Walker Mfg. Co. v. Dickerson, Inc., 76-2312

Citation560 F.2d 1184
Decision Date01 September 1977
Docket NumberNo. 76-2312,76-2312
PartiesWALKER MANUFACTURING COMPANY, a Division of Tenneco, Inc., Appellant, v. DICKERSON, INC., Appellee. SEABOARD SURETY COMPANY, a corporation, Defendant, v. PIEDMONT ENGINEERING & ARCHITECTS, INC., also d/b/a Piedmont Engineers& Architects, Edward's Roofing & Sheet Metal Co., a corp., also d/b/a Edward's Sheet Metal Co., the Celotex Corp., Third-party defendants.
CourtUnited States Courts of Appeals. United States Court of Appeals (4th Circuit)

James P. Erwin, Jr., Asheville, N. C. (McGuire, Wood, Erwin & Crow, Asheville, N. C., on brief), for appellant.

Robert B. Cordle, Charlotte, N. C. (Helms, Mulliss & Johnston, Charlotte, N. C., Koy E. Dawkins, Dawkins & Glass, Monroe, N. C., on brief), for appellee.

Before WINTER, BUTZNER and HALL, Circuit Judges.

WINTER, Circuit Judge:

Walker Manufacturing Co. (Walker) appeals from an order of the district court declaring that its action for breach of contract was time-barred, and directing a verdict for the defendant, Dickerson, Incorporated (Dickerson). Walker maintains that (1) the district court applied the incorrect statute of limitations under North Carolina law; and (2) improperly withheld the issue of equitable estoppel from jury consideration. We reverse and remand, with instructions.


On April 21, 1969, Walker entered into a written contract with Dickerson, a general contractor, for the construction of a manufacturing, warehouse and office building at Arden, North Carolina. The roofing specifications called for the installation over a metal roof deck of a "twenty year bonded tar and slag roof," which would be "absolutely watertight" when the installation was complete.

The contract conformed to a model agreement, drafted by the American Institute of Architects. As general contractor, Dickerson was held responsible

for the acts and omissions of all (Dickerson) employees and all Subcontractors, their agents and employees, and all other persons performing any of the Work under a Contract with (Dickerson).

Payments were to be made periodically, with the final payment constituting

a waiver of all claims by (Walker) except those arising from:

.2 faulty or defective Work appearing after Substantial Completion, (or)

.3 failure of the Work to comply with the requirements of the Contract Documents, or

.4 terms of any special guarantees required by the Contract Documents.

The contract was signed by Dickerson's president, attested to by its secretary, and stamped with its corporate seal. Walker signed by its executive vice president and assistant secretary, but its seal was not affixed.

Construction began in 1969, and was completed by May of 1970. The installation of roofing was performed by a subcontractor, Edwards Roofing & Sheet Metal Co., Inc., of Marshville, North Carolina (Edwards). When the roofing work was completed, Edwards gave Dickerson and Walker a one-year guaranty or warranty of good workmanship, extending from May 25, 1970 until May 24, 1971.

During the warranty period, blisters and leaks began to appear in the roofing membrane. Edwards unsuccessfully made repeated attempts, at its own expense, to locate and correct the problem, and Edwards ceased its efforts at correction when the warranty expired. Walker then complained to Dickerson, as general contractor. In a letter dated June 4, 1971, Walker wrote to Dickerson asserting that Dickerson was liable for correction of the persistent roof problem. Dickerson responded, assuring Walker that Dickerson would discharge whatever responsibilities were on it.

After Walker renewed its complaint, Dickerson arranged to have the roof inspected by a consulting engineer. The engineer's report placed blame upon the type of materials used and concluded that extensive repairs would be needed to correct the condition. Walker and Dickerson negotiated about what should be done and Dickerson made alternative proposals: to undertake certain repairs, or to make a cash settlement in an amount equal to the cost of the repairs that Dickerson was willing to undertake. After further discussion, Walker rejected both proposals as "not provid(ing) us a roof equivalent to what we contracted for."

