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decided*fn*: April 2, 1979.



Marshall, J., delivered the opinion for a unanimous Court.

Author: Marshall

[ 440 U.S. Page 718]

 MR. JUSTICE MARSHALL delivered the opinion of the Court.

We granted certiorari in these cases to determine whether contractual liens arising from certain federal loan programs take precedence over private liens, in the absence of a federal statute setting priorities.*fn1 To resolve this question, we must decide first whether federal or state law governs the controversies; and second, if federal law applies, whether this Court should fashion a uniform priority rule or incorporate state commercial law. We conclude that the source of law is federal, but that a national rule is unnecessary to protect the federal interests underlying the loan programs. Accordingly, we adopt state law as the appropriate federal rule for establishing the relative priority of these competing federal and private liens.



No. 77-1359 involves two contractual security interests in the personal property of O. K. Super Markets, Inc. Both interests were perfected pursuant to Texas' Uniform Commercial Code (UCC).*fn2 The United States' lien secures a loan guaranteed by the Small Business Administration (SBA). The private lien, which arises from security agreements that preceded the federal guarantee, secures advances respondent made after the federal guarantee.

In 1968, O. K. Super Markets borrowed $27,000 from

[ 440 U.S. Page 719]

     Kimbell Foods, Inc. (Kimbell), a grocery wholesaler. Two security agreements identified the supermarket's equipment and merchandise as collateral. The agreements also contained a standard "dragnet" clause providing that this collateral would secure future advances from Kimbell to O. K. Super Markets. Kimbell properly perfected its security interests by filing financing statements with the Texas Secretary of State according to Texas law.

In February 1969, O. K. Super Markets obtained a $300,000 loan from Republic National Bank of Dallas (Republic). The bank accepted as security the same property specified in Kimbell's 1968 agreements, and filed a financing statement with the Texas Secretary of State to perfect its security interest. The SBA guaranteed 90% of this loan under the Small Business Act, which authorizes such assistance*fn3 but, with one exception, does not specify priority rules to govern the SBA's security interests.*fn4

O. K. Super Markets used the Republic loan proceeds to satisfy the remainder of the 1968 obligation and to discharge an indebtedness for inventory purchased from Kimbell on open account. Kimbell continued credit sales to O. K. Super Markets until the balance due reached $18,258.57 on January 15, 1971. Thereupon, Kimbell initiated state proceedings against O. K. Super Markets to recover this inventory debt.

Shortly before Kimbell filed suit, O. K. Super Markets had defaulted on the SBA-guaranteed loan. Republic assigned its security interest to the SBA in late December 1970, and recorded the assignment with Texas authorities on January 21, 1971. The United States then honored its guarantee and paid

[ 440 U.S. Page 720]

     Republic $252,331.93 (90% of the outstanding indebtedness) on February 3, 1971. That same day, O. K. Super Markets, with the approval of its creditors, sold its equipment and inventory and placed the proceeds in escrow pending resolution of the competing claims to the funds. Approximately one year later, the state court entered judgment against O. K. Super Markets, and awarded Kimbell $24,445.37, representing the inventory debt, plus interest and attorney's fees.

Kimbell thereafter brought the instant action to foreclose on its lien, claiming that its security interest in the escrow fund was superior to the SBA's.*fn5 The District Court held for the Government. On determining that federal law controlled the controversy, the court applied principles developed by this Court to afford federal statutory tax liens special priority over state and private liens where the governing statute does not specify priorities. Kimbell Foods, Inc. v. Republic Nat. Bank of Dallas, 401 F.Supp. 316, 321-322 (ND Tex. 1975). See, e. g., United States v. Security Trust & Sav. Bank, 340 U.S. 47 (1950); United States v. Pioneer American Ins. Co., 374 U.S. 84 (1963).*fn6 Under these rules, the lien "first in time" is "first in right."*fn7 However, to be

[ 440 U.S. Page 721]

     considered first in time, the nonfederal lien must be "choate," that is, sufficiently specific, when the federal lien arises.*fn8 A state-created lien is not choate until the "identity of the lienor, the property subject to the lien, and the amount of the lien are established." United States v. New Britain, 347 U.S. 81, 84 (1954); see United States v. Vermont, 377 U.S. 351, 358 (1964). Failure to meet any one of these conditions forecloses priority over the federal lien, even if under state law the nonfederal lien was enforceable for all purposes when the federal lien arose.

