Clifford Evoy Co v. United States Calvin Tomkins Co

Decision Date24 April 1944
Docket NumberNo. 483,483
Citation88 L.Ed. 1163,64 S.Ct. 890,322 U.S. 102
PartiesCLIFFORD F. MacEVOY CO. et al. v. UNITED STATES, for Use and Benefit of CALVIN TOMKINS CO
CourtU.S. Supreme Court

Mr. Edward F. Clark, of New York City, for petitioners.

Mr. Benjamin P. DeWitt, of New York City, for respondent.

Mr. Justice MURPHY delivered the opinion of the Court.

The United States entered into a contract with the petitioner Clifford F. MacEvoy Company whereby the latter agreed to furnish the materials and to perform the work necessary for the construction of dwelling units of a Defense Housing Project near Linden, New Jersey, on a cost-plus-fixed-fee basis. Pursuant to the Miller Act,1 MacEvoy as principal and the petitioner Aetna Casualty and Surety Company as surety executed a payment bond in the amount of $1,000,000, conditioned on the prompt payment by MacEvoy 'to all persons supplying labor and material in the prosecution of the work provided for in said contract.' The bond was duly accepted by the United States.

MacEvoy thereupon purchased from James H. Miller & Company certain building materials for use in the prosecution of the work provided for in MacEvoy's contract with the Government. Miller in turn purchased these materials from the respondent, Calvin Tomkins Company. Miller failed to pay Tomkins a balance of $12,033.49. There is no allegation that Miller agreed to perform or did perform any part of the work on the construction project. Nor is it disputed that MacEvoy paid Miller in full for the materials.

Within ninety days from the date on which Tomkins furnished the last of the materials to Miller, Tomkins gave written notice to MacEvoy and the surety of the existence and amount of Tomkins' claim for materials furnished to Miller. Tomkins as use-plaintiff then instituted this action against MacEvoy and the surety on the payment bond. The District Court granted petitioners' motion to dismiss the complaint for failure to state a claim against them. 49 F.Supp. 81. The Circuit Court of Appeals reversed the judgment. 137 F.2d 565. We granted certiorari because of a novel and important question presented under the Miller Act. 320 U.S. 733, 64 S.Ct. 267.

Specifically the issue is whether under the Miller Act a person supplying materials to a materialman of a Government contractor and to whom an unpaid balance is due from the materialman can recover on the payment bond executed by the contractor. We hold that he cannot.

The Heard Act,2 which was the predecessor of the Miller Act, required Government contractors to execute penal bonds for the benefit of 'all persons supplying him or them with labor and materials in the prosecution of the work provided for in such contract.' We consistently applied a liberal construction to that statute, noting that it was remedial in nature and that it clearly evidenced 'the intention of Congress to protect those whose labor or material has contributed to the prosecution of the work.' United States, for Use of Hill, v. American Surety Co., 200 U.S. 197, 204, 26 S.Ct. 168, 170, 50 L.Ed. 437. See also Mankin v. United States to Use of Ludowici-Celadon Co., 215 U.S. 533, 30 S.Ct. 174, 54 L.Ed. 315; United States Fidelity & Guaranty Co. v. United States for Benefit of Bartlett, 231 U.S. 237, 34 S.Ct. 88, 58 L.Ed. 200; Brogan v. National Surety Co., 246 U.S. 257, 38 S.Ct. 250, 62 L.Ed. 703, L.R.A.1918D, 776; Fleishmann Construction Co. v. United States to Use of Forsberg, 270 U.S. 349, 46 S.Ct. 284, 70 L.Ed. 624; Standard Accident Insurance Co. v. United States for Use and Benefit of Powell, 302 U.S. 442, 58 S.Ct. 314, 82 L.Ed. 350. We accordingly held that the phrase 'all persons supplying (the contractor) * * * with labor and materials' included not only those furnishing labor and materials directly to the prime contractor but also covered those who contributed labor and materials to subcontractors. United States, for Use of Hill, v. American Surety Co., supra, 200 U.S. 204, 26 S.Ct. 170, 50 L.Ed. 437; Mankin v. United States for Use of Ludowici-Celadon Co., supra, 215 U.S. 539, 30 S.Ct. 176, 54 L.Ed. 315; Illinois Surety Co. v. John Davis Co., 244 U.S. 376, 380, 37 S.Ct. 614, 616, 61 L.Ed. 1206. We had no occasion, however, to determine under that Act whether those who merely sold materials to materialmen, who in turn sold them to the prime contractors, were included within the phrase and hence entitled to recover on the penal bond.3

