138 U.S. 61 (11 S.Ct. 229, 34 L.Ed. 860)


Decided: January 19, 1891

The suit against Stout was not tried. On May 13, 1873, a settlement was made with him, and he paid the United States, in lieu of and as a penalty, the sum of $800. On March 22, 1875, the appellee presented an application to the treasury department for his informer's share, which wasind orsed, 'Too late,' and nothing was done thereunder. Twelve years thereafter, and on February 24, 1887, by his attorney, he made a second application. To such application the following answer was returned: 'Treasury Department, Office of the Secretary, Washingtion, D. C., February 24, 1887. George A. King, Esq., Attorney at Law, Washington, D. C.—Sir: In your letter to the secretary, dated the 20th of January, 1887, you request that your client, Mr. Frederick D. Connor, of New Albany, Indiana, be declared to have been the first informer in a case in which he claimed that a penalty of $800 has been recovered by reason of information which had been given by him, and you make this request so that, in case the secretary should decline to order payment of the proper share of said penalty to the informer, he may then be in a position to apply to the court of claims for relief. In reply, I have to say that the case is not one in which payment of the informer's share can be properly made at the present time, because the penalty was fixed by compromise, and the amount paid after August 1, 1872, when the act of June 6, 1872, (17 St. 256,) took effect, repealing section 179 of the act of June 30, 1864, as amended by the act of July 13, 1866, (14 St. 145,) under which the share of the informer is claimed in this case, and because the question as to the effect of such repeal was involved in the Ramsay Case, in which the judgment of the court of claims, on being appealed to the supreme court of the United States, was recently affirmed by a divided court, thus rendering the decision of no effect as a precedent. I see no objection, however, to stating that the proof filed in the office of the secretary of the treasury shows that said Frederick D. Connor gave the first information upon which a penalty of $800 was recovered by compromise from William Stout, a distiller of fruit; the compromise having been approved by the secretary of the treasury on the 13th day of May, 1873, and the penalty having been paid on the 29th of April, 1874. I add that, under the schedule of shares prescribed by the secretary of the treasury, August 14, 1866, pursuant to the authority conferred by said section 179, the share of the penalty that would be payable to an informer in this case would be three hundred and seventy dollars, ($370.00.) It is presumed that on this declaration you can take the case to the court of claims, and obtain an adjudication. C. S. FAIRCHILD, Acting Secretary.' Thereafter this suit was brought, claiming under the act of 1866, and the alleged decision by the secretary of the treasury as evidenced by the letter quoted. The judgment of the court of claims was in favor of the claimant, and the government has brought this appeal.

Asst. Atty. Gen. Cotton, for appellant.

Geo. A. King, for appellee.


Mr. Justice BREWER, after stating the facts as above, delivered the opinion of the court.

The right of claimant, as informer, depends on the act of 1866. Before final adjustment of the claim made against Stout, the act of 1866 was repealed. Unless, therefore, prior to this repeal some right was vested, the claimant has no standing in court. But the act of 1866 explicitly declared that no right accrued to an informer until the fine, penalty, or forfeiture became fixed by judgment or compromise, and the amount thereof was paid. While there is in the repealing act a reservation, it is only of rights which have accrued. As, under the act of 1866, no right accrued until judgment or compromise, the repeal by the act of 1872 left nothing to the claimant. It is familiar law that an offer of reward conveys no right beyond the specific terms of the offer; that it may be withdrawn at any time; and that, unless prior to the withdrawal something has been done to complete a contract, or settle and establish a right under the offer, a claimant takes nothing by reason thereof. It is urged that the claimant had done all that he was called upon to do under the act of 1866; hat the government had the full benefit of his information; and that it would be unseemly for it to appropriate such benefit, and repudiate any liability therefor. It is claimed that a reasonable construction of the act of 1866 is that the liability to the informer arose the moment the information was given, while the amount to be paid was not settled until judgment or compromise and payment, and the opinion of the court of claims in the case of Ramsay v. U. S., 21 Ct. Cl. 443, is cited in support of this view. But the language of the act of 1866 is clear. It is emphatic that no right accrues. No clearer language could be used, and we may not, under the pretense of an equity, enlarge the scope of an offer beyond its express words. Is the claim so meritorious as to justify a strained construction of the language of the statute? What did the claimant do? So far as it appears, he simply informed the officers of the government of a violation of one of the laws of his country. Is thereno obligation resting upon on a citizen to disclose such a fact? Does such an act of disclosure make him a special object of public gratitude, or has he simply discharged a duty resting in common upon all citizens? Is it not clear that an offer of reward therefor is not the recognition of an equitable duty of the government to the informer, but a mere act of public policy, the giving or withholding of which, and whose terms, are wholly within the discretion of the government? Whoever claims under such an offer must bring himself within its terms. Failing to do that, his compensation is the consolation which comes to every citizen from the discharge of a public duty, which is the common obligation of all. We conclude, therefore, that the claimant acquired no right before the repeal of the act of 1866, and therefore has no claim against the government for compensation for the information he gave.

If the facts were otherwise, and a stronger claim for compensation was made out, can the letter of the secretary of the treasury be considered as an adjudication of the claim? It is conceded that such an adjudication is prerequisite to this action. The tenor of the secretary's letter is not to the effect that he is adjudicating upon the claim. On the contrary, the findings show that 12 years before the claim had been presented, and practically determined against the claimant. The statute of limitation would bar a suit commenced, as this was, 12 years after such adjudication. Rev. St. § 1069; Finn v. U. S., 123 U. S. 227, 8 Sup. Ct. Rep. 82. Obviously, from the language of the letter, the secretary did not intend a reopening of the case and a new adjudication, but simply to furnish to the claimant such information as the records of his department disclosed. Without resting the case, however, on this last point, we hold, for the reasons first stated, that the judgment of the court of claims was erroneous, and it must be reversed, and the case remanded, with instructions for further proceedings in accordance with the views herein expressed.

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