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Kirtley v. Abrams

January 17, 1962


Author: Friendly

Before CLARK, FRIENDLY and KAUFMAN, Circuit Judges.

FRIENDLY, Circuit Judge.

Defendants, Richland Securities, Inc., a New York corporation, and Joseph Abrams, a citizen of New York and its dominant stockholder, appeal from a judgment of Chief Judge Bruchhausen in the District Court for the Eastern District of New York, after a trial without a jury. The action was brought against them, and others not served, by C. M. Kirtley, a citizen of Iowa, who had been appointed trustee of Automatic Washer Company in a proceeding for reorganization under Chapter X of the Bankruptcy Act, 11 U.S.C.A.§ 501 et seq., in the Southern District of Iowa. Jurisdiction was rested on diversity of citizenship. The action stemmed from a writing which we quote in the margin,*fn1 the subsequent issuance of 50,000 shares of Automatic to Richland thereunder, and the non-delivery to Automatic of the "presses, production equipment and rubber machinery," hereafter "the rubber machinery," mentioned therein.

The amended complaint set forth six causes of action, several of them repetitious: a conspiracy by Richland, Abrams and other defendants to cause Automatic to issue the 50,000 shares without receipt of any money or property therefor; knowingly false representation by Richland and Abrams of an intention to furnish the rubber machinery; breach by Richland of its contract to deliver the rubber machinery; wrongful taking possession of the 50,000 shares by Richland and Abrams and conversion of the proceeds; obtaining of the 50,000 shares by Richland and Abrams through fraudulent misrepresentation of intention to deliver the rubber machinery; and Abrams' causing Richland to enter into the contract and then to fail to perform it. In the first, second and fourth causes of action Kirtley sought to recover the fair value of the 50,000 shares as of the time of their issue, alleged to be $400,000; in the third and sixth he claimed damages of $300,000 on the contract. The fifth cause of action asserted that the stock had a value when issued "of at least $400,000" and apparently was the basis for the prayer that a trust be impressed upon the proceeds of sale of the shares by Richland and Abrams. The court found that Kirtley had established all causes of action in the complaint, awarded judgment against Richland and Abrams for $425,000 with interest from March 1, 1956, and impressed a trust upon $154,000 the proceeds of the 50,000 shares, which Abrams was directed to pay into court.

The defense was presented in such a confused and diffuse fashion, partially excused by a torrent of objections to rather patently proper questions, that we can readily comprehend the trial judge's failure to perceive its true thrust. This was that everyone had known from the outset that Richland neither could nor would deliver rubber machinery, and that Automatic was to look for the machinery solely to Sydney L. Albert or one of his family of corporate enterprises.*fn2

Early in 1955, Albert had acquired control of Bellanca Aircraft Corporation, then a small manufacturer of aircraft parts having the asset of a listing on the American Stock Exchange, by transferring the property of L. Albert & Son, a family firm engaged in the rebuilding and sale of used rubber mill machinery, in exchange for a large amount of Beilanca stock. He embarked Bellanca on a program of acquiring interests in other companies. Abrams was a "finder," who brought Albert propositions from time to time. One such proposition resulted in an agreement for the purchase, in December, 1955, of 330,000 shares of Automatic Washer, at $2.55 per share, by Pierce Governor Company, Incorporated, in which Albert had a controlling interest.*fn3

Bellanca owned 97% of the stock of N. O. Nelson Company, a heating and plumbing supply firm which it had acquired for some $4,850,000 in March, 1955.*fn4 Perhaps as a sequel to the Pierce transaction, Abrams, along with one Shindler, who, according to Abrams, had been "standing by" with him to supply the needed funds to Automatic Washer if the Pierce transaction had not closed, found for Albert another proposition involving Automatic Washer, this time in connection with Bellanca's Nelson stock. This proposition, which was ultimately embodied in an agreement between Bellanca and Automatic Washer, dated December 23, 1955, as was the contract in suit, "subject to the approval of the respective Boards of Directors of the parties hereto," provided that Automatic would purchase the Nelson stock from Bellanca for 950,000 shares of Automatic stock and the surrender to Bellanca of a $1,525,000 note of Bellanca in favor of Albert with Automatic Washer was simultaneously acquiring from him.*fn5