Because Kimbell did not reduce its lien to judgment until February 1972, and the federal lien had been created either in 1969, when Republic filed its financing statement, or in 1971, when Republic recorded its assignment, the District

[ 440 U.S. Page 722]

     Court concluded that respondent's lien was inchoate when the federal lien arose. 401 F.Supp., at 324-325. Alternatively, the court held that even under state law, the SBA lien was superior to Kimbell's claim because the future advance clauses in the 1968 agreements were not intended to secure the debts arising from O. K. Super Market's subsequent inventory purchases. Id., at 325-326.

The Court of Appeals reversed. Kimbell Foods, Inc. v. Republic Nat. Bank of Dallas, 557 F.2d 491 (CA5 1977). It agreed that federal law governs the rights of the United States under its SBA loan program, id., at 498 n. 9, 503 n. 16, and that the "first in time, first in right" priority principle should control the competing claims. Id., at 502-503. However, the court refused to extend the choateness rule to situations in which the Federal Government was not an involuntary creditor of tax delinquents, but rather a voluntary commercial lender. Id., at 498, 500-502. Instead, it fashioned a new federal rule for determining which lien was first in time, and concluded that "in the context of competing state security interests arising under the U. C. C.," the first to meet UCC perfection requirements achieved priority. Id., at 503.*fn9

The Court of Appeals then considered which lien qualified as first perfected. Disagreeing with the District Court, the court determined that, under Texas law, the 1968 security agreements covered Kimbell's future advances, and that the liens securing those advances dated from the filing of the security agreements before the federal lien arose. Id., at 494-498, 503. But the Court of Appeals did not adopt Texas law. Rather, it proceeded to decide whether the future advances should receive the same treatment under federal common

[ 440 U.S. Page 723]

     law. After surveying three possible approaches,*fn10 the court held that Kimbell's future advances dated back to the 1968 agreements, and therefore took precedence over Republic's 1969 loan. Id., at 503-505.


At issue in No. 77-1644 is whether a federal contractual security interest in a tractor is superior to a subsequent repairman's lien in the same property. From 1970 to 1972, Ralph Bridges obtained several loans from the Farmers Home Administration (FHA), under the Consolidated Farmers Home Administration Act of 1961.*fn11 Like the Small Business Act, this statute does not establish rules of priority. To secure the FHA loans, the agency obtained a security interest in Bridges' crops and farm equipment, which it perfected by filing a standard FHA financing statement with Georgia officials on February 2, 1972. Bridges subsequently took his tractor to respondent Crittenden for repairs on numerous occasions, accumulating unpaid repair bills of over $1,600. On December 21, 1973, Bridges again had respondent repair the tractor, at a cost of $543.81. When Bridges could not pay the balance of $2,151.28, respondent retained the tractor and acquired a lien therein under Georgia law. Ga. Code § 67-2003 (1978).

[ 440 U.S. Page 724]

     On May 1, 1975, after Bridges had filed for bankruptcy and had been discharged from his debts,*fn12 the United States instituted this action against Crittenden to obtain possession of the tractor.*fn13 The District Court rejected the Government's claim that the FHA's security interest was superior to respondent's, and granted summary judgment for respondent on alternative grounds. First, it held that the agency had not properly perfected its security interest because the financing statement inadequately described the collateral. Civ. Action No. 75-37-COL (MD Ga. Sept. 25, 1975). Second, it found that even if the description were sufficient, both federal and state law accorded priority to respondent's lien. Ibid.

The Court of Appeals affirmed in part and reversed in part. It first ruled that "the rights and liabilities of the parties to a suit arising from FHA loan transactions must, under the rationale of the Clearfield Trust doctrine, be determined with reference to federal law." 563 F.2d 678, 680-681 (CA5 1977) (footnotes omitted). See Clearfield Trust Co. v. United States, 318 U.S. 363 (1943). In fashioning a federal rule for assessing the sufficiency of the FHA's financing statement, the court elected to follow the Model UCC rather than to incorporate Georgia law. 563 F.2d, at 681-682. And, it determined that the description of the collateral was adequate under the Model UCC to perfect the FHA's security interest. Id., at 682-683.

