United States v. Gleason, 175 U.S. 588 (1899)

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Author: Justice Shiras

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United States v. Gleason, 175 U.S. 588 (1899)

MR. JUSTICE SHIRAS delivered the opinion of the Court.

Gleason & Gosnell, a firm of contractors, entered into agreements with officers of the Engineer Corps of the United States Army, acting for and on behalf of the United States, whereby the former undertook to perform certain specified work within a certain specified time. The work specified was not completed within the time fixed, nor at any time. Nevertheless, the contractors claimed in the court below that they were entitled to recover the contract price for the portion of the work which was actually done and damages for the uncompleted portion, because, as they alleged, they had been prevented, by no fault of their own, but by freshets, ice, and other force and violence of the elements, from doing the work within the time stipulated, and had been prevented by the officers of the United States, without just cause and contrary to applicable provisions in the contract, from a subsequent completion of the work.

The material questions are determinable by a proper construction of the following clauses contained in the contracts:

If, in any event, the party of the second part shall delay or fail to commence with the delivery of the material or the performance of the work on the day specified herein, or shall, in the judgment of the engineer in charge, fail to prosecute faithfully and diligently the work in accordance with the specifications and requirements of this contract, then in either case the party of the first part, or his successor legally appointed, shall have power, with the sanction of the Chief of Engineers, to annul this contract by giving notice in writing to that effect to the party or parties (or either of them) of the second part, and upon the giving of such notice, all money or reserved percentage due or to become due to the party or parties of the second part by reason of this contract shall be and become forfeited to the United States, and the party of the first part shall be thereupon authorized, if an immediate performance of the work or delivery of the materials be in his opinion required by the public exigency, to proceed to provide for the same by open purchase or contract, as prescribed in section 3709 of the Revised Statutes of the United States; provided, however, that, if the party or parties of the second part shall, by freshets, ice, or other force or violence of the elements, and by no fault of his or their own, be prevented either from commencing or completing the work or delivering the materials at the time agreed upon in this contract, such additional time may in writing be allowed him or them for such commencement or completion as, in the judgment of the party of the first part or his successor, shall be just and reasonable; but such allowance and extension shall in no manner affect the rights or obligations of the parties under this contract, but the same shall subsist, take effect, and be enforceable precisely as if the new date for such commencement or completion had been the date originally herein agreed upon.

The contractor must begin work within twenty days after notification that his bid has been accepted, unless hindered by high water, and within thirty days thereafter his working force must consist of at least 200 men, if working by hand, or the equivalent thereof in case excavating machines are used. If at any time the working force be reduced to 150 men or less, the engineer in charge shall have the right to terminate the contract, and in such case the retained percentage shall be forfeited to the United States.

~The contract will expire on the 31st day of December, 1886, but the right is reserved to annul the contract in January, 1886, in case forty percent of the work covered by the same shall not have been completed on or before the 31st day of December, 1885. The annulment of the contract under the provisions of this paragraph will, however, involve no forfeiture of moneys previously earned.

While we are to determine the legal import of these provisions according to their own terms, it may be well to briefly recall certain well settled rules in this branch of the law. One is that if a party by his contract charge himself with an obligation possible to be performed, he must make it good unless his performance is rendered impossible by the act of God, the law, or the other party. Difficulties, even if unforeseen, and however great, will not excuse him. If parties have made no provision for a dispensation, the rule of law gives none, nor, in such circumstances, can equity interpose. Dermott v. Jones, 2 Wall. 1; Cutter v. Powell, 2 Smith’s Leading Cases 1, 7th Amer.ed.

Another rule is that it is competent for parties to a contract of the nature of the present one to make it a term of the contract that the decision of an engineer, or other officer, of all or specified matters of dispute that may arise during the execution of the work shall be final and conclusive, and that, in the absence of fraud or of mistake so gross as to necessarily imply bad faith, such decision will not be subjected to the revisory power of the courts. Martinsburg & Potomac Railroad v. March, 114 U.S. 549; Chicago, Santa Fe &c. Railroad v. Price, 138 U.S. 185.