The Miller Act, while it repealed the Heard Act, reinstated its basic provisions and was designed primarily to eliminate certain procedural limitations on its beneficiaries.4 There was no expressed purpose in the legis- lative history to restrict in any way the coverage of the Heard Act; the intent rather was to remove the procedural difficulties found to exist under the earlier measure and thereby make it easier for unpaid creditors to realize the benefits of the bond. Section 1(a)(2) of the Miller Act requires every Government contractor, where the amount of the contract exceeds $2,000, to furnish to the United States a payment bond with a surety 'for the protection of all persons supplying labor and material in the prosecution of the work provided for in said contract for the use of each such person.' Section 2(a) further provides that 'every person who has furnished labor or material in the prosecution of the work provided for in such contract' and who has not been paid in full therefor within ninety days after the last labor was performed or material supplied may bring suit on the payment bond for the unpaid balance. A proviso then states:

'Provided, however, That any person having direct contractual relationship with a subcontractor but no contractual relationship express or implied with the contractor furnishing said payment bond shall have a right of action upon the said payment bond upon giving written notice to said contractor within ninety days from the date on which such person did or performed the last of the labor or furnished or supplied the last of the material for which such claim is made * * *.'

The Miller Act, like the Heard Act, is highly remedial in nature. It is entitled to a liberal construction and application in order properly to effectuate the Congressional intent to protect those whose labor and materials go into public projects. Fleisher Engineering & Construction Co. v. United States, for Use and Benefit of Hallenbeck, 311 U.S. 15, 17, 18, 61 S.Ct. 81, 82, 83, 85 L.Ed. 12; cf. United States to Use of Noland Co., Inc., v. Irwin, 316 U.S. 23, 29, 30, 62 S.Ct. 899, 902, 86 L.Ed. 1241. But such a salutary policy does not justify ignoring plain words of limitation and imposing wholesale liability on payment bonds. Ostensibly the payment bond is for the protection of 'all persons supplying labor and material in the prosecution of the work' and 'every person who has furnished labor or material in the prosecution of the work' is given the right to sue on such payment bond. Whether this statutory language is broad enough to include persons supplying material to materialmen as well as those in more remote relationships we need not decide. Even if it did include such persons we cannot disregard the limitations on liability which Congress intended to impose and did impose in the proviso of Section 2(a). However inclusive may be the general language of a statute, it 'will not be held to apply to a matter specifically dealt with in another part of the same enactment. * * * Specific terms prevail over the general in the same or another statute which otherwise might be controlling.' Ginsberg & Sons v. Popkin, 285 U.S. 204, 208, 52 S.Ct. 322, 323, 76 L.Ed. 704.

The proviso of Section 2(a), which had no counterpart in the Heard Act, makes clear that the right to bring suit on a payment bond is limited to (1) those materialmen, laborers and subcontractors who deal directly with the prime contractor and (2) those materialmen, laborers and sub-contractors who, lacking express or implied contractual relationship with the prime contractor, have direct contractual relationship with a subcontractor and who give the statutory notice of their claims to the prime contractor. To allow those in more remote relationships to recover on the bond would be contrary to the clear language of the proviso and to the expressed will of the framers of the Act.5 Moreover, it would lead to the absurd result of requiring notice from persons in direct contractual relationship with a subcontractor but not from more remote claimants.

The ultimate question in this case, therefore, is whether Miller, the materialman to whom Tomkins sold the goods and who in turn supplied them to MacEvoy, was a subcontractor within the meaning of the proviso. If he was, Tomkins' direct contractual relationship with him enables Tomkins to recover on MacEvoy's payment bond. If Miller was not a subcontractor, Tomkins stands in too remote a relationship to secure the benefits of the bond.

The Miller Act itself makes no attempt to define the word 'subcontractor.' We are thus forced to utilize ordinary judicial tools of definition. Whether the word includes laborers and materialmen is not subject to easy solution, for the word has no single, exact meaning.6 In a broad, generic sense a subcontractor includes anyone who has a contract to furnish labor or material to the prime contractor. In that sense Miller was a subcontractor. But under the more technical meaning, as established by usage in the building trades, a subcontractor is one who performs for and takes from the prime contractor a specific part of the labor or material requirements of the original contract, thus excluding ordinary laborers and materialmen. To determine which meaning Congress attached to the word in the Miller Act, we must look to the Congressional history of the statute as well as to the practical considerations underlying the Act.

It is apparent from the hearings before the subcommittee of the House...

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