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State v. American Sugar Refining Co.

Decided: January 9, 1956.

THE STATE OF NEW JERSEY -- BY WALTER D. VAN RIPER, ATTORNEY-GENERAL OF THE STATE OF NEW JERSEY, PLAINTIFF-APPELLANT,
v.
THE AMERICAN SUGAR REFINING COMPANY, A CORPORATION OF THE STATE OF NEW JERSEY, DEFENDANT-RESPONDENT, AND THE COMMONWEALTH OF MASSACHUSETTS, INTERVENOR-CLAIMANT-RESPONDENT



For reversal -- Chief Justice Vanderbilt, and Justices Heher, Oliphant, Wachenfeld, Burling, Jacobs and Brennan. For affirmance -- None. The opinion of the court was delivered by Jacobs, J.

Jacobs

The State of New Jersey appealed to the Appellate Division from the judgment of the Chancery Division that dividends which had been declared many years ago by The American Sugar Refining Company, a New Jersey corporation, and had remained unclaimed by stockholders whose last known addresses were in Massachusetts, escheated to Massachusetts rather than New Jersey. We certified New Jersey's appeal under R.R. 1:10-1.

The early common-law doctrine of escheat was confined to real property; it was an incident of tenure and related to the right of the lord to take for want of a tenant. State v. Otis Elevator Co., 19 N.J. Super. 107, 108 (Ch. 1952), reversed 12 N.J. 1 (1953); 3 Holdsworth's History of English Law (3 rd ed. 1923), 67. Later it was extended to personal property which had no owner or whose owner or owner's whereabouts was unknown. State, by Parsons, v. Standard Oil Co., 5 N.J. 281, 297 (1950), affirmed sub nom. Standard Oil Co. v. State of New Jersey, 341 U.S. 428, 71 S. Ct. 822,

95 L. Ed. 1078 (1951). Cf. 7 Holdsworth's History of English Law 495 (1926); 10 Id. 350 (1938); Garrison, Escheats, Abandoned Property Acts and Their Revenue Aspects, 35 Ky. L.J. 302 (1947). The New Jersey Legislature first asserted its sovereign power to appropriate such personal property within its borders by the passage of its Escheat Act of 1946 (L. 1946, c. 155; N.J.S.A. 2:53-15 et seq.; N.J.S. 2 A:37-11 et seq.). That act provides that whenever personal property within the State remains unclaimed for the period of 14 successive years it "shall escheat to the state"; its constitutionality has been expressly sustained by the United States Supreme Court and is not in question here. Standard Oil Co. v. State of New Jersey, supra. Its definitions and terms are comprehensive and its reference to "any personal property within this state" includes unclaimed tangible and intangible property within New Jersey no matter where the last owners were last situated. Unclaimed dividends owing from a New Jersey corporation to its stockholders wherever located constitute property within this State within the contemplation of the Act. See State, by Parsons, v. Standard Oil Co., supra. Cf. Security Sav. Bank v. California, 263 U.S. 282, 285, 44 S. Ct. 108, 110, 68 L. Ed. 301, 306 (1923), where Justice Brandeis described unclaimed deposits in a local bank as "intangible property within the state" over which "the state has the same dominion that it has over tangible property." See also Anderson National Bank v. Luckett, 321 U.S. 233, 64 S. Ct. 599, 88 L. Ed. 692 (1944).

On January 14, 1949 the State of New Jersey instituted action under its Escheat Act against the defendant The American Sugar Refining Company, a corporation of New Jersey. Its complaint alleged that the defendant had in its possession "certain personal property which has escheated" to the State of New Jersey and sought discovery and, after hearing, a judgment escheating such property as came within the terms of the act. On January 24, 1949 the court entered an order providing for answer and discovery and directing that the defendant retain possession of the escheatable property

in its custody until further order of the court. On July 17, 1951 the defendant filed its answer which listed (among other matters) the last known addresses of the last known owners of unclaimed dividends payable between January 10, 1891 and January 14, 1935. The list contained 1,162 names of which 501 indicated last known addresses in Massachusetts; whether these were residences, places of business, or other addresses, is mostly undisclosed; some were post office addresses, others were in care of banks or other institutions or individuals, and still others were in municipalities without street addresses. Some individual claims were filed and honored by the court but there remained the sum of $8,235.45 unclaimed on dividends payable to persons with last known addresses somewhere in Massachusetts. It is this sum which is now in dispute, with New Jersey claiming it under its Escheat Act and Massachusetts, an intervening party under petition filed on October 20, 1952, claiming it under chapter 200 A of Massachusetts General Laws.

About 18 months after the State of New Jersey filed its complaint, Massachusetts enacted chapter 200 A of its General Laws; prior thereto there was no pertinent escheats legislation in effect in Massachusetts. Chapter 200 A provides that dividends held "for the benefit of a person residing or having a place of business" in Massachusetts and unclaimed for 14 years or more shall be presumed abandoned and shall be surrendered to the State Commissioner of Corporations and Taxation. It provides further that property which has been surrendered to the Commissioner shall vest in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts and that the Commissioner shall thereafter transfer it or its proceeds to the Treasurer and Receiver General for placement in an abandoned property fund. Whenever such fund exceeds $100,000 the excess is then to be placed in the Old Age Assistance Fund. Any person claiming an interest in property surrendered to the Commissioner is authorized to establish his claim "at any time thereafter." The State of New Jersey contends that the Massachusetts statute is merely a custody rather than an absolute escheats law and that, in any event,

it unconstitutionally fails to satisfy due process requirements. Cf. State v. Otis Elevator Co., supra, 12 N.J., at page 18. For present purposes, we accept the position advanced by Massachusetts that its enactment may be construed as an absolute escheats law and that it is not violative of any constitutional requirement. See Anderson National Bank v. Luckett, supra.

Almost three years after the State of New Jersey filed its complaint, the Legislature passed chapter 304 of the Laws of 1951. See N.J.S. 2 A:37-29 et seq. This statute provides a method for taking custody of (and thereafter escheating) personal property when it has remained unclaimed for five successive years. It is admittedly an alternative method and has nothing to do with the proceeding in the instant matter. See State, by Parsons, v. National Newark & Essex Banking Co., 31 N.J. Super. 246, 250 (Ch. Div. 1954); State v. American-Hawaiian Steamship Co., 29 N.J. Super. 116, 122 (Ch. Div. 1953). Cf. State v. Thermoid Co., 16 N.J. 274, 275 (1954). We find no merit to the contention advanced by Massachusetts that it may in some manner serve to delimit the scope of the original Escheat Act and that the State of New Jersey was under obligation to apply for an amendment of its complaint to seek relief under L. 1951, c. 304. It is true, as Massachusetts points out, that L. 1951, c. 304 contains a provision that when a proceeding to escheat personal property is pending under the original 14-year act it "may be amended at any time to include proceedings under the alternate method"; but as its very language indicates that provision was not designed to convert an absolute escheat proceeding under the 14-year statute into a custody proceeding under the short 5-year statute.

Massachusetts concedes that unclaimed dividends due from the American Sugar Refining Company to its stock holders have a situs in New Jersey sufficient to support the institution of proceedings for their escheat under L. 1946, c. 155, as amended (N.J.S. 2 A:37-11 et seq.); in view of the Supreme Court's decision in Standard ...


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