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Real and Personal Defenses in Actions
on Negotiable Paper
BY FRANCIS M. BURDICK
In the Index and Summary to his collection of Cases on Bills and Notes, Professor Ames classified defenses to actions on negotiable instruments as real and personal. He described a real defense as one "founded upon a right good against the world.” It attaches "to the res, i. e., the instrument itself regardless of the merits or demerits of the plaintiff.” A personal defense, however, is “founded upon the agreement or conduct of a particular person in regard to the instrument which renders it inequitable for him, though holding the legal title, to enforce it against the defendant."
Real defenses, continues the learned author, are based upon (a) the incapacity of the defendant to make a contract, as in the case of infants and married women at common law; (b) illegality, which by statute renders the contract absolutely void, for example, usury and gambling in many jurisdictions; (c) extinguishment, by cancellation and alteration.
Later, he refers to another species of real defense which is based on impeaching the legal existence of the instrument as defendant's contract. Examples are found in cases where promissory notes, negotiable in form, have been filled out over defendant's signature, which had been written on a piece of blank paper, without any intention of signing a contract.3
12. Ames, Bills and Notes, 811. These defenses are called "Absolute and Equities" by Bigelow, (Bills and No 2d ed., 200) and “Legal and Equitable" in 8 Corpus Juris, 716.
2 Ibid. 865.
Nance v. Leary, 5 Ala. 370 (1843). Defendant wrote his name on a sheet of paper, for the purpose of having a bond written above it. The purpose was abandoned, but, without defendant's knowledge, the paper was taken; a negotiable promissory note was written over the signature and passed to plaintiff as a holder in due course. Caulkins v. Whisler, 29 Ia. 495 (1870). Defendant wrote his name on a blank paper to be filed as a specimen of his signature. "In the case before us,” said the court, "the instrument was falsely and fraudulently made over the genuine signature of the defendant, which was obtained not for the purpose of binding him by any contract.
The note is a forgery and void."
Differing somewhat from those just mentioned are other cases where defendant knew that he was signing a legal document of some kind, but, without fault on his part, was tricked into believing that he was not incurring the obligation of a party to negotiable paper.*
The legal problems arising in the cases mentioned and in others to be considered later in this article, are most easily solved by applying the principles upon which real and personal defenses rest and the principles underlying the doctrine of estoppel. It is true that courts have disagreed in the application of these principles and the legislature, as we shall see, has been called upon to terminate the controversy by statutory fiat.
In the absence of specific legislation, when a party is sued upon paper of the sort described above, he “challenges the existence of the paper itself.
It is always competent for him to show that it is not his instrument or obligation. The principle is the same as where instruments are made by persons having no capacity to make binding contracts, as by infants, married women or insane persons; or where they are void for other cause, as for usury; or where they are executed by an agent, but without authority to bind his supposed principal. In these and all like cases, no additional validity is given to the instruments by putting them in the form of negotiable
Whether, in such cases, the defendant is in fault in delivering an instrument which turns out to be negotiable paper, is usually one of fact. If the jury finds that he was without fault; that he was not guilty of “laches or carelessness”? in being made the victim of the trick practiced upon him, then the conclusion of law follows that he did not make the negotiable paper in suit. He has established a defense to the res in whosesoever hands it may be.
Another situation in which a real defense is available is that where the defendant has signed an incomplete note or bill, but has never delivered it, and without authority from him it is taken, completed and negotiated. The instrument has never been executed by the defendant. As against him it has no existence: nor is any legal fault
Foster v. McKinnon, L. R. 4 C. P. 704 (1869); Taylor v. Atchison, 54 Ill. 196 (1870); Barry v. Mut. L. Ins. Co., 211 Mass. 306 (1912); Gibbs v. Linabury, 22 Mich. 479 (1871); Whitney v. Snyder, 2 Lans. (N. Y.) 477 (1870); De Camp v. Hanna, 29 Oh. St. 467 (1876); Walker v. Ebert, 29 Wis. 194 (1871).
5Walker v. Ebert, supra, note 4. Chapman v. Rose, 56 N. Y. 137 (1874).
"Nat. Exchange Bank v. Veneman, 43 Hun (N. Y.) 241, 244 (1887); De Camp v. Hanna, 29 Oh. St. 467 (1876).