The Court of Appeals then addressed the priority question and concluded that neither state law nor the first-in-time, first-in-right and choateness doctrines were appropriate to resolve the conflicting claims. Id., at 683-689. In their place, the court devised a special "federal commercial law rule," using

[ 440 U.S. Page 725]

     the Model UCC and the Tax Lien Act of 1966 as guides. Id., at 679, 688-690.*fn14 This rule would give priority to repairman's liens over the Government's previously perfected consensual security interests when the repairman continuously possesses the property from the time his lien arises. Id., at 690-691.*fn15 Applying its rule, the Court of Appeals concluded that Crittenden's lien for only the final $543.81 repair bill took precedence over the FHA's security interest. Id., at 692.*fn16

[ 440 U.S. Page 726]


This Court has consistently held that federal law governs questions involving the rights of the United States arising under nationwide federal programs. As the Court explained in Clearfield Trust Co. v. United States, supra, at 366-367:

"When the United States disburses its funds or pays its debts, it is exercising a constitutional function or power. . . . The authority [to do so] had its origin in the Constitution and the statutes of the United States and was in no way dependent on the laws [of any State]. The duties imposed upon the United States and the rights acquired by it . . . find their roots in the same federal sources. In absence of an applicable Act of Congress it is for the federal courts to fashion the governing rule of law according to their own standards." (Citations and footnote omitted.)

Guided by these principles, we think it clear that the priority of liens stemming from federal lending programs must be determined with reference to federal law. The SBA and FHA unquestionably perform federal functions within the meaning of Clearfield. Since the agencies derive their authority to effectuate loan transactions from specific Acts of Congress passed in the exercise of a "constitutional function or power," Clearfield Trust Co. v. United States, supra, at 366, their rights, as well, should derive from a federal source.*fn17 When

[ 440 U.S. Page 727]

     Government activities "[arise] from and [bear] heavily upon a federal . . . program," the Constitution and Acts of Congress "'require' otherwise than that state law govern of its own force." United States v. Little Lake Misere Land Co., 412 U.S. 580, 592, 593 (1973).*fn18 In such contexts, federal interests are sufficiently implicated to warrant the protection of federal law.*fn19

That the statutes authorizing these federal lending programs do not specify the appropriate rule of decision in no way limits the reach of federal law. It is precisely when Congress has not spoken "'in an area comprising issues substantially related to an established program of government operation,'" id., at 593, quoting Mishkin 800, that Clearfield directs federal courts to fill the interstices of federal legislation "according to their own standards." Clearfield Trust Co. v. United States, 318 U.S., at 367.*fn20

Federal law therefore controls the Government's priority rights. The more difficult task, to which we turn, is giving content to this federal rule.


Controversies directly affecting the operations of federal programs, although governed by federal law, do not inevitably

[ 440 U.S. Page 728]

     require resort to uniform federal rules. See Clearfield Trust Co. v. United States, supra, at 367; United States v. Little Lake Misere Land Co., supra, at 594-595. Whether to adopt state law or to fashion a nationwide federal rule is a matter of judicial policy "dependent upon a variety of considerations always relevant to the nature of the specific governmental interests and to the effects upon them of applying state law." United States v. Standard Oil Co., 332 U.S. 301, 310 (1947).*fn21

Undoubtedly, federal programs that "by their nature are and must be uniform in character throughout the Nation" necessitate formulation of controlling federal rules. United States v. Yazell, 382 U.S. 341, 354 (1966); see Clearfield Trust Co. v. United States, supra, at 367; United States v. Standard Oil Co., supra, at 311; Illinois v. Milwaukee, 406 U.S. 91, 105 n. 6 (1972). Conversely, when there is little need for a nationally uniform body of law, state law may be incorporated as the federal rule of decision.*fn22 Apart from considerations of uniformity, we must also determine whether application of state law would frustrate specific objectives of the federal programs. If so, we must fashion special rules solicitous of those federal interests.*fn23 Finally, our choice-of-law