Ultimately Dickerson made further repairs, but they were largely unsuccessful. The parties then negotiated a further settlement. They apparently discussed an agreement that Dickerson would pay half of the cost of further repairs ($12,500); but when Dickerson tendered its check in that amount, Walker declined to accept it and filed suit for breach of contract.

The complaint, filed August 6, 1975, alleged, in essence, that blisters and leaks in Walker's roof were due to faulty construction by Dickerson and its subcontractor. Walker claimed an award of $650,000 for breach of contract, property damage, and interruptions within the Arden plant.

The action was tried before a jury in July of 1976. At the end of Walker's evidence, the district court granted Dickerson's motion for a directed verdict. In a written order filed July 14, 1976, the district court ruled that (1) Walker's action was time-barred under the applicable statute of limitations; and (2) sufficient facts were not proved to permit the jury to consider application of the doctrine of equitable estoppel.

Since federal jurisdiction was grounded upon diversity of citizenship, the district court applied the substantive law of North Carolina, viz: N.C.Gen.Stat. § 1-52(1), which provides that

within three years (of its accrual,) an action (shall be brought)

(1) Upon a contract, obligation, or liability arising out of a contract, express or implied, except those mentioned in the preceding sections.

Walker's cause of action was ruled to have accrued in May of 1970 (when the building was completed) or on May 24, 1971 (when the Edwards warranty expired). Since the complaint was filed on August 6, 1975, or more than three years after either date of accrual, the action was held to be untimely.


Before us, Walker contends that its action is not governed by § 1-52(1). Instead, reliance is placed upon N.C.Gen.Stat. § 1-47(2), which provides that

within ten years (of its accrual,) an action (shall be brought)

(2) Upon a sealed instrument against the principal thereto.

Walker's cause of action is based upon the construction contract of April 21, 1969. That contract, in turn, was signed by Dickerson's president and stamped with its corporate seal. Walker therefore contends that it is a "sealed instrument," that § 1-47(2) applies, and that its action was timely.

If Walker is correct that the contract, at least as to Dickerson, was a sealed instrument, Walker's argument appears to be sound. But we are unwilling so to rule in the present posture of the record. When the case was tried in the district court, Walker did not assert that it sued on a sealed instrument, and neither party called the presence of the seal below Dickerson's name or § 1-47(2) to the attention of the district judge. Under North Carolina law, it is unclear whether the mere presence of a corporate seal is conclusive that the instrument was "sealed" within the meaning of § 1-47(2). The North Carolina cases indicate that proof may be received as to the intention of the person purportedly employing a seal as to whether he intended that the instrument be sealed. 1

We therefore conclude that the district court's order must be reversed and the case remanded for a determination of whether the ten-year period of limitations has any application to the case at bar. 2


On remand, the district court must also correct its erroneous ruling with regard to the possible application of the doctrine of equitable estoppel, unless, of course, this issue is rendered moot by the finding that the action is founded upon a sealed instrument and thus not time-barred under the ten-year statute.

North Carolina recognizes the doctrine of equitable estoppel:

The lapse of time, when properly pleaded, is a technical legal defense. Nevertheless, equity will deny the right to assert that defense when delay has been induced by acts, representations, or conduct, the repudiation of which would amount to a breach of good faith. "The doctrine of equitable estoppel is based on an application of the golden rule to the everyday affairs of men. It requires that one should do unto others as, in equity and good conscience, he would have them do unto him, if their positions were reversed. * * * Its compulsion is one of fair play." Nowell v. Great Atlantic & Pacific Tea Co., 250 N.C. 575, 108 S.E.2d 889, 891 (1959), quoting from McNeely v. Walters, 211 N.C. 112, 189 S.E. 114, 115 (1937).

If the doctrine of equitable estoppel is applicable, the...

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