8Lewis v. Clay, 67 L. J. Q. B. 224 (1898), and authorities cited.
'Linick v. Nutting & Co., 140 App. Div. (N. Y.) 265 (1910), and authorities cited in the opinion.
imputable to him in the transaction. He did not act at his peril in signing this inchoate instrument. He was under no legal duty to anticipate and guard against criminal use of this incomplete writing:10 The situation is widely different from that where the defendant intrusts such incomplete document to one for the purpose of having it completed for use as a negotiable instrument. Abuse of authority thus conferred would avail the defendant as a personal, not as a real defense.11 The distinction lies in the intention accompanying the act of the defendant. In the former case he signs with no intention of then emitting the instrument as negotiable paper. 12 In the latter case he does so intend.13
Suppose the defendant, after signing a complete bill or note, retains it in his possession, with no present intention of issuing it, but it is stolen by the payee and negotiated to a holder in due course. Has the defendant a real defense against the holder?
At the time Professor Ames compiled his collection of cases, the decisions were at variance. Some courts held that the paper had no existence and applied the principles which governed the cases of inchoate instruments.14 Others insisted either that the case was one of defect of title as distinguished from non-existence, 15 or that the defendant was estopped from showing the non-existence of the instrument because of the inherent danger to holders in due course from signing a complete bill or note.16
The controversy was settled in England by the Bills of Exchange Act, and in this country by the Negotiable Instruments Lawls in
10Smith v. Prosser, (1907] 2 K. B. 735; Baxendale v. Bennett, 3 Q. B. D. 525 (1878); Holzman, C., & Co. v. Teague, 172 App. Div. (N. Y.) 75 (1916).
11Market & Fulton Nat. Bank v. Sargent, 85 Me. 349 (1893). In Ledwich v. McKim, 53 N. Y. 307, 314 (1873), it is said: "There cannot be an enabling of the wrongful act, unless there be assisting action of the party to the instrument who is sought to be bound, and there must be that in his conduct, in relation to the paper, which shows a parting with the possession of it for use, or with a confidence in him to whom it is delivered."
12Ray v. Willson, 45 Can. Sup. Ct. 401, 409,411 (1911). "If it is shown that the instrument signed was not intended to be issued or to become a bill or note
he is not liable if the bill or note is fraudulently issued.” Campbell v. Bourque, 24 Manitoba L. R. 252 (1914).
13Smith v. Prosser, supra, note 1o; Bills of Exchange Act, sec. 21; N. Y. Neg. Instr. Law, sec. 33.
14 Burson v. Huntington, 21 Mich. 415 (1870); Sheffer v. Fleischer, 158 Mich. 270 (1909); Salley v. Terrill
, 95 Me. 553 (1901); Hall v. Wilson, 16 Barb. (N. Y.) 548 (1853); Roberts v. McGrath, 38 Wis. 52 (1875); Baxendale v. Bennett, 3. Q. B. D. 525 (1878). See note, 19 L. R. A. (N.S.) 111, stating that these cases constituted the clear weight of authority.
15 Kinyon v. Wohlford, 17 Minn. 239 (1871); Clarke v. Johnson, 54 Ill. 296 (1870).
16Ewart on Estoppel, 397 et seq. 17Sec. 21. 18Sects. 33, 34 and 35 of the N. Y. Act.
favor of the holder in due course. The draftsman of the American Statute states that the provision was inserted to facilitate the circulation of commercial paper, but that "it does not apply in the case of an incomplete instrument completed and negotiated without authority."'1 Such is the construction put upon these statutes in England, in Canada and in this country.20
In other words, the legislation estops21 the defendant from establishing a real defense when he has signed a complete negotiable instrument, but not when the instrument is incomplete. In the former case, he is bound at his peril to keep the instrument from getting into the hands of a holder in due course.
In the latter case, he is not subject to that duty. And yet, the holder in due course is equally liable to imposition in the one case as in the other. In both cases, the instrument reaches him in the form of a completed bill or note. Logic seems to be on the side of Mr. Ewart's view that the holder should be able to estop the defendant from his real defense in both cases, 22 or in neither. But English law is far from being a system of logic, and the compromise between the claims of the innocently deluded holder and the innocently despoiled defendant, which is embodied in the Negotiable Instruments Law, seems to satisfy both the creditor and debtor classes of the commercial community.
