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SUPREME LODGE K P v. MEYER, 265 U.S. 30 (1924)

U.S. Supreme Court

SUPREME LODGE K P v. MEYER, 265 U.S. 30 (1924)

265 U.S. 30

No. 214.

Argued March 12, 1924.
Decided April 28, 1924.

[265 U.S. 30, 31]   Messrs. W. J. Connell, of Omaha, Neb., Sol H. Esarey, of Indianapolis, Ind., and Thomas P. Littlepage and Sidney F. Taliaferro, both of Washington, D. C., for plainin error.

Mr. D. W. Livingston, of Nebraska City, Neb., for defendant in error.

Mr. Justice SUTHERLAND delivered the opinion of the Court.

This case is here on error and also upon petition for writ of certiorari. Consideration of the latter was postponed until hearing on the merits.

Defendant in error was the beneficiary named in a benefit certificate of life insurance issued to one of its members, by the plaintiff in error, a fraternal order created by Act of Congress of June 29, 1981, c. 119, 28 Stat. 96. Upon the death of the assured an action was brought in a state court by the beneficiary to recover the amount of the insurance, and judgment was rendered in his favor. On appeal to the state Supreme Court the judgment was affirmed on the authority of the decision of the same court on a former appeal.

After the insurance policy had gone into effect, the Supreme Lodge, by an amendment, increased the dues from $5.70 per month to $26.30 per month. Prior to the effective date of the new rates the assured had paid all dues assessed under the old rates. After such date he refused to pay at the new rates, upon the ground, among others, that in disregard of a state statute the society was not operating under a representative form of government when the rates were increased; but he regularly and duly tendered payment at the old rates. [265 U.S. 30, 32]   Section 4 of the congressional act provides:

A statute of Nebraska in force at the time the new rates were adopted defines a fraternal benefit society as a corporation, etc., organized and carried on for the sole benefit of its members and their beneficiaries and not for profit, and provides:

According to the stipulation of facts, the Supreme Lodge when it made the amendment increasing rates, 'was composed of 163 members and that of such members 9 were Past Supreme Chancellors, 8 were Supreme Officers of the defendant, 98 were holders of certificates in the Insurance Department, and 146 were delegates elected by the various Grand Lodges within the order,' all of whom participated in enacting the amendment. On the first appeal, the state Supreme Court, after a full discussion of the question and of the facts, and a review of its earlier decisions, held that the body above described did not constitute a representative form of government, within the meaning of the state statute. 104 Neb. 505, 177 N. W. 828. Upon rehearing the court adhered to this conclusion, 104 Neb. 511, 180 N. W. 579; and, upon the second appeal, again affirmed it, 189 N. W. 839.

Under the settled rule of this court, declared so frequently and uniformly as to have become axiomatic, we must accept this decision of the highest court of the state fixing the meaning of the state legislation, as though such meaning had been specifically expressed therein. See, for example, Leffingwell v. Warren, 2 Black, 599, 603; Green v. Lessee of Neal, 6 Pet. 291, 297-300. And we follow [265 U.S. 30, 33]   the state construction, even though it may not agree with our own opinion. Supervisors v. United States, 18 Wall. 71, 82.1 Shelby v. Guy, 11 Wheat. 361, 367; Tioga R. R. v. Blossburg & Corning R. R., 20 Wall. 137, 143. No question is raised as to the necessity for compliance with the provisions of the state statute; but the defense pleaded and relied upon is that the matter was concluded by a decree of the federal District Court of Indiana, affirmed by the Circuit Court of Appeals, Holt v. Supreme Lodge Knights of Pythias, 235 Fed. 885, 149 C. C. A. 197, establishing the validity and enforceability of the increased rates; that such decree was binding, as res adjudicata, upon Meyer, the plaintiff; and that the court below, in declining to so consider it, denied full faith and credit to the judicial proceedings of another state, in contravention of article 4, 1, of the Constitution of the United States, and of section 905, Revised Statutes (Comp. St. 1519).

While the judicial proceedings of the federal courts are not within the terms of the constitutional provision, such proceedings, nevertheless, must be accorded the same full faith and credit by state courts as would be required in respect of the judicial proceedings of another state. Hancock National Bank v. Farnum, 176 U.S. 640, 644 , 20 S. Sup. Ct. 506; Embry v. Palmer, 107 U.S. 3, 9 , 2 S. Sup. Ct. 25. It appears from the record in the Holt Case, which was in evidence and is in the record here, that the court expressly found that the society was, during its entire existence, operating under a representative form of government. We assume, for present purposes, that the plaintiff is bound by that decree; but the question-and the vital question-still remains, is the issue the same? We are of the opinion that it is not the same, and that the plea of res adjudicata fails.

