Springer Land Association v. Ford/Opinion of the Court

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Opinion of the Court

United States Supreme Court

168 U.S. 513

Springer Land Association  v.  Ford

Although mechanics' liens are the creation of statute, the legislation, being remedial, should be so construed as to effectuate its object. Davis v. Alford, 94 U.S. 545; Mining Co. v. Cullins, 104 U.S. 176.

Substantial compliance, in good faith, with the requirements of the particular law, is sufficient, and the test of such compliance is to be found in the statute itself.

These enactments vary in the different states and territories, and to the variance in their terms judicial decisions necessarily conform.

Section 1524 of the Compiled Laws of New Mexico required the contractor, in order to obtain the benefit of the act, to file for record 'a claim containing a statement of his demands, after deducting all just credit and offset, with the name of the owner or requted owner, if known, and also the name of the person by whom he was employed, or to whom he furnished the materials.'

The claim duly filed by Ford was preceded by a title describing the Springer Land Association and others and the Maxwell Land-Grant Company and others as 'owners or reputed owners,' and stated a demand for the sum of $17,634.27 as 'the balance due and owing to the said Patrick P. Ford by the aforesaid owners or reputed owners, after deducting all just credits and offsets, for excavating and embankments done and performed by him under a certain contract entered into by the said the Springer Land Association, a copy of which contract is hereto annexed, and made a part of this claim of lien. As also for the further sum of three hundred and ninety dollars ($390) for excavating and hauling, ordered by the engineer in charge of said ditch, and allowed by him in pursuance of the provisions of said contract.' And it stated when the work was commenced, and when it was finished, and that on the last date it was 'completed and accepted.' It gave the names of the requted owners of the land as the Maxwell Land-Grant Company and others (enumerating them), trustees of that company, nd alleged that claimant 'was employed to do the said work by the Springer Land Association, C. N. Barnes, general manager, approved by C. C. Strawn as president.' And it added that 'the terms, time given, and conditions of said contract are those that fully appear in the copy of the said contract, which is attached hereto and made a part hereof.'

We entirely agree with the supreme court of the territory that this claim of lien was sufficient, under the statute, in respect of all these particulars. It is attacked by counsel for appellants because containing 'no statement of the amount of work done, nor of the payments made, nor the estimate or acceptance by the engineer,' and also because 'erroneous as to the party from whom due.' But this statute did not require, as many such statutes do, 'a just and true account,' or 'a full and true account,' of the details of the transaction; and this work was done under a special contract, at so much per cubic yard, to be paid for on engineer's certificates. In our judgment, Ford's statement of his demands, with the copy of the contract and specifications annexed, was in reasonable and adequate compliance with the statute.

As to the name of the person by whom Ford was employed, the claim was specific; and the names of the owners or reputed owners of the lands, and their connection with the transaction, were also given with sufficient clearness. With reference to similar statutory provisions, the supreme court of California, in Lumber Co. v. Gottschalk, 81 Cal. 641, 646, 22 Pac. 862, said: 'There is nothing in the section, or any other, that requires the material man to state in his claim of lien what relation the person to whom he furnished the material bore to the owner,-whether contractor or agent; nor does the burden of determining whether any contract made, or attempted to be made, between the owner and contractor, was valid or not, rest on him when he comes to file his lien. He must state the facts required by the statute. Whether the person to whom he furnished the material had authority to bind the owner, and entitle the material man to a lien, is a matter of pleading and proof at the trial.' And in Jewell v. McKay, 82 Cal. 144, 23 Pac. 139, it was held that it was not even necessary that the notice of lien should state that the owner of the land had knowledge of the work.

By section 1520 of this statute a lien is given for work or labor done at the instance of the owner of the improvement, 'or his agent'; by section 1529 it is provided that every improvement 'constructed upon any lands with the knowledge of the owner or the person having or claiming any interest therein, shall be held to have been constructed at the instance of such owner or person having or claiming any interest therein,' unless he shall give notice that he will not be responsible for the same; and by section 1522 the land upon which any improvement is constructed, 'together with a convenient space about the same,' is also subject to the lien, if at the commencement of the work it belonged to the person who caused the improvement to be constructed.

The contract of May, 1888, between the Maxwell Land-Grant Company and those who afterwards constituted the Springer Land Association, was entered into for the construction of this irrigating system; and it expressly made the Springer Land Association 'the agent of the Maxwell Land-Grant Company,' with power to do all acts necessary to carry out the proposed improvement, and to sell and dispose of the lands designed to be benefited thereby; and the findings of the supreme court were to the effect that the Maxwell Land-Grant Company was the person at whose instance the improvement was made, and knew at the time that the work was being carried on.