Defendants asserted that the initial understanding was that Bellanca should receive 1,000,000 shares of Automatic rather than 950,000 and that Abrams and Shindler claimed a finders' commission of 10%, to wit, 100,000 shares, which, under usual practice, would be paid by Bellanca, the seller. Albert testified that "I objected strenuously to paying any commission at that percentage, as it was in my knowledge unheard of to pay more than five per cent"; that accordingly "the deal appeared to be stymied"; that, because the market price of Automatic had risen, "I felt that I could readily reduce the selling price from the one million shares to 950,000 shares giving my company, Bellanca Aircraft, the equivalent or more dollar wise and pay the maximum brokerage that I felt I could pay, namely fifty thousand shares on a 950,000 selling price"; and that "the balance of the fifty thousand shares would remain with Automatic Washer, which I could assume they could in turn pay as their commission to Richland or whoever the brokers may have been." Although this testimony was not disputed, it still left the question why the 50,000 shares thus "remaining" with Automatic Washer to be paid as commission were not issued as such. Defendants' explanation was that Abrams told Chamberlin, the president of Automatic, that, due to the rise in the price of Automatic stock, he "was very worried" about getting 50,000 shares which would be taxed as ordinary income, with only a $1,000 deduction if the shares were thereafter sold at a loss, and that "Mr. Chamberlin suggested that rubber machinery which was to be supplied, which he stated was being supplied by Sydney Albert, could be the basis upon which I could receive the 50,000 shares of stock, and suggested that some written agreement be made so that he could substantiate the issuance of the 50,000 shares for machinery and equipment, provided I would not receive the 50,000 shares on a subsequent date as commission." Shindler, who received 50,000 shares as commission from Bellanca, told the same story, adding that Chamberlin said "he had a need for machinery, lots of rubber machinery" whereas Albert "had tremendous quantities of rubbery machinery," and that Albert "stated that he would be more than happy to give the Automatic Washer Company all the machinery that they needed regardless of the amount because he was in control of that company."

Whatever the veracity of this and other evidence we have not stopped to summarize, it created an issue that defendants should have been given latitude to develop - just as plaintiff was properly permitted to rebut defendants' story by evidence that the rubber machinery was never delivered by anyone. It is altogether plain that as to the causes of action claiming fraudulent misrepresentation, on which the court based its award of damages, it was essential to determine whether Automatic, henceforth to be controlled by Albert in a degree defendants were never allowed to prove, ever expected Richland to make good on the representations and agreements contained in the writing of December 23, 1955. "The essential element of fraud that must exist in any case properly brought within that designation is a mistake of one party as to a material fact, wrongfully induced by the other in order that it might be acted upon * * *," 5 Williston, Contracts (rev. ed. 1937), p. 4153; see also 1 Harper and James, The Law of Torts (1956), p. 584. We know of no authority that embodiment of a misrepresentation in a purported contract relieves a plaintiff suing on a theory of fraud from these requirements, and we see no possible reason for any such extension of the "parol evidence rule."

Indeed, even as to the third and sixth causes of action, which were on the contract, that rule did not preclude defendants from attempting to show that there never was any agreement such as the writing purported to be. The basic distinction, in New York*fn6 as in many other jurisdictions, is, as stated a century ago by Mr. Justice Erle in Pym v. Campbell, El. & Bl. 370, 374, 119 Eng.Rep. 903, 905 (1856), "that evidence to very the terms of an agreement in writing is not admissible, but evidence to show that there is not an agreement at all is admissible." Griefson v. Mason, 60 N.Y. 394, 397 (1875); Thomas v. Scutt, 127 N.Y. 133, 137-138, 27 N.E. 961, 962 (1891); Smith v. Dotterweich, 200 N.Y. 299, 305, 93 N.E. 985, 987, 33 L.R.A.,N.S., 892 (1911); Saltzman v. Barson, 239 N.Y. 332, 146 N.E. 618 (1925); Bernstein v. Kritzer, 253 N.Y. 410, 171 N.E. 690 (1930); New York Trust Co. v. Island Oil & Transport Corp., 34 F.2d 655 (2 Cir. 1929); In re H. Hicks & Son, Inc., 82 F.2d 277 (2 Cir. 1936); Zell v. American Seating Co., 138 F.2d 641 (2 Cir. 1943), rev'd, 322 U.S. 709, 64 S. Ct. 1053, 88 L. Ed. 1552 (1944);*fn7 Kild v. Ckark, 161 F.2d 36, 46 (2 Cir.), cert. denied, 332 U.S. 808, 68 S. Ct. 107, 92 L. Ed. 385 (1947). The only respect in which the instant case differs from most of those cited is that Richland does not deny that any contract existed; it admits it was to get 50,000 shares but says the consideration for them was not its agreement to furnish rubbery machinery but the services rendered as "finder" and the promise not to assert any further claim for such services against either party to the Bellanca-Automatic deal. Still, it may be argued, Richland would thus be seeking "to vary the terms" of the agreement, which expressly stated that the stock was to be issued "in exchange for" the rubber machinery. This would be reading Mr. Justice Erle's language too literally. The case is not like one where Richland would seek to show that it needed to supply only $250,000 worth of machinery instead of $300,000, or that it was entitled to some relief because the machinery had gone up in price or the stock down - here its claim is that the whole rubber machinery business was a sham, intended to deceive the tax authorities and perhaps to improve Automatic's balance sheet, but not supposed by anyone to give rise to any obligation on its part. As said by Judge Learned Hand in the Hicks case, supra, 82 F.2d at 279, the parties' "actual understanding may always be shown except in so far as expressly or implicitly they have agreed that the writing alone shall control. * * * [They] will not be bound if they agree that their words, however coercive in form, shall not bind them." See the useful discussion in 3 Corbin, Contracts (1960 ed.), § 577, and § 572B, "Some Tentative Working Rules of Substantive Law," items 8 and 9.