The principal place of business of the order was in Indiana; and the question presented in the Holt Case, which was brought in Indiana, evidently was whether [265 U.S. 30, 34]   there was a representative form of government within the meaning of the statute of that state (section 5043; 2 Burns' Indiana Stats. 1914, p. 882), since the federal statute made no requirement on the subject, and the finding, unless to satisfy the Indiana law, would have been meaningless. The question of compliance with the statute of Nebraska or those of other states was not involved. The Indiana statute is reproduced in the margin,2 and, as will be seen, differs from the Nebraska statute, in that the former specifically defines what shall constitute a representative form of government, while the latter does not. But if we assume, for the moment, that the two statutes are alike, nevertheless, our determination must be the same. It was within the competency of the federal court to construe the Indiana statute in one way, and it was equally within the competency of the Nebraska Supreme Court to construe the Nebraska statute in an opposite way; and, since the construction becomes part of the statute and is to be read as though in its text, in the one case as in the other, the result is that they are, in effect, not the same, but different [265 U.S. 30, 35]   statutes. In Christy v. Pridgeon, 4 Wall. 196, 203 (18 L. Ed. 322) this court said:

In Louisiana v. Pilsbury, 105 U.S. 278 , 294 (26 L. Ed. 1090) it was said:

See Shelby v. Guy, supra; May v. Tenney, 148 U.S. 60 , 64 13 Sup. Ct. 491; Detroit v. Osborne, 135 U.S. 492, 498 , 10 S. Sup. Ct. 1012; Chicago Union Bank v. Kansas City Bank, 136 U.S. 223, 235 , 10 S. Sup. Ct. 1013.

It follows that there is not identity of issue in the two cases, since, so far as this court is concerned, the statutes which determine it are of exactly opposite import. In principle, it is the same as though the Indiana statute, which controlled the question decided in the first suit, had been superseded by a later Indiana enactment to the contrary effect, and a second suit, arising under and controlled by the later enactment, was brought, involving the same question. The intervention of the new and antagonistic statute in either case furnishes a new basis for the litigation, and the issue is no longer the same. Memphis City Bank v. Tennessee, 161 U.S. 186 , [265 U.S. 30, 36]   192, 16 Sup. Ct. 468; Utter v. Franklin, 172 U.S. 416, 424 , 19 S. Sup. Ct. 183; Erskine v. Steele County (C. C.) 87 Fed. 630, 636; affirmed 98 Fed. 215, 220, 39 C. C. A. 173.

Prior decisions of this court are pressed upon our attention, of which Supreme Lodge, Knights of Pythias, v. Mims, 241 U.S. 574 , 36 Sup. Ct. 702, L. R. A. 1916F, 919, and Supreme Council of the Royal Arcanum v. Green, 237 U.S. 531 , 35 Sup. Ct. 724, L. R. A. 1916A, 771, are examples. They are not in point. Neither the effect of state statutes imposing conditions like the one here under review, nor the question in respect of identity of issue, upon which the plea of res adjudicata in the present case turns, was involved or considered.

Under section 709 Revised Statutes (Judicial Code, 237; Comp. St 1214), this case would be properly here upon writ of error, Pittsburg, etc ., Ry. Co. v. Long Island Loan & Trust Co., 172 U.S. 493, 508 , 19 S. Sup. Ct. 238; Hancock National Bank v. Farnum, supra; Embry v. Palmer, supra; but, as amended by the Act of September 6, 1916, c. 448, 39 Stat. 726, the remedy is by certiorari. We therefore dismiss the writ of error, grant the petition for certiorari, Yazoo & M. V. R. R. Co. v. Clarksdale, 257 U.S. 10 , 15-16, 42 Sup. Ct. 27, and, for the reasons given above, affirm the judgment of the state Supreme Court.


The separate opinion of Mr. Justice McREYNOLDS:

Claiming as beneficiary, Meyer brought an action upon a policy issued by the Supreme Lodge in the district court, Otoe county, Neb.

The declaration alleges:

And further that the assured died April 11, 1916, after performing all things required of him.