The courts below concurred in their findings that the amounts demanded were the amounts due, and the decree provided for the payment of the only outstanding claim of a subcontractor. But it is urged that the aggregate claimed in the notice of lien was so excessive as to invalidate the lien in whole or in part.

We do not understand that as between the parties the fact that a lien is claimed for a greater sum than is actually owing, or is actually covered by the lien, vitiates the claim, when honestly made; and under the findings it is impossible to impute bad faith in this instance.

The contract contained this provision: 'The amount due to the contractor under the final estimate will only be paid upon satisfactory showing that the work is free from all danger of lien or claims of all kinds through failure on his part to liquidate his just indebtedness as connected with this work.'

And it is said that 'the final estimate of $12,625.53 was not yet due,' in that the subcontractors had not been paid in full, and the work therefore was not free from all danger of liens. The findings show, however, that by the contracts between Ford and his subcontractors, approved by the supervising engineer, the amounts due the subcontractors on monthly subestimates were in no case to 'be demanded or paid in advance of the payment of the regular estimate'; that Ford, on payment of the regular estimates, had paid his subcontractors in full; and that the subestimates for May and the final subestimates had not been paid because appellants had not paid Ford his May and final estimates under their contract with him. The May estimate due him was for $5,010.43, and the balance of $12,625.53 contained nearly $4,000 of retained percentage, being 10 per cent. of the amount due for work done up to the time the May estimate was issued, while the amounts claimed by the subcontractors on the completion of the work aggregated $7,537.72. It is quite clear that, if there were any danger from liens or claims of any kind, this was not 'through failure on his part to liquidate his just indebtedness as connected with this work,' but solely by reason of the failure to pay him according to the terms of the contract. And it should be noted that the correctness of Ford's claim does not appear to have been questioned until the 19th of June, 1889, when one of the subcontractors, having become involved in a dispute with Ford over the sum of $300, suggested to the Springer Land Association that the work had not been done according to the contract, a suggestion which the findings show was without foundation.

Appellants' counsel further contended that the lien was excessive because appellants were entitled to a credit of $8,000 for land which Ford had agreed to accept in part payment of the final estimate.

At the conference, on the 19th of June, 1889, between the agents of the Maxwell Land-Grant Company and of the Springer Land Association, Ford, and the subcontractors, the Maxwell agent had in his possession a deed conveying a section of land to Ford, which he notified the Springer agent he was ready to deliver upon the payment of $4,000 by the Springer Land Association. The Springer agent responded that he was willing to pay the $4,000 if Ford would settle with the subcontractors, but he did not perform the condition and accept the deed. Nor was any tender of the deed made to Ford, who was simply informed that if he would, compulsorily, do that which the default of the Springer Company had theretofore rendered impracticable, then the Springer agent would obtain the deed for delivery to Ford. Nor did it appear that since that day there had been any offer to deliver, or a declaration of a willingness to deliver, the deed. The findings show that Ford carried out the conditions of the contract by him to be kept and performed; that he made no objection to the deed, and would have been willing to receive it, but for appellants' failure on their part; and they cannot now be allowed to insist that Ford should be required to accept what they have not indicated a willingness or readiness to deliver; still less, that the lien should be held invalidated because Ford did not credit $8,000 for land never conveyed to him.

Finally it is objected that the d mand of $390 for extra work rendered the entire claim of lien inefficacious, but it is obvious that this was not an overstatement which could have that effect. Though there is no specific finding by the supreme court in reference to this item, the findings of the district court show that the extra work was performed under the direction of the engineer, and that the bills therefor were approved by him to an amount exceeding this minor demand, which, under the specifications, appellants were bound to pay. It was properly included in the notice of lien, and, being manifestly due, the decree ought not to be reversed, or even modified, because it formed part of the amount decreed.

The last error assigned is that no lien attached to the land outside of the ditches, reservoirs, and the right of way to the same.

The statute gave a lien for labor performed or materials furnished in the construction of ditches, not only on the ditch and the land through which it was constructed, but on so much of the land about the same as might be required for its use, 'to be determined by the court on rendering judgment.'

