Armstrong v. United States

RESPONDENT: United States
LOCATION: Federal Reformatory for Women in West Virginia

DECIDED BY: Warren Court (1958-1962)

CITATION: 364 US 40 (1960)
ARGUED: Mar 28, 1960
DECIDED: Jun 27, 1960

Facts of the case


Media for Armstrong v. United States

Audio Transcription for Oral Argument - March 28, 1960 (Part 2) in Armstrong v. United States

Audio Transcription for Oral Argument - March 28, 1960 (Part 1) in Armstrong v. United States

Earl Warren:

Number 270, Cecil W. Armstrong et al., Petitioners, versus United States.

Mr. Thorman, you may proceed.

Burton R. Thorman:

Mr. Chief Justice and may it please the Court.

The action in the Court of Claims was brought by the 27 petitioners, all of whom were suppliers and materialmen to a government contractor, the Rice Shipbuilding Corporation, to recover just compensation.

In the court below, it was alleged that their property rights, that is the right to enforce their liens against the contractor's property, were taken from them when, after the Government terminated the contract for default, it required the contractor to transfer title to partially completed boats and materials therefore to the Government.

Now, the Court of Claims found for the Government, on the grounds that at the time the petitioners claim to have acquired liens, the Government actually had what it termed “inchoate title” to the materials which made the boats a public work to which liens could not attach.

The petitioners then sought review in this Court.

Now, the facts relating to the contract of the Rice Shipbuilding Corporation --

What does inchoate title mean?

I don't understand.

Burton R. Thorman:

We have the same [Laughs] difficulty, Mr. Justice Harlan, and perhaps, as I go into the facts, this will clarify itself what the Court meant.

The facts relating --

Charles E. Whittaker:

-- excuse me, Mr. Thorman.

You've mentioned liens of these materialmen.

Have the liens been perfected or were they just rights to liens in your view?

Burton R. Thorman:

No, the liens were as perfected as they could be and I might respectfully submit, Mr. Justice Whittaker, that the statute, and this was a main statute with which we're concerned, is set forth at page 2 of our brief.

It's Section 13 Chapter 178 Revised Statutes of Maine and it provides that liens -- whoever furnishes labor and materials for building a vessel has a lien which may be enforced by -- may be enforced by attachment within four days after the vessel is launched, and they also have a lien on the materials furnished before they become part of the vessel.

The full text is --

Charles E. Whittaker:

That -- that was just my question and my point.

I believe thus -- this lien, as I understood that statute, could not be perfected until the vessel was launched and then it must be within four days after it's launched or if the vessel is not completed when launched, then within four days after the contract is completed.

Is that what the complex statute said?

Burton R. Thorman:


And it goes on in the second full sentence.

It says that he also has a lien on the materials furnished before they become part of the vessel which may be enforced by attachment.

As -- I think the statute makes it clear that there is a lien which arises by virtue of the work and materials which is being done on these vessels, and it's to protect him up until the time that the vessel is launched and for four days thereafter, and his remedy is to attach the vessel or to attach the material in the event that the vessel is never completed.

To go into the facts of the contract in March of 1954, Rice -- Rice Shipbuilding Corporation which, with the permission of the Court, I'll refer to as Rice --

William J. Brennan, Jr.:

May I ask, Mr. Thorman, did the Court of Claims deal with the Maine law at all in this case?

Burton R. Thorman:

No, Your Honor.

The case came up to the -- came before the Court on cross motions for summary judgment because the facts were pretty much established.

And the Court, for the purpose of their -- of their decision, assumed that there would have been liens, I think this is a fair characterization of the Court's opinion, but they said that the liens could not attach because of what they call the Government's inchoate title which ran from the -- apparently from the beginning of the making of the contract.