Although the trial judge did receive a good deal of evidence in support of defendants' theory, he improperly circumscribed their proof. It was important for the defendants to show fully their version of how the transaction developed, and particularly, in view of the judge's proper skepticism as to the credibility of Abrams (who at the time of the trial was serving a prison sentence for a different transaction, United States v. Fabric Garment Co., Inc., 262 F.2d 631 (2 Cir. 1958), cert. denied, 359 U.S. 989, 79 S. Ct. 1117, 3 L. Ed. 2d 978 (1959), had previously pleaded guilty to filing a false income tax return for 1952, and, on his own theory of the instant case, had filed and caused Richland to file false ones for 1956),*fn8 to buttress the testimony of Abrams, Shindler and Albert with that of outside witnesses. One such was Kahn, a Trenton, N.J., attorney, who had been representing Albert and Bellanca. Defendants sought to examine him and to introduce in evidence correspondence between him and Albert, in February and March, 1956, so much of which was sent to Abrams or brought to his attention that none of it could be regarded as confidential and therefore privileged in the absence of appropriate proof as to some particular item; the examination of Kahn was seriously curtailed and the letters were excluded. These were admissible for a variety of purposes - as tending to show that the Bellanca-Automatic deal, in Kahn's words, "is probably not an arms length transaction," to substantiate defendants' claim that the arrangements were considered fluid long after December 23, 1955, and to corroborate defendants' contention that the 50,000 shares were to be issued "as a commission or a gratuity or whatever else we desire to label it" and that the rubber machinery was to be Albert's, not Richland's. Another such witness was Purcell. The "rubber machinery" agreement was prepared by him as attorney for Automatic, allegedly in the course of a conference concerning the Bellanca-Automatic transaction on December 23, 1955, attended by Albert, Abrams, Chamberlin, Shindler, and Hayutin, and its relationship to earlier drafts of the Bellanca-Automatic agreement and to later developments was of crucial importance. Yet his testimony that Chamberlin had told him in January, 1956, that the rubber machinery had been selected and ticketed, was stricken as irrelevant, and objections to questions as to conversation with Albert about rubber machinery at the conference on December 23 were sustained. Later Purcell was allowed to testify, subject to a motion to strike, as to conversations at the same conference wherein Chamberlin agreed he could use rubber machinery and Albert said "there would be no difficulty substantiating a price of - a value of three hundred thousand dollars" - apparently without any indication that anyone was to pay Albert for it.*fn9 However, at the end of the case the judge struck this testimony as immaterial. Purcell was also prevented from testifying as to an earlier draft agreement providing a consideration of 1,000,000 shares for Bellanca's Nelson stock. The ruling to strike at the end of the case also carried with it the testimony of Hayutin as to a January, 1956, telephone call by Albert in the presence of Chamberlin, Shindler, Abrams and Purcell, wherein Albert "set up some type of an appointment" with his Akron office "so that Mr. Chamberlin and some of his people would go down and select the machinery that was discussed by Mr. Albert and Mr. Chamberlin at that meeting." The ruling that testimony of such probative value as Purcell's and Hayutin's was immaterial shows that the judgment was not based merely on disbelief in Abrams' testimony but upon a view, which we hold erroneous, that the entire defense was without basis in law. Whether it had a basis in fact is quite another matter.

We need not discuss other contentions of appellants, save to indicate that on the retrial much greater freedom should be allowed in the introduction of evidence of the true value of the 50,000 shares, if that issue should be reached.

The judgment is reversed and a new trial ordered. The provision directing the payment of $154,000 into Court shall remain in effect pending the outcome of the new trial; this ...

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