corporation, and the other, the manufacture and sale of all articles, implements, and machinery made of wood and iron, or either of them, and the manufacture of the materials therein used. The first purpose does not appear to be a necessary incident to the second one. On the contrary, the corporation was authorized to buy and sell the stock, choses in action, and assets of the Northwestern Manufacturing & Car Company mentioned in the articles, without ever engaging in the business of manufacturing. The first purpose appears to be independent of the second one, for the power to buy necessarily includes the incidental power to use, collect, deal with, or sell the stock and assets of the then-existing corporation. Nor does it fairly appear, expressly or by necessary implication, from the language of these articles, that such stock and assets were to be purchased only as a necessary incident to the declared purpose of manufacturing all articles which are made of wood or iron, or either of them.

Accepting this construction given by the Supreme Court of Minnesota to the articles of association, by which alone the incorporators under those articles can be taken out of the exemption accorded by the Constitution of Minnesota, it follows that the thresher company was organized to embark in the purely speculative business of buying and selling the stock and assets of an existing and insolvent corporation, with power, but without the obligation, to engage, as an independent enterprise, in a manufacturing business.

Now, the limitations upon the powers of national banks were clearly pointed out in California National Bank v. Kennedy, 167 U.S. 362, where it was said (p. 366):

It is settled that the United States statutes relative to national banks constitute the measure of the authority of such corporations, and that they cannot rightfully exercise any powers except those expressly granted or which are incidental to carrying on the business for which they are established. Logan County Bank v. Townsend, 139 U.S. 67, 73. No express power to acquire the stock of another corporation is conferred upon a national bank, but it has been held that, as incidental to the power to loan money on personal security, a bank may, in the usual course of doing such business, accept stock of another corporation as collateral, and by the enforcement of its rights as pledgee it may become the owner of the collateral, and be subject to liability as other stockholders. National Bank v. Case, 99 U.S. 628. So also, a national bank may be conceded to possess the incidental power of accepting, in good faith stock of another corporation as security for a previous indebtedness. It is clear, however, that a national bank does not possess the power to deal in stocks. The prohibition is implied from the failure to grant the power. First National Bank v. National Exchange Bank, 92 U.S. 128.

As no authority, express or implied, has ever been conferred by the statutes of the United States upon a national bank to engage in or promote a purely speculative business or adventure, accepting the view of the articles of association by which the bank was denied the benefit of the exemption accorded by the Constitution of Minnesota, it follows that the bank had no power to engage in such business by taking stock or otherwise. The power of a national bank to engage in the character of business which the articles of association of the thresher company manifested, as defined by the Supreme Court of Minnesota, cannot be inferred to have been possessed by the bank as an incident of securing a present loan of money, or as a means of protecting itself from loss upon a preexisting indebtedness. To concede that a national bank has ordinarily the right to take stock in another corporation as collateral for a present loan or as a security for a preexisting debt does not imply that, because a national bank has lent money to a corporation, it may become an organizer and take stock in a new and speculative venture; in other words, do the very thing which the previous decisions of this Court have held cannot be done.

The speculative venture, therefore, which the bank undertook, as held by the Minnesota court, when it engaged in taking the stock in the thresher company, being ultra vires, it follows, under the settled rules hitherto applied by this Court, that the bank, despite the subscription, was entitled to plead its want of authority as a defense to the claim of the receiver. The doctrine on the subject was stated in De la Vergne Co. v. German Savings Inst., 175 U.S. 40 (p. 59):

The doctrine that no recovery can be had upon the contract is based upon the theory that it is for the interest of the public that corporations should not transcend the limits of their charters; that the property of stockholders should not be put to the risk of engagements which they did not undertake; that, if the contract be prohibited by statute, everyone dealing with the corporation is bound to take notice of the restrictions in its charter, whether such charter be a private act or a general law under which corporations of this class are organized.

And, moreover, the authorities cited in the case just referred to conclusively establish that the principle which the case announced as to the power of a corporation to avail of the defense of ultra vires had been previously conclusively settled in this Court. Indeed, the case arising on the record presents an obvious dilemma, which is this: if the construction of the articles of association given by the Supreme Court of the State of Minnesota, by which alone the double liability can be enforced, is accepted, then there was no liability because of ultra vires. If, on the other hand, we were to disregard the construction given by the Supreme Court of Minnesota to the articles of association, we should be constrained to the conclusion that those articles but endowed the incorporators of the thresher company with the power to carry on a manufacturing business; and, as a mere incident, to acquire for the purposes of such business the property of the car company, and it would follow that there was no double liability, by force of the exception created in the Constitution of Minnesota.

The judgment must be reversed and the case remanded with directions to sustain the demurrer and enter judgment for the bank.

MR. JUSTICE HARLAN concurs solely upon the authority of California National Bank v. Kennedy and the previous cases announcing the doctrine which was adhered to and applied in that case.

* General Laws of Minnesota for 1899.

Chapter 272

An Act to Provide for the Better Enforcement of the Liability of Stockholders of Corporations.

