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State v. Standard Oil Co.

Decided: September 20, 1949.

THE STATE OF NEW JERSEY, BY THEODORE D. PARSONS, ATTORNEY GENERAL OF THE STATE OF NEW JERSEY, PLAINTIFF,
v.
STANDARD OIL COMPANY, DEFENDANT



Jayne, J.s.c.

Jayne

[5 NJSuper Page 466] This action will be recalled as a proceeding instituted in pursuance of the terms of a legislative enactment entitled "An Act providing for the escheat of certain unclaimed personal property," and its amendments, R.S. 2:53-15 to 2:53-32, N.J.S.A. , in which on March 3, 1949, I filed a preliminary memorandum concerning certain controversial points, the legal character of which I was requested to consider in abstract form. 64 A.2d 386. To avoid redundancy of discussion and unnecessary reproduction of citations, the present memorandum is to be regarded as an augmentation of the antecedent opinion.

I heretofore resolved that the so-called Escheat Act is not manifestly unconstitutional on its face. I adhere to that determination. I again conclude as an abstract question that where a right of action has become barred under the provisions of our statutes of limitations, the statutory defense in its ordinary application is, in the existing law of the State of New Jersey as announced by our adjudications and in its relation to the persons implicated, a vested right extinguishing the debt or legal obligation. See citations in 64 A.2d 386.

Notwithstanding the illumination produced by the stipulation of facts, the cardinal point of controversy in the present proceeding continues to attach to the defensive averment that in consequence of the tolling of the statute of limitations the defendant under the authority of our adjudications has acquired a vested right and title to most of the alleged escheatable property.

I unhesitatingly acknowledge that the courts of many other states have conceived such statutes to be mere limitations of remedy and not efficacious either to destroy or to transpose fundamental rights. Nevertheless, it seems to me that the rejection, displacement or inversion of the principle enunciated in our State by Chief Justices Beasley and Gummere, favored by Mr. Justice Bradley of the United States Supreme Court and concurred in by former Justices Dixon, Van Syckel, Depue, Magie, Garrison, Swayze, Parker, Trenchard, Bergen, Minturn, and Kalisch, is a proposal more properly to be cogitated and resolved upon by our court of last resort.

It is the insistence of the defendant that:

"All of the said claims and all choses in action with relation thereto accrued and arose against the defendant more than six years prior to the passage of the Escheat Statute, and that any right of action thereon was barred by the Statute of Limitations before the enactment of the Escheat Statute;

"By virtue of the bar of the Statute of Limitations, the said claims and choses had become legally extinguished and legally unenforceable against the defendant;

"At the time of the enactment of the Escheat Statute, the defendant had a vested right in the defense of the Statute of Limitations as to all such claims;

"The Legislature had no power to divest the said vested right to the defense of the Statute of Limitations, whether the Legislature did so in the interest of the original claimants or in the interest of the State of New Jersey;

"If the Escheat Statute is construed so as to provide for the escheat of such claims to the State of New Jersey, the said Act violates both the New Jersey Constitution and the Constitution of the United States, in that it violates the right of the defendant to acquire, possess and protect property and that it takes the property of the defendant for the public use of the State of New Jersey without compensation and that it deprives the defendant of its property without due process of law."

Obviously, if the principle which is presently regarded as establishing a vested right in the debtor with its consequent annihilation of the debt and in some instances its resultant transmission of title were to be abrogated, my present problem would materially evaporate.

At the argument I was fervidly invited to realize that to sustain the claim of the State against the defendant's invocation of the effectiveness of the statute of limitations would visit no prejudicial injury upon the defendant, whereas to confirm the defendant's contention upon that issue would in effect enable the defendant to aggrandize its private resources by bequests of unearned and undeserved assets.

I do not decline to envision the equitable aspects of the subject. In the composition of the Escheat Act of present interest the Legislature expressly conferred upon the former Court of Chancery exclusive jurisdiction over the contemplated proceedings, presumably with the intention that such proceedings would be governed by the principles and practices of a court of equity.

The jurisdiction of the former Court of Chancery has been transferred in its entirety to this court to be exercised primarily by its Chancery Division. Steiner v. Stein , 2 N.J. 367, 66 A.2d 719.

True, the rule has been familiar to us that if the subject matter in controversy in a Court of Chancery is of an equitable nature, not cognizable in a court of law, statutes of limitations although not ignored have no obligatory ...


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