|Fuentes v. Shevin
[ Stewart ]
[ White ]
Fuentes v. Shevin
APPEAL FROM THE UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT FOR THE SOUTHERN DISTRICT OF FLORIDA
MR. JUSTICE WHITE, with whom THE CHIEF JUSTICE and MR. JUSTICE BLACKMUN join, dissenting.
Because the Court's opinion and judgment improvidently, in my view, call into question important aspects of the statutes of almost all the States governing secured transactions and the procedure for repossessing personal property, I must dissent for the reasons that follow.
First: It is my view that, when the federal actions were filed in these cases and the respective District [p98] Courts proceeded to judgment, there were state court proceedings in progress. It seems apparent to me that the judgments should be vacated and the District Courts instructed to reconsider these cases in the light of the principles announced in Younger v. Harris, 401 U.S. 37 (1971); Samuels v. Mackell, 401 U.S. 66; Boyle v. Landry, 401 U.S. 77; and Perez v. Ledesma, 401 U.S. 82.
In No. 70-5039, the Florida statutes provide for the commencement of an action of replevin, with bond, by serving a writ summoning the defendant to answer the complaint. Thereupon, the sheriff may seize the property, subject to repossession by defendant within three days upon filing of a counterbond, failing which the property is delivered to plaintiff to await final judgment in the replevin action. Fla.Stat.Ann. § 78.01 et seq. (Supp. 1972-1973). This procedure was attacked in a complaint filed by appellant Fuentes in the federal court, alleging that an affidavit in replevin had been filed by Firestone Tire & Rubber Co. in the Small Claims Court of Dade County; that a writ of replevin had been issued pursuant thereto and duly served, together with the affidavit and complaint; and that a trial date had been set in the Small Claims Court. Firestone's answer admitted that the replevin action was pending in the Small Claims Court and asserted that Mrs. Fuentes, plaintiff in the federal court and appellant here, had not denied her default or alleged that she had the right to possession of the property. Clearly, state court proceedings were pending, no bad faith or harassment was alleged, and no irreparable injury appeared that could not have been averted by raising constitutional objections in the pending state court proceeding. In this posture, it would appear that the case should be reconsidered under Younger v. Harris and companion cases, which were announced after the District Court's judgment. [p99]
In No. 70-5138, Pennsylvania Rule of Civil Procedure 1073 expressly provides that an "[a]ction of replevin with bond shall be commenced by filing with the prothonotary a praecipe for a writ of replevin with bond. . . ." When the writ issues and is served, the defendant has three days to file a counterbond, and, should he care to have a hearing, he may file his own praecipe, in which event the plaintiff must proceed further in the action by filing and serving his complaint.
In the cases before us, actions in replevin were commenced in accordance with the rules, and appellee Sears, Roebuck & Co. urged in the District Court that plaintiffs had
adequate remedies at law which they could pursue in the state court proceedings which are still pending in accordance with the statutes and rules of Pennsylvania.
App. 60. Under Younger v. Harris and companion cases, the District Court's judgment should be vacated and the case reconsidered.
Second: it goes without saying that, in the typical installment sale of personal property, both seller and buyer have interests in the property until the purchase price is fully paid, the seller early in the transaction often having more at stake than the buyer. Nor is it disputed that the buyer's right to possession is conditioned upon his making the stipulated payments, and that, upon default, the seller is entitled to possession. Finally, there is no question in these cases that, if default is disputed by the buyer he has the opportunity for a full hearing, and that, if he prevails, he may have the property or its full value as damages.
The narrow issue, as the Court notes, is whether it comports with due process to permit the seller, pending final judgment, to take possession of the property through a writ of replevin served by the sheriff without affording the buyer opportunity to insist that the seller establish at a hearing that there is reasonable [p100] basis for his claim of default. The interests of the buyer and seller are obviously antagonistic during this interim period: the buyer wants the use of the property pending final judgment; the seller's interest is to prevent further use and deterioration of his security. By the Florida and Pennsylvania laws, the property is, to all intents and purposes, placed in custody and immobilized during this time. The buyer loses use of the property temporarily, but is protected against loss; the seller is protected against deterioration of the property, but must undertake by bond to make the buyer whole in the event the latter prevails.