[ 440 U.S. Page 729]

     inquiry must consider the extent to which application of a federal rule would disrupt commercial relationships predicated on state law.*fn24

The Government argues that effective administration of its lending programs requires uniform federal rules of priority. It contends further that resort to any rules other than first in time, first in right and choateness would conflict with protectionist fiscal policies underlying the programs. We are unpersuaded that, in the circumstances presented here, nationwide standards favoring claims of the United States are necessary to ease program administration or to safeguard the Federal Treasury from defaulting debtors. Because the state commercial codes "furnish convenient solutions in no way inconsistent with adequate protection of the federal [interests]," United States v. Standard Oil Co., supra, at 309, we decline to override intricate state laws of general applicability on which private creditors base their daily commercial transactions.


Incorporating state law to determine the rights of the United States as against private creditors would in no way hinder administration of the SBA and FHA loan programs. In United States v. Yazell, supra, this Court rejected the argument, similar to the Government's here, that a need for uniformity precluded application of state coverture rules to an SBA loan contract. Because SBA operations were "specifically and in great detail adapted to state law," 382 U.S. at 357, the federal interest in supplanting "important

[ 440 U.S. Page 730]

     and carefully evolved state arrangements designed to serve multiple purposes" was minimal. Id., at 353. Our conclusion that compliance with state law would produce no hardship on the agency was also based on the SBA's practice of "individually [negotiating] in painfully particularized detail" each loan transaction. Id., at 345-346. These observations apply with equal force here and compel us again to reject generalized pleas for uniformity as substitutes for concrete evidence that adopting state law would adversely affect administration of the federal programs.

Although the SBA Financial Assistance Manual on which this Court relied in Yazell is no longer "replete with admonitions to follow state law carefully," id., at 357 n. 35, SBA employees are still instructed to, and indeed do, follow state law.*fn25 In fact, a fair reading of the SBA Financial Assistance Manual, SOP 50-10 (SBA Manual), indicates that the agency assumes its security interests are controlled to a large extent by the commercial law of each State.*fn26 Similarly, FHA regulations

[ 440 U.S. Page 731]

     expressly incorporate state law. They mandate compliance with state procedures for perfecting and maintaining valid security interests, and highlight those rules that differ from State to State. E. g., 7 CFR §§ 1921.104 (c)(1), 1921.105, 1921.106, 1921.107, 1921.108, 1921.111, 1930.5, 1930.8, 1930.9, 1930.14, 1930.17, 1930.27 (1978).*fn27 To ensure that employees are aware of new developments, the FHA also issues "State supplements" to "reflect any State statutory changes in its version of the UCC." § 1921.111 (c); see, e. g., §§ 1802.80, 1904.108 (d), 1930.46 (d)(3). Contrary to the Government's claim that the FHA complies only with state procedural rules, Reply Brief for United States in No. 77-1644, p. 7, the agency's reliance on state law extends to substantive requirements as well. Indeed, applicable regulations

[ 440 U.S. Page 732]

     suggest that state rules determine the priority of FHA liens when federal statutes or agency regulations are not controlling. 7 CFR §§ 1872.2 (c), 1921.111 (b), 1930.43, 1930.44, 1930.46 (d)(1), (3) (1978); see also § 1955.15 (d).

Thus, the agencies' own operating practices belie their assertion that a federal rule of priority is needed to avoid the administrative burdens created by disparate state commercial rules.*fn28 The programs already conform to each State's commercial standards. By using local lending offices and employees who are familiar with the law of their respective localities,*fn29 the agencies function effectively without uniform procedures and legal rules.

Nevertheless, the Government maintains that requiring the agencies to assess security arrangements under local law would dictate close scrutiny of each transaction and thereby impede expeditious processing of loans. We disagree. Choosing responsible debtors necessarily requires individualized selection procedures, which the agencies have already implemented in considerable detail. Each applicant's financial condition is evaluated under rigorous standards in a lengthy process.*fn30 Agency employees negotiate personally with borrowers, investigate property offered as collateral for encumbrances, and

[ 440 U.S. Page 733]

     obtain local legal advice on the adequacy of proposed security arrangements.*fn31 In addition, they adapt the terms of every loan to the parties' needs and capabilities.*fn32 Because each application currently receives individual scrutiny, the agencies can readily adjust loan transactions to reflect state priority rules, just as they consider other factual and legal matters before disbursing Government funds. As we noted in United States v. Yazell, 382 U.S., at 348, these lending programs are distinguishable from "nationwide [acts] of the Federal Government, emanating in a single form from a single source." (Footnote omitted.) Since there is no indication that variant state priority schemes would burden current methods of loan processing, we conclude that considerations of administrative convenience do not warrant adoption of a uniform federal law.


