James Talcott, Inc. v. H. Corenzwit & Co.

CourtUnited States State Supreme Court (New Jersey)
Citation387 A.2d 350,76 N.J. 305
Parties, 24 UCC Rep.Serv. 445 JAMES TALCOTT, INC., a corporation of New York, as Assignee of Remco Industries, Inc., Plaintiff-Respondent, v. H. CORENZWIT AND COMPANY, a corporate body, Defendant-Appellant.
Decision Date15 May 1978

Page 305

76 N.J. 305
387 A.2d 350, 24 UCC Rep.Serv. 445
JAMES TALCOTT, INC., a corporation of New York, as Assignee
of Remco Industries, Inc., Plaintiff-Respondent,
H. CORENZWIT AND COMPANY, a corporate body, Defendant-Appellant.
Supreme Court of New Jersey.
Argued Jan. 23, 1978.
Decided May 15, 1978.

[387 A.2d 351]

Page 307

James M. Cutler, Newark, for defendant-appellant (Cyrus J. Bloom, Newark, attorney).

Alan D. Wiener, Newark, for plaintiff-respondent (Raff and Scheider, Newark, attorneys).

The opinion of the court was delivered by


The plaintiff James Talcott, Inc., assignee of a book account arising out of sales of toys by Remco Industries, Inc. (Remco) to the defendant H. Corenzwit & Co., instituted this action to collect the balance due of $36,000. The factual and legal issues centered about a provision in the terms of the purchase agreement to the effect that Remco guaranteed that there would be no drop in prices of the type of merchandise sold to the defendant for a period of 12 months. Talcott, having obtained the Remco inventory upon a default in its borrowing arrangement, sold toys at prices below the Remco guarantee. The defendant asserted that these sales violated the purchase agreement and that breach of the guarantee entitled it to a set-off against the balance due on the account receivable. Holding that the purchase agreement required Remco to reimburse the defendant "for total gross purchases retroactive to time of (its) first purchase" during the 12-month period prior to the date of violation, the trial court found that the total gross sales in that period exceeded the $36,000 and entered judgment for the defendant. The Appellate Division reversed. It reasoned that the drop-in-price provision was not triggered because the plaintiff Talcott had no contractual relationship with the defendant and it, Talcott, not Remco, sold the merchandise. We granted certification. 75 N.J. 19, 379 A.2d 250 (1977).

At the trial the parties stipulated that the amount of the account receivable was $36,000, that the indebtedness arose out of the sales of toys sold and delivered by Remco to the

Page 308

defendant, and that all sales were governed by the terms prescribed in the defendant's purchase order.

The defendant, one of the five largest toy distributors in the United States, had been purchasing toys from Remco, a toy manufacturer, since at least 1966. The defendant's purchase order forms were used and accepted by both parties for each order. The orders contained the following pertinent provisions:

The acceptance and Shipment of this order is the Vendor's certification that the prices, discounts and the terms of the resulting invoice, or invoices, covering the sale are the same that are granted any other customer of similar classification for the same quantity, make, type, quality and grade of merchandise under like circumstances.

If price is omitted on order, it is agreed that Vendor's price will be the lowest prevailing market price and in no event is the order to be filled at higher prices than last previously quoted or charged without Purchaser's written consent.

Vendor guarantees cost of merchandise against drop in price for 12 months from date of shipment. He agrees to reimburse purchaser for total gross purchases retroactive to time of first purchase for such decrease at once.

Because of the volatile nature of the toy business, the defendant deemed it essential to protect itself as a toy distributor against a drop in prices at the wholesale level. Such a provision, the defendant believed, assured the saleability of its inventory and acted as a safety device with respect to the defendant's customers who had received a comparable assurance on their purchases from the defendant.

Between February 1973 and February 1974, defendant had purchased $65,842 worth of merchandise from Remco. At some point during that period Remco decided to go out of business. Attempts to sell its inventory located in the Remco Building in Harrison, New Jersey, at 60 percent of the manufacturer's cost, failed. The inventory was subsequently sold in February [387 A.2d 352] 1974 by A. J. Wilner, an auctioneer, on behalf

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of plaintiff Talcott. Its interest in the inventory resulted from financial arrangements previously made with Remco. Talcott had advanced funds to Remco and obtained a security interest in Remco's accounts receivable and in Remco's inventory at Harrison, New Jersey. Upon default, Talcott became assignee of the $36,000 accounts receivable owing by the defendant and caused the inventory to be sold. As we previously observed, these sales occurred at prices lower than those fixed in the defendant's purchase orders. As of June 11, 1974 the defendant had on hand $15,150 of those goods. These had not been saleable because of the sharp drop in prices occasioned by the Remco distress sale.