Mr. Ewart seeks support for his views of estoppel in the doctrine of market overt.23 But the analogy between the position of a holder in due course of negotiable paper and a purchaser of chattels in market overt appears to be accidental. The market overt doctrine was not introduced into English law for the purpose of giving to chattels the liquid quality of circulating medium,24 and it was subject to many limitations which have never attached to the rights of a holder in due course.25 Moreover, while modern English law seeks to facilitate the circulation of negotiable paper, it has no encouragement for market overt practices, and they have no legal status in Scotland, or Canada or this country.26
1°Crawford's Annotated Negotiable Instruments Law (4th ed.), 46.
20Schaeffer v. Marsh, 90 Misc. (N. Y.) 307 (1915); Linick v. Nutting, 140 App. Div. (N. Y.) 265 (1910); Angus v. Downs, 85 Wash. 75 (1915), L. R. A. 1915E 351, and note.
21 The English statute, (sec. 21), uses "conclusively presumed" instead of "estopped", because the latter term was not known to Scotch law, and our statute copies the language of the English act.
22 Ewart on Estoppel, 456-467.
23Ewart on Estoppel, 404, quoting from Crane v. London Dock Co., 5 B. & S. 313, 318 (1864), that the law as to market overt "was established for the protection of buyers, that, if a man did not pursue his goods to market where such goods were openly sold, he ought not to interfere with the right of the honest and bona fide purchaser.
24Burdick's Law of Sales (3d ed.), 197. The suggestion of Mr. Pease (8 Col. L. Rev. 375), that the law merchant treated chattels sold at public markets and fairs, as "negotiable" is not sustained by the authorities.
Whether usury is a real defense under the Negotiable Instruments Law is a question which has received directly opposite answers from our courts. There can be no doubt, that, before the statute, it was a defense even against a holder in due course, in a jurisdiction where usury rendered the instrument “void.”27 If, however, the usurious transaction was simply declared illegal, the defense was personal, not real.28 There is nothing in the Negotiable Instruments Law which expressly changes the rule. It declares that “a holder in due course holds the instrument free from any defect of title of prior parties and free from defenses available to prior parties among themselves, and may enforce payment of the instrument for the full amount thereof against all parties liable thereon."29 Is the maker of a negotiable note, which is declared void by statute, a party liable thereon? It would seem that he is not. Certainly a maker legally incapacited to contract is not. Nor is the maker of a forged note, or of one which has been extinguished by cancellation or alteration. None of these cases involves a defect of title. Each is a case of an apparent though really non-existent obligation. It is submitted that the decisions are sound, which hold that the Negotiable Instruments Law has not changed the rule applicable to usury as a real defense.30
The statute in question expressly declares that “absence or failure of consideration is matter of defense as against any person not a holder in due course. Professor Ames limited this personal defense to failure of consideration.32 A bill or note, in his opinion,
25 The case of Market Overt, 5 Coke, 83 b (1596). "If the sale be in the shop of a goldsmith, either behind a hanging, or behind a cupboard upon which his plate stands, so that one that stood or passed by the shop could not see it, it would not change the property; so if the sale be not in the shop, for that is not a market overt, and none would search there for his goods.” See opinion of Blackburn, J., in Crane v. London Dock Co., supra, note 23, and authorities cited by him.
26Chalmers' Sale of Goods (7th ed.), 73; Ventress v. Smith, 10 Pet. (35 U. S.) 161, 176 (1836).
21 Lowe v. Waller, 2 Doug. 736 (1781); Bacon v. Lee, 4 Ia. 490 (1851); Kendall v. Robertson, 66 Mass. (12 Cush.) 156 (1853); Chaflin v. Boorum, 122 N. Y. 385 (1890). 28Clark v. Pease, 41 N. H.
(1860). 29Sec. 96 of the N. Y. Act.' See Union Trust Co. v. Preston Nat. Bank, 136 Mich. 460 (1904).
30Perry Savings Bank v. Fitzgerald, 167 Ia. 446 (1914); Eskridge v. Thomas, 91 S. E. (W. Va.) 7 (1916).
31N. Y. Statute, sec. 54.