We do not understand that these principles are now called into question, but their applicability is denied, and we are called upon to consider a very acute and ingenious argument, successfully urged in the court below, aiming to show that, in the present case, the controverted matter, to-wit, whether the contractors were entitled to a further and additional extension of time, was not left to the determination of the engineer in charge of the work, but is open, under the language of the agreement and the facts as found, to be inquired into and determined by the court.

The material terms of the contract calling for construction are as follows:

The said Gleason & Gosnell shall commence work under this contract on or before the 20th day of August, 1885, and shall complete the same on or before the 31st day of December, 1886. . . . Provided, however, that, if the party or parties of the second part shall, by freshets, ice, or other force or violence of the elements, and by no fault of his or their own, be prevented either from commencing or completing the work or delivering the materials at the time agreed upon in this contract, such additional time may in writing be allowed him or them for such commencement or completion, as, in the judgment of the party of the first part or his successor shall be just and reasonable.

Passing by, for the present, the fact that several extensions of time were granted by the engineer, and having regard only for the above language, what does it mean? The construction put upon it by the court below was thus expressed:

In the cases at bar, the contracts in terms provide that "additional time may in writing be allowed" for the completion of the work if prevented therefrom "by freshets, ice, or other force or violence of the elements" and by no fault of their own; not that such additional time may or may not be allowed as the engineer in charge may determine, but that "such additional time may in writing be allowed" as in his judgment "shall be just and reasonable." The language, taken together, leaves no discretion in the officer except in respect of the additional time to be allowed, and even that, the contract provides, "shall be just and reasonable." The claimants in effect agreed that no additional time should be allowed them except on condition that they were prevented from the completion of the work (1) by freshets, ice, or other force or violence of the elements, and (2) by no fault of their own, and to hold, when those conditions are present, that it is within the discretion of the engineer in charge to say whether any or no additional time may be allowed would be to eliminate that mutuality essential in conscionable contracts.

Hence, taking into consideration the circumstances of this case, and to effectuate the intention of the parties gathered from the contracts as a whole, we must hold that the word "may" should be construed to mean "shall."

As to what additional time would be just and reasonable, he, as the engineer officer in charge, was to determine not by the exercise of arbitrary power, but by the exercise of a just and reasonable judgment, and any additional time thus allowed would have been final.

We cannot accept this exposition of the language as sound. Rather do we interpret it to mean that, as between the United States and the contractors, the latter were to be relieved from their contract obligation to complete the work within the time limited only if, in the judgment of the engineer in charge, their failure so to do was occasioned by freshets or other force of the elements, and by no fault of their own, and that if and when, in his judgment, the failure to complete was, in point of fact, due to the extraneous causes, he was also to decide what additional time should be just and reasonable. In other words, the parties agreed that if the contractors should fail to complete their contract within the time stipulated, they should have the benefit of the judgment of the engineer as to whether such failure was the result of their own fault or of forces beyond their control, and in the latter event, of his judgment as to what extension of time would be just and reasonable. Obviously the object of the provision in question was to prevent the very state of dispute and uncertainty which would be created if the present contention of the contractors were to prevail.

In support of its construction, the court below points to a difference in the language between the clause respecting materials which provides that "the decision of the engineer officer in charge as to quantity and quality shall be final" and that sued in the claim under consideration, in which it is not said that the judgment of the engineer shall be final. But it is obvious that, from the very nature of the case, the decision of the engineer in the latter case must be final. The contract fixes the time within which the work must be completed, but provides that in case failure to complete is providential and without fault, such additional time may be allowed as the engineer may judge to be just and reasonable.

As, then, his granting of additional time would be final and irrevocable, so his refusal to allow it was necessarily final. The privilege of procuring an extension of time is conditional on the action of the officer, whether he grant or refuse it.

By changing the phrase "such additional time may be allowed" into the phrase "such additional time shall be allowed," the court below substituted for an appeal to the discretion and decision of the officer an absolute right to have the question of prevention, whether by freshets or by fault, determined by the courts.

