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JOHNSON COMPANY v. WHARTON.

SUPREME COURT OF THE UNITED STATES


decided: March 5, 1894.

JOHNSON COMPANY
v.
WHARTON.

ERROR TO THE CIRCUIT COURT OF THE UNITED STATES FOR THE EASTERN DISTRICT OF PENNSYLVANIA.

Author: Harlan

[ 152 U.S. Page 256]

 MR. JUSTICE HARLAN, after stating the facts, delivered the opinion of the court.

The question, upon the merits, which the defendant's affidavit of defence presented, was whether the girder guard rails manufactured and sold by it were covered by the Wharton patent and by the license granted by the agreement of Novenber 24, 1885. But that precise question, it is admitted, was presented and determined in the former suit between the same parties. And we are to inquire, on this writ of error, whether the court below erred in holding that the judgment in the former suit concluded that question between the parties. The learned counsel for the defendant insists that it did not, and bases his contention solely upon the ground that the former judgment was not, by reason of the limited amount involved, subject to review by this court.

Is it true that a defeated suitor in a court of general jurisdiction is at liberty, in a subsequent suit between himself and his adversary, in the same, or in any other court, to relitigate a matter directly put in issue and actually determined in the first suit, upon its appearing that the judgment in the first suit, by reason of the small amount in dispute, could not be reviewed by a court of appellate jurisdiction? Does the principle of res judicata, in its application to the judgments of courts of general jurisdiction, depend, in any degree, upon the inquiry whether the law subjects such judgments to reexamination by some other court? Upon principle and authority

[ 152 U.S. Page 257]

     these questions must be answered in the negative. We have not been referred to, nor are we aware of, any adjudged case that would justify a different conclusion.

The object in establishing judicial tribunals is that controversies between parties, which may be the subject of litigation, shall be finally determined. The peace and order of society demand that matters distinctly put in issue and determined by a court of competent jurisdiction as to parties and subject-matter, shall not be retried between the same parties in any subsequent suit in any court. The exceptions to this rule that are recognized in cases of judgments obtained by fraud or collusion have no application to the present suit.

In Hopkins v. Lee, 6 Wheat. 109, 113, it was held that a fact directly presented and determined by a court of competent jurisdiction cannot be contested again between the same parties in the same or any other court. "In this," the court said, "there is and ought to be no difference between a verdict and judgment in a court of common law and a decree of a court of equity. They both stand on the same footing and may be offered in evidence under the same limitations, and it would be difficult to assign a reason why it should be otherwise. The rule has found its way into every system of jurisprudence, not only from its obvious fitness and propriety, but because without it an end could never be put to litigation. It is, therefore, not confined in England or in this country to judgments of the same court or to the decisions of courts of concurrent jurisdiction, but extends to matters litigated before competent tribunals in foreign countries. . . . On a reference to the proceedings at law, and in chancery, in the case now before us, the court is satisfied that the question which arose on the trial of the action of covenant was precisely the same, if not exclusively so, (although that was no necessary,) as the one which had already been directly decided by the court of chancery." And in Smith v. Kernochen, 7 How. 198, 217: "The case, therefore, falls within the general rule, that a judgment of a court of concurrent jurisdiction directly upon the point is as a plea, a bar, or as evidence conclusive between the same parties or privies upon the same matters when

[ 152 U.S. Page 258]

     directly in question in another court." To the same effect are Pennington v. Gibson, 16 How. 65, 77; Stockton v. Ford, 18 How. 418; and Lessee of Parrish v. Ferris, 2 Black, 606, 609.

The whole subject was carefully considered in Cromwell v. County of Sac, 94 U.S. 351, 352, where it is said: "There is a difference between the effect of a judgment as a bar or estoppel against the prosecution of a second action upon the same claim or demand, and its effect as an estoppel in another action between the same parties upon a different claim or cause of action. In the former case, the judgment, if rendered upon the merits, constitutes an absolute bar to a subsequent action. It is a finality as to the claim or demand in controversy, concluding parties and those in privity with them, not only as to every matter which was offered and received to sustain or defeat the claim or demand, but as to any other admissible matter which might have been offered for that purpose. Thus, for example, a judgment rendered upon a promissory note is conclusive as to the validity of the instrument and the amount due upon it, although it be subsequently alleged that perfect defences actually existed, of which no proof was offered, such as forgery, want of consideration, or payment. If such defences were not presented in the action, and established by competent evidence, the subsequent allegation of their existence is of no legal consequence. The judgment is as conclusive, so far as future proceedings at law are concerned, as though the defences never existed."

