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MILLER V. KING, 223 U. S. 505 (1912)

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U.S. Supreme Court

Miller v. King, 223 U.S. 505 (1912)

Miller v. King

No. 153

Argued January 22, 23, 1912

Decided February 19, 1912

223 U.S. 505




While a national bank cannot act as trustee and hold land for third persons, under 5136, Rev.Stat., it may do those acts that are usual and necessary in making collections of commercial paper and evidence of debt.

A national bank, under 5136, Rev.Stat., may be assignee of a judgment to collect and distribute the amount thereof where the assignment is not made merely to enable it to sue in its own name.

Under the law of Oregon, a national bank holding a chose in action as trustee to collect and distribute may use in it own name.

Quaere whether any but the government can raise the question that a national bank, in acting as trustee, violates § 5136, Rev.Stat. Kerfoot v. Bank, 218 U. S. 281.

53 Ore. 53 affirmed.

The facts, which involve the construction of § 5136, Rev.Stat., in regard to the extent of power of a national bank to act as trustee, are stated in the opinion. chanroblesvirtualawlibrary

Page 223 U. S. 509

MR. JUSTICE LAMAR delivered the opinion of the Court.

Miller, the plaintiff in error, was the attorney of Helmick in an action against Porter. The judgment obtained in that suit was assigned by Helmick to the First National Bank of Fayette, Idaho, which executed an instrument reciting that it would hold any money collected subject to the order of Helmick. At the time of making the assignment, Helmick gave verbal instructions to pay part of the money when collected to Lauer. The bank placed the judgment in the hands of Miller, who collected the money and, claiming to act as attorney for Helmick, paid over the proceeds to the Moss Mercantile Company, which asserted that the cause of action had been transferred to it prior to the rendition of the judgment. The bank thereupon brought suit against Miller for the recovery of the money thus collected by him and paid over to a third party. The defendant answered, denying that the bank had title; alleging that it had paid no consideration for the transfer, that it was intended to defraud creditors, setting up that Helmick had revoked the assignment and had given Miller a release. There was, however, no claim that the charter of the bank prevented it from taking the transfer or prosecuting the suit.

There were several trials of the case, and ultimately, with the consent of Helmick and Lauer, the bank assigned the judgment to King. He was substituted as plaintiff, and recovered a judgment against Miller. The case was chanroblesvirtualawlibrary

Page 223 U. S. 510

taken to the supreme court, where it was contended that a national bank could not act as trustee on an express trust, so as to be able to institute and maintain a suit under the statute of Oregon, which provides that the trustee of an express trust may sue without joining the person for whose interest the action is prosecuted. The judgment was affirmed, and no federal question is presented in the writ of error here except on the theory that, under Revised Statutes, § 5136, a national bank could not act as trustee of an express trust, and that therefore the suit was absolutely void, and could not proceed to judgment in the name of the substituted plaintiff.

A national bank cannot act as a technical trustee and hold land for the benefit of third persons. It cannot, for example, act as trustee under a railroad mortgage, nor take title to property to be held for the life of the grantor, with remainder to his children. Every such transaction would be voidable at the instance of the government. Kerfoot v. Farmers' Bank, 218 U. S. 281. But under Revised Statutes § 5136, "it may exercise all such incidental powers as shall be necessary to carry on banking," and it may therefore act as a fiduciary and occupy a trust relation in matters connected with that business. It may do those acts and occupy those relations which are usual or necessary in making collections of commercial paper and other evidences of debt. It is both usual and proper for the legal title to negotiable instruments to be vested in a bank by mere indorsement for purposes of collection, holding the proceeds as the indorser directs. There is no difference in law if the title is conveyed by a lengthier and more formal instrument. In both cases, the bank takes the legal title for the purpose of demand and collection. In a proper case, there is no reason why it might not go further and institute suit thereon in its own name for the recovery of what may be due. If the transfer was made, or the suit was being maintained, for purposes not chanroblesvirtualawlibrary

Page 223 U. S. 511

authorized by the charter of the bank, and if the defendant was in a position where his rights were prejudiced thereby, it would be incumbent on him to raise that defense at the outset of the litigation or as soon as he learned that fact.

In this case, the assignment was made in order that the bank might collect the money, pay part to Lauer, and in effect hold the balance on deposit to the credit of Helmick. The judgment was not transferred to the bank for the mere purpose of enabling it to bring suit in its own name. At the time of the transfer, no suit was contemplated, and indeed none was necessary, because the money was immediately paid by Porter. Suit only became necessary when the amount collected by Miller was later improperly paid over by him to the Moss Mercantile Company. There was nothing in this transaction which was so disconnected with the banking business as to make it in violation of Rev.Stat. § 5136, even if the defendant could raise such question. Kerfoot v. Bank, supra. The laws of Oregon permitted an action to be maintained by the bank in its own name. There is no federal question before us which authorizes a reversal, and the judgment is


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