Plaintiff contends that the drop-in-price clause was not applicable to a distress sale of this type. We do not agree. The contractual language is an outright guarantee that the cost of merchandise will not drop in price for 12 months from date of shipment. There is no intimation that Remco would be relieved of this obligation if some agent, assignee or third person made the sale in its place. The distributor was seeking protection against a wholesale price cut irrespective of the identity of the seller of the toys. Uncontradicted testimony of the defendant's vice-president was that one "reason we put (the clause) on the purchase order is to protect us in case" Remco went out of business, though he had not expected that occurrence. The distress sale of the Remco inventory violated the defendant's agreement and understanding with Remco.

We next turn to whether plaintiff Talcott as assignee of the accounts receivable should be subjected to the defendant's set-off claim, the claim having arisen after the assignment of the accounts receivable became effective. Both parties agree that their respective rights and duties are governed by the Uniform Commercial Code. The Code has continued the common law view that an assignee of a chose in action, such as a receivable, stands in the shoes of the assignor. N.J.S.A. 12A:9-318(1); 12A:1-103; Restatement of Contracts, § 167(1)(2) (1932); 3 Williston, Contracts,

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§ 432 at 181-186 (3d ed. 1960). Generally speaking, the assignee at common law was subject to the equities and defenses which the account debtor could have asserted against the assignor prior to the assignment. In Falkenstern v. Herman Kussy Co., 25 N.J.Misc. 447, 55 A.2d 11 (Sup.Ct.1947), aff'd 137 N.J.L. 200, 59 A.2d 372 (E. & A. 1948), the court wrote:

An assignee of a chose in action takes what the assignor had, subject to all set-offs, discounts and defenses which the debtor has, not only against the assignee but also against the assignor before notice of the assignment, [citation omitted] but the assignee does not thereby, without more, assume the liabilities of the assignor. (Id. at 202, 59 A.2d at 374 (quoting from 25 N.J.Misc. at 448, 55 A.2d 11))

This proposition has been incorporated in the Code. 1 N.J.S.A. 12A: 9-318. Section 9-318 provides that the rights of an assignee are subject to claims arising under the contract between the assignor and the account debtor. It reads, in pertinent part:

* * * the rights of an assignee are subject to (a) all the terms of the contract between the account debtor and assignor and any defense or claim arising therefrom * * *. (12A:9-318(1)(a))

It is clear then that the rights of the assignee of an account receivable are subject to contract defenses or claims of the account debtor arising by virtue of the terms of the contract out of which the receivable was created. See Gilmore, "The Assignee of Contract Rights and His Precarious Security," 74 Yale L.J. 217, 230 (1964).

It is immaterial whether the contract defenses or claims arose before or after notice of the assignment. This situation is to be differentiated from the one in which the account debtor's defenses are not predicated[387 A.2d 353] upon the contract terms. Cf. N.J.S.A. 2A:25-1. Where that is so, such defenses

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are limited to those which accrue before the account debtor is notified of the assignment. N.J.S.A. 12A:9-318(1)(b).

The New Jersey Study Comment to N.J.S.A. 12A:9-318(1)(b) points out:

(W)hen the rights of the account debtor arise on the contract between the debtor and the assignor it makes no difference whether those rights accrued before or after notification such rights may be asserted against the assignee. Where, however, the claims against the assignor arise independently of the contract, which is the subject of the assignment, the assignee takes free of those claims which arise subsequent to notification of the account debtor of the assignment to the assignee. 2

Accord Ertel v. Radio Corporation of America, 261 Ind. 573, 307 N.E.2d 471 (Sup.Ct.1974); Farmers Acceptance Corp. v. DeLozier, 178 Colo. 291, 496 P.2d 1016 (Sup.Ct.1972); Gateway Nat'l Bank of Chicago v. Saxe, Bacon & Bolan, 40 A.D.2d 653, 336 N.Y.S.2d 668...

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