Certificate No. 4651-Exhibit A-recites that Louis J. Meyer had been accepted as a member of the insurance department and the Supreme Lodge promised to pay the designated beneficiary two thousand dollars, subject to certain conditions and payment of $5.70 each month. Also:

The defense was that by a duly adopted rule, or law, the Supreme Lodge had increased the monthly rates for [265 U.S. 30, 38]   the time subsequent to January 1, 1911, and assured had refused to pay them.

The act of Congress which incorporated the Supreme Lodge among other things provided:

Under this federal charter it might amend its statutes, or by-laws, and the change of rates was effective unless prohibited by statute as to Nebraska members. The obligation of the contract between the lodge and the assured presents a question of federal law. Royal Arcanum v. Green, 237 U.S. 531 , 35 Sup. Ct. 724, L. R. A. 1916A, 771; Hartford Life Insurance Co. v. Ibs, 237 U.S. 662 , 35 Sup. Ct. 692, L. R. A. 1916A, 765; Supreme Lodge, Knights of Pythias, v. Mims, 241 U.S. 574 , 36 Sup. Ct. 702, L. R. A. 1916F, 919. This is plain under the last-cited case, which reviewed and reversed the judgment of the Texas court denying the validiy of the bylaw here questioned.

The court below held that, under chapter 47, General Laws of Nebraska 1897, the action of the Supreme Lodge in undertaking to increase rates was without effect because the association did not have a 'representative form of government.' And this makes it necessary to inquire whether that act is fairly susceptible of the construction adopted by the state court. Generally this court accepts the construction of a local statute approved by the state court of last resort, but the rule does not apply where this is fanciful and amounts to a mere subterfuge. Leathe v. Thomas, 207 U.S. 93, 99 , 28 S. Sup. Ct. 30; Vandalia Railroad v. South Bend, 207 U.S. 359, 367 , 28 S. Sup. Ct. 130; Enterprise Irrigation District v. Canal Co., 243 U.S. 157, 164 , 37 S. Sup. Ct. 318; Superior Water Co. v. Superior, 263 U.S. 125, 136 , 44 S. Sup. Ct. 82, 68 L. Ed. --.

Chapter 47 contains 24 sections. The first declares:

The remaining sections relate to the organization and government of domestic corporations and provide for reports by and the licensing and duties of such corporations when organized in other states. Section 16:

There is nothing in the act which excludes an association with a government like that of plaintiff in error. It does not undertake to invalidate contracts of such companies after licenses have been issued to them. Nor do I find that the laws of the state inhibited the auditor from licensing an association with a nonrepresentative form of government.

It is stipulated and agreed:

With knowledge of its form of government, the duly designated official licensed it to do business within the state. [265 U.S. 30, 40]   Attributing a fanciful meaning to the term 'representative form of government,' the court below declared that the challenged by-law was not adopted as required by the Nebraska statute and therefore was without force within that state. This was the excuse offered for annulling an agreement entered into by an association incorporated under federal law and duly licensed by the state.

A view of the statute is enough to show that it did not undertake to prescribe rules for the internal government of foreign corporations licensed to do business within the state or to control agreements between such corporations and their members.

Moreover, it seems impossible reasonably to conclude that plaintiff in error had no 'representative form of government' because a few officers, by virtue of their positions, constituted a small minority (10 per cent.) of the lawmaking body, otherwise composed of elected representatives. And certainly the conclusion of the court is not strengthened by the opinion, which advances the following as the reason therefor:

In the circumstances, I think we should refuse to accept a ruling so obviously contrary to reason, treat it as a mere subterfuge, and hold that under Knights of Pythias v. Mims, supra, the rates were properly increased, and by failing to pay them the assured surrendered all rights under the policy.


[ Footnote 1 ] 21 L. Ed. 771.

[ Footnote 2 ] Section 5043: '... Each association shall shall have a lodge system with ritualistic form of work and a representative form of government. Any association having a supreme governing or legislative body and subordinate lodges or branches by whatever name known, into which members shall be elected, initiated and admitted in accordance with its constitution, laws, rules, regulations, and prescribed ritualistic ceremonies, which subordinate lodges or branches shall be required by such association to hold regular or stated meetings at least once in each month, shall be deemed to be operating under the lodge system. Any association shall be deemed to have a representative form of government when it shall provide in its constitution and laws for a supreme legislative or governing body, composed of representatives elected either by the members or by delegates elected by the members through a delegate convention system, together with such other members as may be prescribed by its constitution and laws: Provided, that the elective representatives shall constitute a majority in number and have not less than a majority of the votes, nor less than the votes required to amend its constitution and laws . ...'

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