This tract of 22,000 acres was the tract for whose irrigation the ditch was constructed, and by which it was to be benefited. The ditch and the land were inseparably connected as parts of the common enterprise, and to sever the ditch from the land would render the ditch practically valueless. The claim of lien stated, the bill in this case averred, and the answer admitted that Ford contracted to perform the work of grading required in the construction of the Cimarron ditch and its accessories, the ditch being situated as described, and 'that the said ditch has, and appurtenant thereto, along its entire length, land, as passageway, about sixty feet in width, as also lateral ditches and reservoirs, and the land covered thereby, and also, appurtenant to said ditch, twenty-two thousand acres of land in said county, and under said ditch, and to be irrigated thereby, and described as follows,' namely, certain sections enumerated.

The contract with the Maxwell Land-Grant Company showed that it caused the improvement to be made for the purpose of supplying water to the entire acreage under the ditch, and, in consideration of the construction of the improvement, gave to the Springer Land Association an interest in the 22,000-acre tract. The improvement was projected and constructed upon the property as an entirety, though the contract contemplated that after its completion the tract should be cut up and sold in small holdings; the Maxwell Company manifestly causing the improvement to be made for the express purpose of rendering the land salable.

To limit the land upon which the lien was given to the strip of land 60 feet in width and 26 miles long, which was actually occupied by the ditch, and exclude the tract which the ditch was constructed to benefit by its continuous operation, would, it seems to us, be to unreasonably circumscribe the meaning of the statute. And appellants' pleading not only admitted that all of the 22,000-acre tract was appurtenant to the improvement, and benefited by it, but the courts of New Mexico distinctly found this to be so, and that the tract was necessary to the convenient use of the improvement for the purposes contemplated in its construction.

The truth is that what area of land is subject to lien in a given case largely depends on the character of the improvement. The extent of ground proper and necessary to the enjoyment of a building, a wall, or a fence, would not be the same as that required for, or appertaining to, an irrigation system; but the principle of determination is the same.

This ditch was to expend its waters on this tract, and could not be used or operated without it. Each was dependent on the other, and both were bound together in the accomplishment of a common purpose. The lien must apply to the entire tract, or be confined to the right of way through which it took its course, and to narrow it down to the latter would be to disregard the very terms of the statute.

Appellants admitted the tract to appertain to the ditch, and the supreme court so found, and that it was required for the use and operation thereof. We perceive no adequate ground for declining to accept that conclusion.

The description of the land was by sections and townships, and 46 sections were enumerated. As the sections, if full, would contain 29,440 acres, and as the enterprise embraced 22,000 acres, though it was estimated by the Maxwell contract that the ultimate capacity of the ditch might be adequate to the irrigation of 30,000 acres,-it is insisted that the description was void for uncertainty, or that the decree was erroneous, as including more land than could on any theory be held to appertain to the ditch. But a congressional township of 36 sections does not necessarily contain 36 times 640 acres; and subdivision 5 of section 2395 of the Revised Statutes provides: 'Where the exterior lines of the townships which may be subdivided into sections or half sections exceed, or do not exceed six miles, the excess or deficiency shall be specially noted, and added to or deducted from the western and northern ranges of sections or half sections in such township, according as the error may be in running the lines from east to west, or from north to south.'

The supreme court pointed out that 16 of these sections were bounded by the northern and western lines, and held that the court might as well presume that the alleged discrepancy was accounted for by a deficiency in the government surveys, as that the 46 sections contained the full quantity. And it should be remembered that the acreage occupied by the ditch, the lateral ditches, and reservoirs must have been considerable.

Again, as the supreme court said, quantity in description must yield to definited description by metes and bounds, or by name and number. Quantity may aid, but cannot control, such description.

The claim of lien, after describing the ditch, its accessories, and right of way, and the 22,000 acres, added, 'All of which ditch, laterals, and reservoirs and lands as aforesaid are plotted and laid out on the plan hereto attached, and made a part of this claim of lien.' This was so stated in the bill, and admitted in the answer.

While one of the findings is somewhat obscure, and, standing alone, might create a doubt as to the identification of the particular tract, yet the findings, taken together and in connection with the plat, evidently made this certain; and, as the correctness of the description and acreage was admitted, any contention in this regard comes too late.

The supreme court expressly found that it appeared 'by the admissions in the pleadings and from the testimony that the 22,000 acres of land outside the ditches and reservoirs, and the right of way for the same, were appurtenant to said ditch and reservoirs, and were under said ditch, and to be irrigated thereby.'

We think it cannot now be urged that the description was void for uncertainty, or that the decree included more land than was connected with the ditch. Decree affirmed.


This work is in the public domain in the United States because it is a work of the United States federal government (see 17 U.S.C. 105).