The doctrines of the latter case were applied in Lumber Co. v. Buchtel, 101 U.S. 638, 639, which case is like this in some respects. That was an action for the recovery of the last instalments of money due on a contract for the purchase of timber lands, the plaintiff having in a previous action against the same defendant obtained a judgment for the first instalment. In the first action the sole defence was that the defendant had been induced to make the contract of guaranty by false and fraudulent representations. The same defence was made in the second action, and an additional one was interposed to the effect that the representations made as to the quantity of timber, and which induced the execution of

[ 152 U.S. Page 259]

     the contract, amounted to a warranty upon which defendant could sue for damages. Both grounds of defence, relied on in the second action, were held to be concluded by the judgment in the prior action. In respect to the second ground, it was said: "The finding of the referee, upon which the judgment [in the first action] was rendered -- and this finding, like the verdict of a jury, constitutes an essential part of the record of a case -- shows that no representations as to the quantity of timber on the land sold were made to the defendant by the plaintiff, or in his hearing, to induce the execution of the contract of guaranty. This finding, having gone into the judgment, is conclusive as to the facts found in all subsequent controversies between the parties on the contract. Every defence requiring the negation of this fact is met and overthrown by that adjudication."

In Stout v. Lye, 103 U.S. 66, 71, in which one of the questions was as to the conclusiveness of a judgment in a state court upon the same parties to a suit in the Federal court -- the two suits involving the same subject-matter, and the suit in the state court having been first commenced -- this court, observing that the parties instituting the suit in the Federal court, being represented in the state suit, could not deprive the latter court of the jurisdiction it had acquired, said: "The two suits related to the same subject-matter, and were in fact pending at the same time in two courts of concurrent jurisdiction. The parties also were, in legal effect, the same, because in the state court the mortgagor represented all who, pending the suit, acquired any interest through him in the property about which the controversy arose. By electing to bring a separate suit the Stouts voluntarily took the risk of getting a decision in the Circuit Court before the state court settled the rights of the parties by a judgment in the suit which was pending there. Failing in this, they must submit to the same judgment that has already been rendered against their representative in the state court. That was a judgment on the merits of the identical matter now in question, and it concluded the 'parties and those in privity with them, not only as to every matter which was offered and

[ 152 U.S. Page 260]

     received to sustain or defeat the claim or demand, but as to any other admissible matter which might have been offered for that purpose." Cromwell v. County of Sac, 94 U.S. 351, 352. It is true the mortgagor did not set up as a defence that the bank had no right to take the mortgage, or that he was entitled to certain credits because of payments of usurious interest, but he was at liberty to do so. Not having done so, he is now concluded as to all such defences, and so are his privies."

In all of these cases, it will be observed, the question considered was as to the effect to be given by the court of original jurisdiction to the judgment in a previous case between the same parties or their representatives, and involving the same matters brought up in a subsequent suit. In no one of them is there a suggestion that the determination of that question by the court to which it was presented should be controlled by the inquiry whether the judgment in the first action could be reviewed upon appeal or writ of error.

The counsel for the plaintiff in error, in support of his position, referred to the clause of the Constitution declaring that the judicial power of the United States shall be vested in one Supreme Court, and in such inferior courts as the Congress may from time to time ordain and establish, and to the clause providing that the judicial power of the United States shall extend to all cases in law or equity mentioned in that instrument. But, except in the cases specially enumerated in the Constitution and of which this court may take cognizance, without an enabling act of Congress, the distribution of the judicial power of the United States among the courts of the United States is a matter entirely within the control of the legislative branch of the government. And it has never been supposed that Congress, when making this distribution, intended to change or modify the general rule, having its foundation in a wise public policy, and deeply imbedded in the jurisprudence of all civilized countries, that the final judgment of a court -- at least, one of superior jurisdiction -- competent under the law of its creation to deal with the parties and the subject-matter, and having acquired jurisdiction of the parties,

[ 152 U.S. Page 261]

     concludes those parties and their privies, in respect to every matter put in issue by the pleading and determined by such court. This rule, so essential to an orderly and effective administration of justice, would lose much of its value if it were held to be inapplicable to those judgments in the Circuit Courts of the United States which, by reason of the limited amount involved, could not be reviewed by this court.

The inquiry as to the conclusiveness of a judgment in a prior suit between the same parties can only be whether the court rendering such judgment -- whatever the nature of the question decided, or the value of the matter in dispute -- had jurisdiction of the parties and the subject-matter, and whether the question, sought to be raised in the subsequent suit, was covered by the pleadings and actually determined in the former suit. The existence or non-existence of a right, in either party, to have the judgment in the prior suit reexamined, upon appeal or writ of error, cannot, in any case, control this inquiry. Nor can the possibility that a party may legitimately or properly divide his causes of action, so as to have the matter in dispute between him and his adversary adjudged in a suit that cannot, after judgment, and by reason of the limited amount involved, be carried to a higher court, affect the application of the general rule. Whatever mischiefs or injustice may result from such a condition of things, must be remedied by legislation regulating the jurisdiction of the courts, and prescribing the rules of evidence applicable to judgments. Looking at the reasons upon which the rule rests, its operation cannot be restricted to those cases, which, after final judgment or decree, may be taken by appeal or writ of error to a court of appellate jurisdiction.

We are of opinion that the question whether the rails manufactured by the Johnson Company were covered by the Wharton patent, having been made and determined in the prior action between the same parties -- which judgment remains in full force -- could not be relitigated in this subsequent action.

There is no error in the judgment, and it is

Affirmed.

18940305

© 1998 VersusLaw Inc.



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