The fallacy of such reasoning is obvious, and is pointed out in the case of Kihlberg v. United States, 97 U.S. 398. That was a case of a contract between the United States and A for the transportation by him of stores between certain points, provided that the distance should be ascertained and fixed by the chief quartermaster, and that A should be paid for the full quantity of stores delivered by him. It was not said in terms that the action of the chief quartermaster should be conclusive, and the distance, as ascertained and fixed by him, was less than the usual and customary route.

It was said by MR. JUSTICE HARLAN, delivering the opinion of the Court:

The action of the chief quartermaster . . . cannot therefore be subjected to the revisory power of the courts without doing violence to the plain words of the contract. Indeed it is not at all certain that the government would have given its assent to any contract which did not confer upon one of its officers the authority in question. If the contract had not provided distinctly, and in advance of any services performed under it, for the ascertainment of distances upon which transportation was to be paid, disputes might have constantly arisen between the contractor and the government, resulting in vexatious and expensive and, to the contractor oftentimes, ruinous, litigation. Hence the provision we have been considering. Be this supposition as it may, it is sufficient that the parties expressly agreed that distances should be ascertained and fixed by the chief quartermaster, and in the absence of fraud or such gross mistake as would necessarily imply bad faith or a failure to exercise an honest judgment, his action in the premises is conclusive upon the appellant as well as upon the government. The contract being free from ambiguity, no exposition is allowable contrary to the express words of the instrument.

It was further suggested by the court below, and has been vigorously pressed upon us in the argument, that the engineer in charge was improperly influenced in refusing the third extension asked for, by a consideration of delinquencies in previous years, whereas it is claimed that the extended contracts were, in respect of their several dates, new contracts, the performance or nonperformance of which did not depend upon anything done or omitted to be done thereunder prior to the last extension.

It may be that, by granting the previous extensions, the right of the government to forfeit the compensation already earned and withheld under the terms of the contract was abandoned. But to say that the engineer in charge, when applied to for a third extension, may not take in view previous delinquencies and the futility of the extensions theretofore granted seems to us quite unreasonable. He might well think that his duty to the government and to the public interested in the early completion of the work forbade a further experiment in that direction. An indefinite succession of extensions was surely not within the contemplation of the contract. We do not wish to be understood to say that it would have been competent for the engineer in charge, if in his judgment the contractors had been duly diligent during the period of the last extension and had acted up to the conditions upon which such extension was granted, to have based his refusal for a further extension upon the sole ground that there had been delinquencies during the prior periods of extension. We mean merely to say that, in a bona fide exercise of the discretion conferred upon him, that officer might properly observe the conduct of the contractors through the entire scope of their past action in deciding what weight to give to their promises as respected the future, and consider whether previous grants of extension had brought forth such efforts on the part of the contractors as the circumstances required.

But was it at all the case that the engineer, in refusing the last application for further extension, based such refusal wholly upon a consideration of prior condoned delinquencies? Even if we cannot take notice of the affidavit of Major Stickney, contained in this record, in which he states that his refusal to grant a further extension was based upon the failure of the contractors to make proper provisions during the period of the last extension for carrying on their work, and that they had not fulfilled the conditions upon which the time had already been extended, we are permitted, and indeed required, in absence of evidence of bad faith on his part, to presume that he acted with due regard to his duty as between the government and the contractors.

The fallacy, as we think, in the position of the court below was in assuming that it was competent to go back of the judgment of the engineer, and to revise his action by the views of the court. This, we have seen, could only be done upon allegation and proof of bad faith or of mistake or negligence so great, so gross, as to justify an inference of bad faith. But in this case we find neither allegation nor proof. The only allegation in the petition which can be pointed to bearing on this subject is as follows:

That on or about December, 1888, the said Major Amos Stickney refused to plaintiffs the extension of time which they requested, and to which they were rightfully entitled under the contract, by reason of being prevented from completing the same within the time limited by the last extension and renewal thereof, by freshets and by the force and violence of the elements and by no fault of their own, and by reason of damages and hindrances from causes within the control of the United States, and the plaintiffs were thereby prevented from completing the work. And the plaintiffs aver and charge that the said refusal of the said Stickney to extend the time for the completion of the contract was wrongful and unjust, and a breach of the contract.

