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decided: June 23, 1947.



Vinson, Black, Reed, Frankfurter, Douglas, Murphy, Jackson, Rutledge, Burton

Author: Jackson

[ 332 U.S. Page 236]

 MR. JUSTICE JACKSON delivered the opinion of the Court.

This case presents a problem arising out of contracts for public building construction and repair. The rights inter sese of contractor, surety, assignees and government have been productive of much litigation, but we have not heretofore had to decide whether percentages retained pursuant to contract by the United States may be subjected to its set-off claims despite the claims of a surety who has paid laborers and materialmen.

In May and July, 1940, six contracts were made between the United States and the Federal Contracting Corporation, in which the corporate contractor agreed to paint and repair certain federal buildings. Each contract conformed to the requirements of statute, 49 Stat. 793, 40 U. S. C. ยง 270a, et seq., by providing for two surety bonds, one conditioned on the completion of the work within the contract period, and the other on the payment of those furnishing labor and material to the contractor. The Aetna Casualty and Surety Company signed those bonds, each of which assigned to it the contractor's claims against the government for sums due on the contracts whenever the surety should be compelled

[ 332 U.S. Page 237]

     by default of the contractor to fulfill its obligations.*fn1 The work was completed by the contractor apparently in 1940, and accepted by the government. The surety therefore was not called upon to make good the promise of the performance bonds. But the contractor did not pay $13,065.93 owed to persons who had supplied labor and material for performance of five of the six contracts. This indebtedness the surety paid between April and September, 1941 as the payment bonds obliged it to do.

Under the customary terms of its contracts, the government had retained percentages of the progress payments due to the contractor. This retained money, on acceptance of the work, amounted to $12,445.03, but it was not disbursed. On October 18, 1940, the Federal Contracting Corporation submitted a bid to the United States for another painting job, in St. Louis. That bid was accepted, but the contractor then failed to enter into contract for the work. Another contractor painted the building for a price which left the government considerably more out-of-pocket than it would have been had Federal undertaken performance at its bid price. It is undisputed that $6,731.50 is the amount of damages sustained by the government after it had applied the contractor's deposit of $415.00 in reduction.

Almost inevitably, court process was begun to untangle claims to the money the United States still owed on the six contracts. A stockholder of Federal asked the United States District Court for the District of Columbia to appoint a receiver*fn2 to collect the money. The Aetna

[ 332 U.S. Page 238]

     Casualty and Surety Company was made a party to that action. Respondent here, the Munsey Trust Company, was appointed receiver with directions to demand and authority to receive from the United States the proceeds of the six contracts. The order of appointment also recited that "the proceeds of all collections made by the Receiver pursuant to this order shall be held for the reimbursement of the defendant The Aetna Casualty and Surety Company for expenditures made by it in the payment of furnishers of labor and material under the several contracts of the Federal Contracting Corporation."

On demand by the receiver for the amounts due, the General Accounting Office deducted the government's claim of $6,731.50 and paid over $5,713.53. Aetna, by letter to the Comptroller General, protested the government's settlement by set-off and asserted its right to an additional $3,568.23.*fn3 The receiver also protested the set-off and demanded $3,143.23 for reimbursement of the surety. It relied upon Maryland Casualty Co. v. United States, 100 Ct. Cl. 513, 53 F.Supp. 436. The Acting Comptroller General declined to follow the opinion of the Court of Claims, in the absence of ruling by this Court, and rejected the protests. When the receiver reported its efforts to the district court, it was ordered to turn over to the surety the money collected, less $500. That sum was for prosecution of suit in the Court of Claims for the recovery of ...

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