SEC. 1. Whenever any corporation created or existing by or under the laws of the State of Minnesota, whose stockholders, or any of them, are liable to it or to its creditors, or for the benefit of its creditors, upon or on account of any liability for, or upon, or growing out of, or in respect to, the stock or shares at any time held or owned by such stockholders, respectively, whether under or by virtue of the Constitution and laws of said State of Minnesota or any statute of said state or otherwise, has heretofore made, or shall hereafter make, an assignment for the benefit of its creditors, under the insolvency laws of this state; or whenever a receiver for any such corporation has heretofore been or shall hereafter be appointed by any district court of this state, whether under or pursuant to any of the provisions of chapter seventy-six (76) of the General Statutes of eighteen hundred and ninety-four (1894) of Minnesota, and the acts amendatory thereof, or under or pursuant to any other statute of this state, or under the general equity powers and practice of such court, the district court appointing such receiver, or having jurisdiction of the matter of said assignment, may proceed as in this act provided.

SEC. 2. Under the petition of the assignee or the receiver of any such corporation, or of any creditor of such corporation, who has filed his claim in such assignment or receivership proceedings, the said district court shall, by order, appoint a time for hearing not less than thirty (30) nor more than sixty (60) days from the time of filing said petition with the clerk of said court, and shall direct such notice of such hearing to be given to the party presenting said petition, by publication or otherwise, as the court, in its discretion, may deem proper; but if said petition be filed by a creditor, other than the assignee or receiver of said corporation, the court shall direct that notice of such hearing be personally served on such assignee or receiver.

SEC. 3. At such hearing, the court shall consider such proofs, by affidavit or otherwise, as may then be offered by the assignee or receiver, or by any creditor or officer or stockholder of said corporation, who may appear in person or by attorney, as to the probable indebtedness of said corporation, and the expenses of said assignment or receivership, and the probable amount of assets available for the payment of such indebtedness and expenses, and also as to what parties are or may be liable as stockholders of said corporation, and the nature and extent of such liability. And if it appear to the satisfaction of the court that the ordinary assets of said corporation, or such amount as may be realized therefrom within a reasonable time, will probably be insufficient to pay and discharge in full and without delay, its indebtedness and the expenses of such assignment or receivership, and that it is necessary or proper that resort be had to such liability of the stockholders, the said court shall thereupon, by order, direct and levy a ratable assessment upon all parties liable as stockholders or upon or on account of any stock or shares of said corporation for such amount, proportion, or percentage of the liability upon or on account of each share of said stock as the court, in its discretion, may deem proper (taking into account the probable solvency or insolvency of stockholders, and the probable expenses of collecting the assessment), and shall direct the payment of the amount so assessed against each share of said stock to the assignee or receiver within such time thereafter as said court may specify in said order.

SEC. 4. Said order shall direct the assignee or receiver to proceed to collect the amount so assessed against each share of said stock from the parties liable therefor, and shall direct and authorize said assignee or receiver, in case of the failure of any party liable upon or on account of any share or shares of said stock to so pay the amount so assessed against the same within the time specified in said order, to prosecute action against each and every such party so failing to pay the same, wherever such party may be found, whether, in this state or elsewhere.

SEC. 5. Said order and the assessment thereby levied shall be conclusive upon and against all parties liable upon or on account of any stock or shares of said corporation, whether appearing or represented at said hearing, or having notice thereof or not, as to all matters relating to the amount of and the propriety of and necessity for the said assessment. This provision shall also apply to any subsequent assessment levied by said court as hereinafter provided.

SEC. 6. It shall be the duty of such assignee or receiver to, and he may, immediately after the expiration of the time specified in said order for the payment of the amount to be assessed by the parties liable therefor, institute and maintain an action or actions against any and every party liable upon or on account of any share or shares of such stock who has failed to pay the amount so assessed against the same, for the amount for which such party is liable. Said actions may be maintained against each stockholder, severally, in this state or in any other state or country where such stockholder, or any property subject to attachment, garnishment, or other process in an action against such stockholder, may be found. But if said assignee or receiver shall, in good faith, believe any stockholder so liable to be insolvent, or that the expense of prosecuting such action against such stockholder will be so great that it will not be of advantage to the estate and interest of creditors to prosecute the same, said assignee or receiver shall so report to said court, and shall not be required to institute or prosecute any such action unless specifically directed so to do by said court. And in such case, said court shall not require said receiver to institute or maintain such action unless said court shall have reasonable cause to believe that the result of such action will be of advantage to the estate and creditors of said corporation, except as hereinafter provided.

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Chicago: White, "White, J., Lead Opinion," First National Bank of Ottawa v. Converse, 200 U.S. 425 (1906) in 200 U.S. 425 200 U.S. 434–200 U.S. 441. Original Sources, accessed September 18, 2018, http://www.originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=CKMK5H89UZVB2LM.

MLA: White. "White, J., Lead Opinion." First National Bank of Ottawa v. Converse, 200 U.S. 425 (1906), in 200 U.S. 425, pp. 200 U.S. 434–200 U.S. 441. Original Sources. 18 Sep. 2018. www.originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=CKMK5H89UZVB2LM.

Harvard: White, 'White, J., Lead Opinion' in First National Bank of Ottawa v. Converse, 200 U.S. 425 (1906). cited in 1906, 200 U.S. 425, pp.200 U.S. 434–200 U.S. 441. Original Sources, retrieved 18 September 2018, from http://www.originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=CKMK5H89UZVB2LM.