The Government argues that applying state law to these lending programs would undermine its ability to recover funds disbursed and therefore would conflict with program objectives. In the Government's view, it is difficult "to identify a material distinction between a dollar received from the collection of taxes and a dollar returned to the Treasury on

[ 440 U.S. Page 734]

     repayment of a federal loan." Brief for United States in No. 77-1359, p. 22. Therefore, the agencies conclude, just as "the purpose of the federal tax lien statute to insure prompt and certain collection of taxes"*fn33 justified our imposition of the first-in-time and choateness doctrines in the tax lien context, the federal interest in recovering on loans compels similar legal protection of the agencies' consensual liens. However, we believe significant differences between federal tax liens and consensual liens counsel against unreflective extension of rules that immunize the United States from the commercial law governing all other voluntary secured creditors. These differences persuade us that deference to customary commercial practices would not frustrate the objectives of the lending programs.

That collection of taxes is vital to the functioning, indeed existence, of government cannot be denied. McCulloch v. Maryland, 4 Wheat. 316, 425, 428, 431 (1819); Springer v. United States, 102 U.S. 586, 594 (1881). Congress recognized as much over 100 years ago when it authorized creation of federal tax liens. Act of July 13, 1866, ch. 184, § 9, 14 Stat. 107, recodified as amended in 26 U. S. C. §§ 6321-6323. The importance of securing adequate revenues to discharge national obligations justifies the extraordinary priority accorded federal tax liens through the choateness and first-in-time doctrines. By contrast, when the United States operates as a moneylending institution under carefully circumscribed programs, its interest in recouping the limited sums advanced is of a different order. Thus, there is less need here than in the tax lien area to invoke protective measures against defaulting debtors in a manner disruptive of existing credit markets.

To equate tax liens with these consensual liens also misperceives the principal congressional concerns underlying the respective statutes. The overriding purpose of the tax lien

[ 440 U.S. Page 735]

     statute obviously is to ensure prompt revenue collection. The same cannot be said of the SBA and FHA lending programs.*fn34 They are a form of social welfare legislation, primarily designed to assist farmers and businesses that cannot obtain funds from private lenders on reasonable terms.*fn35 We believe that had Congress intended the private commercial sector, rather than taxpayers in general, to bear the risks of default entailed by these public welfare programs, it would have established a priority scheme displacing state law. Far from doing so, both Congress and the agencies have expressly recognized the priority of certain private liens over the agencies' security interests,*fn36 thereby indicating that the extraordinary safeguards applied in the tax lien area are unnecessary to maintain the lending programs.

The Government's ability to safeguard its interests in commercial dealings further reveals that the rules developed in the tax lien area are unnecessary here, and that state priority rules would not conflict with federal lending objectives.*fn37

[ 440 U.S. Page 736]

     The United States is an involuntary creditor of delinquent taxpayers, unable to control the factors that make tax collection likely. In contrast, when the United States acts as a lender or guarantor, it does so voluntarily, with detailed knowledge of the borrower's financial status. The agencies evaluate the risks associated with each loan, examine the interests of other creditors, choose the security believed necessary to assure repayment, and set the terms of every agreement.*fn38 By carefully selecting loan recipients and tailoring each transaction with state law in mind, the agencies are fully capable of establishing terms that will secure repayment.*fn39

[ 440 U.S. Page 737]

