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June 1, 1920



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

Author: Brandeis

[ 253 U.S. Page 303]

 MR. JUSTICE BRANDEIS delivered the opinion of the court.

This is a petition for a writ of mandamus and/or prohibition brought by Walter Peterson, receiver of the Interstate Coal Company, against the Honorable Augustus N. Hand, Judge of the District Court of the United States for the Southern District of New York. The facts and the specific relief sought are these;

[ 253 U.S. Page 304]

     Peterson had brought an action at law in that court against Arthur Sidney Davison to recover a balance of $21,014.43, alleged to be due for coal sold and delivered as shown by a long schedule annexed. The answer substantially admitted the items set forth in the schedule filed by plaintiff, but denied that it presented a full account of the transactions between the parties and alleged that there were other deliveries of coal and other payments which the defendant had made, and also that he was entitled to additional allowances. It further alleged, by way of counter claim, that the plaintiff was indebted to him for failure to perform its contracts for coal in the sum of $9,999.10. In response to a demand for a bill of particulars, defendant filed schedules containing more than two hundred items which he proposed to establish by way of defense.

Upon motion of defendant and against the objection of plaintiff, Judge Hand appointed an auditor (254 Fed. Rep. 625):

"With instructions to make a preliminary investigation as to the facts; hear the witnesses; examine the accounts of the parties, and make and file a report in the Office of the Clerk of this Court with a view to simplifying the issues for the jury; but not to finally determine any of the issues in this action; the final determination of all issues of fact to be made by the jury on the trial; and the Auditor to have power to compel the attendance of, and administer the oaths to, witnesses; the expense of the Auditor, including the expense of a stenographer, to be paid by either or both parties to this action, in accordance with the determination of the Trial Judge."

The auditor was further ordered to report on certain facts under ten classifications. The design of this was largely to separate items in dispute from those as to which there was no real dispute and, also, to set forth the detailed facts on which the specific claims made were rested;

[ 253 U.S. Page 305]

     but the auditor was also thereby required to express his opinion on disputed issues, thus:

"6. The various penalties, commissions, cash discounts, and other deductions which defendant claims to be entitled to deduct from the invoice price of the various shipments, the items thereof which are admitted by plaintiff as proper deductions, and the items in dispute, with his opinion as to each of such disputed items.

"7. His opinion as to the net amount due on each invoice of coal sold and delivered to defendant."

Thereupon, application was made here for leave to file this petition. It prays that Judge Hand and the auditor named be prohibited from proceeding under the order appointing him; and it prays also, that Judge Hand, or such other judge who may at the time hold the trial term of that court, be commanded to restore the cause to the trial calendar and that the same be tried in the regular and usual way. Leave to file the petition was granted January 12, 1920, and an order to show cause issued. The petitioner insists that the District Court is without power to make the order appointing the auditor and that proceedings thereunder would violate the Seventh Amendment to the Federal Constitution.

First : Objection is made by respondent to the jurisdiction of this court. It is insisted that the District Court had jurisdiction of the parties and of the cause of action; that if the auditor should proceed to perform the duties assigned to him and his report should be used at the trial before the jury, the plaintiff could protect his rights by exceptions which would be subject to review by the Circuit Court of Appeals; and that the writs prayed for may not be used merely to correct errors. But if proceedings pursuant to the appointment of an auditor would deprive petitioner of his right to a trial by jury, the order should, as was said in Ex parte Simons, 247 U.S. 231, 239, "be dealt with now, before the plaintiff is put to the difficulties

[ 253 U.S. Page 306]

     and the Courts to the inconvenience that would be raised by" a proceeding "that ultimately must be held to have been required under a mistake." The objection to our jurisdiction is unfounded. We proceed, therefore, to the consideration of the merits of the petition.

Second : The question presented is one of power in the District Court. If, under any circumstances, it could appoint an auditor with the duties here prescribed without the consent of the parties, the facts clearly warranted such action in this instance. The plaintiff sued for a balance alleged to be due on an account annexed containing 298 items. The defendant set up another account containing 402 items. Included in the latter, besides certain charges against defendant for additional deliveries, were over 30 cash items of credit not allowed for in the plaintiff's account. These 402 items were alleged to arise out of 123 different deliveries of cargoes (or partial cargoes) of coal made on 91 different days during a period of eleven months. The coal delivered was of various kinds and the invoice prices for the same kind differed from ...

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