364 U.S. 40 (1960), 270, Armstrong v. United States

Docket Nº:No. 270
Citation:364 U.S. 40, 80 S.Ct. 1563, 4 L.Ed.2d 1554
Party Name:Armstrong v. United States
Case Date:June 27, 1960
Court:United States Supreme Court
 
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Page 40

364 U.S. 40 (1960)

80 S.Ct. 1563, 4 L.Ed.2d 1554

Armstrong

v.

United States

No. 270

United States Supreme Court

June 27, 1960

Argued March 28, 1960

CERTIORARI TO THE COURT OF CLAIMS

Syllabus

Upon default by a shipbuilder on its contract to construct certain boats for the United States, the Government, exercising an option under the contract, required the shipbuilder to transfer to the Government title to the uncompleted boats and the materials on hand for their construction. This made it impossible for petitioners to enforce their materialmen's liens which had attached under state law to the boats and materials when the materials were furnished to the shipbuilder. Petitioners sued in the Court of Claims for compensation for the taking of their liens by the Government.

Held: Petitioners are entitled to recover whatever value their liens had when the Government took title to the boats and materials. Pp. 41-49.

(a) Under the terms of the contract here involved, title to the property was in the shipbuilder when the materials were furnished, and the mere fact that it was contemplated that title eventually would vest in the Government did not prevent the materialmen's liens from attaching. Pp. 42-44.

(b) On the record in this case, petitioners had compensable property interests within the meaning of the Fifth Amendment in their liens on the boats and materials prior to transfer of title to the Government. Pp. 44-46.

(c) Since the Government's action destroyed the value of petitioners' liens, there was, under the circumstances of this case, a "taking" of these liens by the Government, for which compensation is due under the Fifth Amendment. Pp. 46-49.

___ Ct. Cl.___, 169 F.Supp. 259, reversed.

Page 41

BLACK, J., lead opinion

MR. JUSTICE BLACK delivered the opinion of the Court.

In this action petitioners assert materialmen's liens under state law for [80 S.Ct. 1565] materials furnished to a prime contractor building boats for the United States, and seek just compensation under the Fifth Amendment for the value of their liens on accumulated materials and uncompleted work which have been conveyed to the United States.

The United States entered into a contract with the Rice Shipbuilding Corporation for the construction of 11 navy personnel boats. The contract provided that, in the event of default by Rice, the Government could terminate the contract and require Rice to transfer title and deliver to the Government all completed and uncompleted work, together with all manufacturing materials acquired by Rice for building the boats. Petitioners furnished various materials to Rice for use in construction of the boats. Upon Rice's default, the Government exercised its option as to 10 of the boat hulls still under construction; Rice executed an itemized "Instrument of Transfer of Title" conveying to the United States the hulls and all manufacturing materials then on hand; and the Government removed all of these properties to out-of-state naval ship-yards for use in the completion of the boats. When the transfer occurred, petitioners had not been paid for their materials, and they have not been paid since. Petitioners therefore contended that they had liens under Maine law, which provides that

[w]hoever furnishes labor or materials for building a vessel has a lien on it therefor, which may be enforced by attachment thereof within 4 days after it is launched. . . . He also has a lien on the materials furnished before they become part of the vessel, which may be enforced by attachment. . . .

Maine Rev.Stat.1954, c. 178, § 13.

Claiming valid liens on the hulls and manufacturing materials at the time they were transferred by Rice to the

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United States, petitioners asserted that the Government's action destroyed their liens by making them unenforceable and that this constituted a taking of their property without just compensation, in violation of the Fifth Amendment.1 The Court of Claims, relying on United States v. Ansonia Brass & Copper Co., 218 U.S. 452, held that petitioners never acquired valid liens on the hulls or the materials transferred to the Government, and that therefore there had been no taking of any property owned by them. ___ Ct.Cl. ___, 169 F.Supp. 259. We granted certiorari. 361 U.S. 812.

I

The Court of Claims reached its conclusion from the correct premise that laborers and materialmen can acquire no liens on a "public work." Hill v. American Surety Co., 200 U.S. 197, 203; Equitable Surety Co. v. McMillan, 234 U.S. 448, 455; United States v. Munsey Trust Co., 332 U.S. 234, 241. It reasoned that, because the contract between Rice and the United States contemplated that title to the vessels would eventually vest in the Government, the Government had "inchoate title" to the materials supplied by petitioners, rendering such materials "public works" immune from the outset to petitioners' liens. We cannot agree that a mere prospect that property will later be owned by the United States renders that property immune from otherwise valid liens.

The sovereign's immunity against materialmen's liens has never been extended beyond...

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