In considering whether this resolution of conflicting interests is unconstitutional, much depends on one's perceptions of the practical considerations involved. The Court holds it constitutionally essential to afford opportunity for a probable cause hearing prior to repossession. Its stated purpose is "to prevent unfair and mistaken deprivations of property." But in these typical situations, the buyer-debtor has either defaulted or he has not. If there is a default, it would seem not only "fair," but essential, that the creditor be allowed to repossess; and I cannot say that the likelihood of a mistaken claim of default is sufficiently real or recurring to justify a broad constitutional requirement that a creditor do more than the typical state law requires and permits him to do. Sellers are normally in the business of selling and collecting the price for their merchandise. I could be quite wrong, but it would not seem in the creditor's interest for a default occasioning repossession to occur; as a practical matter, it would much better serve his interests if the transaction goes forward and is completed as planned. Dollar-and-cents considerations weigh heavily against false claims of default, as well as against precipitate action that would allow no opportunity for mistakes to surface and be [p101] corrected.[ * ] Nor does it seem to me that creditors would lightly undertake the expense of instituting replevin actions and putting up bonds.
The Court relies on prior cases, particularly Goldberg v. Kelly, 397 U.S. 254 (1970); Bell v. Burson, 402 U.S. 535 (1971); and Stanley v. Illinois, 405 U.S. 645 (1972). But these cases provide no automatic test for determining whether and when due process of law requires adversary proceedings. Indeed, "[t]he very nature of due process negates any concept of inflexible procedures universally applicable to every imaginable situation. . . ."
[W]hat procedures due process may require under any given set of circumstances must begin [p102] with a determination of the precise nature of the government function involved as well as of the private interest that has been affected by governmental action.
Cafeteria Workers v. McElroy, 367 U.S. 886, 895 (1961). See also Stanley v. Illinois, supra, at 650; Goldberg v. Kelly, supra, at 263. Viewing the issue before us in this light, I would not construe the Due Process Clause to require the creditors to do more than they have done in these cases to secure possession pending final hearing. Certainly, I would not ignore, as the Court does, the creditor's interest in preventing further use and deterioration of the property in which he has substantial interest. Surely, under the Court's own definition, the creditor has a "property" interest as deserving of protection as that of the debtor. At least the debtor, who is very likely uninterested in a speedy resolution that could terminate his use of the property, should be required to make those payments, into court or otherwise, upon which his right to possession is conditioned. Cf. Lindsey v. Normet, 405 U.S. 56 (1972).
Third: the Court's rhetoric is seductive, but, in end analysis, the result it reaches will have little impact, and represents no more than ideological tinkering with state law. It would appear that creditors could withstand attack under today's opinion simply by making clear in the controlling credit instruments that they may retake possession without a hearing, or, for that matter, without resort to Judicial process at all. Alternatively, they need only give a few days' notice of a hearing, take possession if hearing is waived or if there is default; and, if hearing is necessary, merely establish probable cause for asserting that default has occurred. It is very doubtful in my mind that such a hearing would, in fact, result in protections for the debtor substantially different from those the present laws provide. [p103] On the contrary, the availability of credit may well be diminished or, in any event, the expense of securing it increased.
None of this seems worth the candle to me. The procedure that the Court strikes down is not some barbaric hangover from bygone days. The respective rights of the parties in secured transactions have undergone the most intensive analysis in recent years. The Uniform Commercial Code, which now so pervasively governs the subject matter with which it deals, provides in Art. 9, § 9-503, that:
Unless otherwise agreed, a secured party has on default the right to take possession of the collateral. In taking possession a secured party may proceed without judicial process if this can be done without breach of the peace or may proceed by action. . . .
Recent studies have suggested no changes in Art. 9 in this respect. See Permanent Editorial Board for the Uniform Commercial Code, Review Committee for Article 9 of the Uniform Commercial Code, Final Report, § 9-503 (April 25, 1971). I am content to rest on the judgment of those who have wrestled with these problems so long and often and upon the judgment of the legislatures that have considered and so recently adopted provisions that contemplate precisely what has happened in these cases.
* Appellants Paul and Ellen Parham admitted in their complaints that they were delinquent in their payments. They stipulated to this effect, as well as to receipt of notices of delinquency prior to institution of the replevin action, and the District Court so found.
Appellant Epps alleged in his complaint that he was not in default. The defendant, Government Employees Exchange Corp., answered that Epps was in default in the amount of $311.25 as of August 9, 1970, that the entire sum due had been demanded in accordance with the relevant documents, and that Epps had failed and refused to pay that sum. The District Court did not resolve this factual dispute. It did find that Epps earned in excess of $10,000 per year, and that the agreements Epps and Parham entered into complied with the provisions of Pennsylvania's Uniform Commercial Code and its Services and Installment Sales Act.
As for appellant Rosa Washington, the District Court, based on the allegations of her complaint, entered a temporary restraining order requiring that the property seized from her be returned forthwith. At a subsequent hearing, the order was dissolved, the court finding
that the representations upon which the temporary restraining order of September 18, 1970, issued were incorrect, both as to allegations contained in the complaint and representations made by counsel.