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JOHNSON v. LANKFORD ET AL.

SUPREME COURT OF THE UNITED STATES


January 28, 1918

JOHNSON
v.
LANKFORD ET AL.

ERROR TO THE DISTRICT COURT OF THE UNITED STATES FOR THE WESTERN DISTRICT OF OKLAHOMA

White, McKenna, Holmes, Day, Van Devanter, Pitney, McReynolds, Brandeis, Clarke

Author: Mckenna

[ 245 U.S. Page 544]

 MR. JUSTICE McKENNA, after stating the case as above, delivered the opinion of the court.

Whether the District Court had jurisdiction was necessarily to be determined by reference to the case made by the petition. Hence we have given it at some length, omitting repetitions. It will be observed that the basis of the action is the neglect of duty of Lankford as bank commissioner, by which plaintiff has been damaged to the amount of his certificate of deposit. The insurance company

[ 245 U.S. Page 545]

     has been made a party defendant because it has guaranteed the faithful performance of his duties, a statute of the State, it is contended, making it liable. Whether the contention is tenable or whether the petition or the case is defective in any particular we are not called upon to say. Upon neither question was the judgment of the District Court defensively invoked. The sole question for our consideration then is whether the cause of action stated is one against the State of which the District Court has no jurisdiction.

There is certainly no assertion of state action or liability upon the part of the State, and no relief is prayed against it. The charges are all against Lankford. The relief sought is against him because of his wilful or negligent disregard of the laws of the State, and it is because of this his surety is charged with liability, it having guaranteed his fidelity.

We think the question, therefore, should be answered in the negative; that is, that the action is not one against the State. To answer it otherwise would be to assert, we think, that whatever an officer does, even in contravention of the laws of the State, is state action, identifies him with it and makes the redress sought against him a claim against the State and therefore prohibited by the Eleventh Amendment. Surely an officer of a State may be delinquent without involving the State in delinquency, indeed, may injure the State by delinquency as well as some resident of the State, and be amenable to both.

The case is not like Lankford v. Platte Iron Works Co., 235 U.S. 461. There the effort was to compel the payment of a claim (certificates of deposit issued by a bank) out of the fund to which the State had a title and which it administered through its officers. Any demand upon it was a demand upon the State and a suit to enforce the demand was a suit against the State, necessarily precluded by the purpose of the law. The case at bar is not of such

[ 245 U.S. Page 546]

     character. Its basis is Lankford's dereliction of duty, a duty enjoined by the laws of the State, and the dereliction is charged to have been continuous, overlooking violations of the requirements of law by the bank officials by which it was brought to insolvency, knowing of the depletion of its assets, knowing of the reduction of its reserves, and not requiring their repair. A further dereliction is charged after Lankford took possession and such arbitrary conduct and preferences that plaintiff's claim was subordinated to other claims of like character.

The present case finds example in Hopkins v. Clemson College, 221 U.S. 636, where the college was held liable for acts of trespass upon private property, and it was said by Mr. Justice Lamar, speaking for the court, that immunity from suit was a "high attribute of sovereignty -- a prerogative of the State itself -- which cannot be availed of by public agents when sued for their own torts." And it was further said, "The Eleventh Amendment was not intended to afford them [public agents] freedom from liability in any case where, under color of their office, they have injured one of the State's citizens." And a distinction was marked between such acts and such as affect the State's political or property rights.

One charge in the petition will justify special comment. It is that the enforcement of the laws of Oklahoma in the matters complained of was and is solely through and by Lankford as bank commissioner and that he so arbitrarily and capriciously exercised his powers as to deprive plaintiff of the equal protection of the laws and to give to "other depositors an unequal and more advantageous enforcement of the law than to plaintiff, this to plaintiff's damage." And also it is alleged that Lankford's conduct in that particular deprived plaintiff of his property without due process of law in violation of the Fourteenth Amendment of the Constitution of the United States.

The purpose of the allegations is not very clear. They

[ 245 U.S. Page 547]

     might be considered as intended for emphasis of the wrongful conduct of Lankford; but they seem to be made more of than this in the argument of counsel, and we are left in doubt whether they are pleaded as independent grounds of recovery or only as elements with other grounds. It is somewhat impossible to regard them as the former, for no special relief is asked on account of them. They represent completed acts the injury of which has been accomplished, the plaintiff losing by them access to the Guaranty Fund or its security, and hence Lankford is charged with personal liability. But no relief, as we have said, is prayed against the fund. If it were, Lankford v. Platte Iron Works Co., supra, might apply.

Judgment reversed and cause remanded for further proceedings in accordance with this opinion.

19180128

© 1998 VersusLaw Inc.



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