In other words, the plaintiffs allege that they were prevented from completing their work by force and violence of the elements, and not by any fault of their own, and that the judgment of the engineer in refusing an extension was therefore wrongful and unjust. But as they had agreed, in the contract as we have construed it, that the engineer was to decide whether the failure to complete was due to the force of the elements or to their fault, their allegation now is that the determination of the engineer was wrongful and unjust, because he decided the submitted issue against them. Of course, such an allegation was wholly insufficient on which to base an attempt to upset the judgment of the engineer.

But even if we pass by the insufficiency of the allegation, we perceive no evidence, or finding based on evidence, which would have sustained a stronger and more adequate allegation. Indeed, no evidence whatever would appear to have been offered to sustain a charge of bad faith or gross mistake equivalent thereto. The court below does indeed say, in the twenty-first finding, that

no judgment or decision was given by said engineer on the question whether the claimants were prevented by freshets and force and violence of the elements during the season of 1888 from completing the work agreed upon within the period limited by the last extension of the contract, nor did he find or decide that the claimants were not so prevented.

But, as it was expressly alleged in the petition, and was found by the court, that on an application for a further extension because of interruption occasioned by force of elements and not by any fault of the plaintiff, the engineer did refuse to extend, the statement of the court must mean either that it was necessary for the engineer, in order to give efficacy to his decision, to declare in terms that it was based on a finding of fault on the part of the contractors or that the conclusion of the engineer did not amount to a decision or judgment within the meaning of the contract, because the court reached a different conclusion.

These are propositions of law, and not of fact, and we cannot assent to either of them.

Without protracting the discussion, our conclusions are that, under a proper construction of the contracts in this case, the right or privilege of the contractors, if they failed to complete their work within the time limited, to have a further extension or extensions of time depended upon the judgment of the engineer in charge when applied to to grant such extension, and that no allegation or finding is shown in this record sufficient to justify the court in setting aside the judgment of the engineer as having been rendered in bad faith or in any dishonest disregard of the rights of the contracting parties.

These views lead to a reversal of the judgment of the court below insofar as it sustains the claim to recover damages for profits expected to inure to the plaintiffs if they had been permitted to complete the work.

As no actual damage or loss was definitely shown to have been suffered by the government by reason of the noncompletion of the work, and as no forfeitures were declared at the time of the several extensions, and may therefore be deemed to have been waived, we affirm that portion of the judgment of the court below allowing a recovery for the retained percentages of the compensation for work actually done and accepted.

Accordingly, the judgment of the Court of Claims is hereby

Reversed, and the cases are remitted to that court with directions to enter judgment in accordance with this opinion.

MR. JUSTICE HARLAN, MR. JUSTICE BROWN, and MR. JUSTICE WHITE do not agree with the construction of the contract on the subject of the power of the engineer officer, and therefore dissent.

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Chicago: Shiras, "Shiras, J., Lead Opinion," United States v. Gleason, 175 U.S. 588 (1899) in 175 U.S. 588 175 U.S. 601–Joint_175 U.S. 609. Original Sources, accessed January 22, 2019, http://www.originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=PWSQ9W5M53UNGZV.

MLA: Shiras. "Shiras, J., Lead Opinion." United States v. Gleason, 175 U.S. 588 (1899), in 175 U.S. 588, pp. 175 U.S. 601–Joint_175 U.S. 609. Original Sources. 22 Jan. 2019. www.originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=PWSQ9W5M53UNGZV.

Harvard: Shiras, 'Shiras, J., Lead Opinion' in United States v. Gleason, 175 U.S. 588 (1899). cited in 1899, 175 U.S. 588, pp.175 U.S. 601–Joint_175 U.S. 609. Original Sources, retrieved 22 January 2019, from http://www.originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=PWSQ9W5M53UNGZV.