     The Government nonetheless argues that its opportunity to evaluate the credit worthiness of loan applicants provides minimal safety. Because the SBA and FHA make loans only when private lenders will not, the United States believes that its security interests demand greater protection than ordinary commercial arrangements. We find this argument unconvincing. The lending agencies do not indiscriminately distribute public funds and hope that reimbursement will follow. SBA loans must be "of such sound value or so secured as reasonably to assure repayment." 15 U. S. C. § 636 (a)(7); see 13 CFR § 120.2 (c)(1) (1978). The FHA operates under a similar restriction. 7 CFR § 1833.35 (1978). Both agencies have promulgated exhaustive instructions to ensure that loan recipients are financially reliable and to prevent improvident loans.*fn40 The Government therefore is in substantially the same position as private lenders, and the special status it seeks is unnecessary to safeguard the public fisc. Moreover, Congress' admonitions to extend loans judiciously supports the view that it did not intend to confer special privileges on agencies that enter the commercial field. Accordingly, we agree with the Court of Appeals in No. 77-1359 that "[as] a quasi-commercial lender, [the Government] does not require . . .

[ 440 U.S. Page 738]

     the special priority which it compels as sovereign" in its tax-collecting capacity. 557 F.2d, at 500.

The Federal Tax Lien Act of 1966, 80 Stat. 1125, as amended, 26 U. S. C. § 6323, provides further evidence that treating the United States like any other lender would not undermine federal interests. These amendments modified the Federal Government's preferred position under the choateness and first-in-time doctrines, and recognized the priority of many state claims over federal tax liens.*fn41 In enacting this legislation, Congress sought to "[improve] the status of private secured creditors" and prevent impairment of commercial financing transactions by "[modernizing] . . . the relationship of Federal tax liens to the interests of other creditors." S. Rep. No. 1708, 89th Cong., 2d Sess., 1-2 (1966); see also H. R. Rep. No. 1884, 89th Cong., 2d Sess., 35 (1966). This rationale has even greater force when the Government acts as a moneylender. We do not suggest that Congress' actions in the tax lien area control our choice of law in the commercial lien context. But in fashioning federal principles to govern areas left open by Congress, our function is to effectuate congressional policy. E. g., RFC v. Beaver County, 328 U.S. 204, 209-210 (1946). To ignore Congress' disapproval of unrestricted federal priority in an area as important to the Nation's stability as taxation would be inconsistent with this function. Thus, without a showing that application of state laws would impair federal operations, we decline to extend to new contexts extraordinary safeguards largely rejected by Congress.

[ 440 U.S. Page 739]


In structuring financial transactions, businessmen depend on state commercial law to provide the stability essential for reliable evaluation of the risks involved. Cf. National Bank v. Whitney, 103 U.S. 99, 102 (1881). However, subjecting federal contractual liens to the doctrines developed in the tax lien area could undermine that stability. Creditors who justifiably rely on state law to obtain superior liens would have their expectations thwarted whenever a federal contractual security interest suddenly appeared and took precedence.*fn42

Because the ultimate consequences of altering settled commercial practices are so difficult to foresee,*fn43 we hesitate to

[ 440 U.S. Page 740]

     create new uncertainties, in the absence of careful legislative deliberation. Of course, formulating special rules to govern the priority of the federal consensual liens in issue here would be justified if necessary to vindicate important national interests. But neither the Government nor the Court of Appeals advanced any concrete reasons for rejecting well-established commercial rules which have proven workable over time. Thus, the prudent course is to adopt the readymade body of state law as the federal rule of decision until Congress strikes a different accommodation.*fn44


Accordingly, we hold that, absent a congressional directive, the relative priority of private liens and consensual liens arising from these Government lending programs is to be determined under nondiscriminatory state laws. In No. 77-1359, the Court of Appeals found that Texas law gave preference to Kimbell's lien. We therefore affirm the judgment in that case. Although the issue was contested, the Court of Appeals in No. 77-1644 did not decide whether and to what extent Georgia treats repairman's liens as superior to previously perfected consensual liens. Nor did the court assess the sufficiency of the FHA's financing statement under Georgia law. Because "[the] federal judges who deal regularly with questions of state law in their respective districts and circuits are in a better position than we to determine how local courts would dispose of [such] issues," Butner v. United States, ante, at 58 (footnote omitted), we vacate the judgment in No. 77-1644 and remand for resolution of these issues.

So ordered.


No. 77-1359, 557 F.2d 491, affirmed; No. 77-1644, 563 F.2d 678, vacated and remanded.

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