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UNITED STATES v. DOW

decided: June 9, 1958.

UNITED STATES
v.
DOW



CERTIORARI TO THE UNITED STATES COURT OF APPEALS FOR THE FIFTH CIRCUIT.

Warren, Black, Frankfurter, Douglas, Burton, Clark, Harlan, Brennan, Whittaker

Author: Harlan

[ 357 U.S. Page 18]

 MR. JUSTICE HARLAN delivered the opinion of the Court.

The issue in this case arises out of a condemnation proceeding in which the United States acquired an easement pursuant to its power of eminent domain. The principal question presented is whether the claim to "just compensation" vested in the owners of the land at the time the United States entered into possession of the easement pursuant to court order in 1943 or whether such claim vested in the respondent, Dow, who acquired the land in 1945, at the time the United States filed a declaration of taking in 1946, under the Declaration of Taking Act of February 26, 1931, 46 Stat. 1421, 40 U. S. C. §§ 258a-258e.

In March 1943 the United States instituted a condemnation proceeding in the District Court for the Southern District of Texas to acquire a right-of-way for a pipe line over certain lands in Harris County, Texas, owned by the estate and heirs of John F. Garrett and James Bute. Among the lands condemned was Parcel 1, a narrow strip of some 2.7 acres out of a 617-acre tract, the property involved in the present suit. The Government proceeded under various statutes, including the Act of August 1, 1888, 25 Stat. 357, 40 U. S. C. § 257, and Title II of the Second War Powers Act of

[ 357 U.S. Page 19]

     March 27, 1942, 56 Stat. 176, 177. As requested in the petition, the District Court ordered the United States into the "immediate possession" of this strip. Within the next ten days the United States entered into physical possession and began laying the pipe line through the tract. The line was completed in 1943 and has been in continuous use since that time.

In November 1945 the 617-acre tract was conveyed to Dow by a general warranty deed which specifically excepted the pipe-line right-of-way as being subject to the condemnation proceedings. In May 1946 the Government filed a declaration of taking, under the Declaration of Taking Act, covering this pipe-line strip. Estimated compensation was deposited in court and judgment on the declaration of taking was entered. A few months later the Government amended its petition to name additional parties, including Dow, who were alleged to be asserting an interest in the land. The question of compensation was referred to commissioners under the Texas practice, which at that time was applicable to federal condemnation proceedings. See United States v. Miller, 317 U.S. 369, 379-380. After a hearing, at which Dow appeared, the commissioners, in 1948, awarded $4,450 for imposition of the pipe-line easement.

After a lengthy unexplained delay in the proceedings, the Government in May 1955 filed a motion for summary judgment against Dow. In March 1956 the District Court granted this motion and dismissed Dow as a party. The District Court found as a fact that Dow's grantors had intended to convey to him "all their right, title and interest in the said Parcel No. 1 or in the award to be made for the same." It then went on to rule that under the Assignment of Claims Act, 31 U. S. C. § 203, this was a prohibited assignment of a claim against the United States, and that the deed was therefore ineffective to convey to Dow the compensation award. The Court

[ 357 U.S. Page 20]

     of Appeals reversed, holding that no assignment was involved because no claim to compensation against the United States "arose and vested" until the filing of the declaration of taking in 1946, and that, because Dow by that time had become owner of the land, he was entitled to the award. 238 F.2d 898. Because the question presented bears importantly on rights resulting from federal condemnation proceedings, we granted the Government's petition for certiorari. 353 U.S. 972.

It is well established, as the Court of Appeals recognized, that the Assignment of Claims Act prohibits the voluntary assignment of a compensation claim against the Government for the taking of property. United States v. Shannon, 342 U.S. 288. In view of the express finding of the District Court that Dow's grantors intended to convey to him their right to the condemnation award, we think that the transfer of the claim in this case must be considered to have been such a voluntary assignment, rather than, as Dow argues, an assignment taking effect by operation of law, and thus not within the Act's prohibition. Cf. United States v. Aetna Casualty & Surety Co., 338 U.S. 366, 373-376; see 23 Tracts of Land v. United States, 177 F.2d 967, 970. We would not be justified in relaxing the rigor of the Act, especially in view of the fact that under its very terms the way was left open for the parties to accomplish a transfer of ...


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