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Grinder v. Bryans Road Building & Supply Co.

Decided: July 15, 1981.


Certiorari to the Court of Special Appeals. Circuit Court for Charles County, Bowling, J.

Murphy, C. J., and Smith, Eldridge, Cole, Davidson and Rodowsky, JJ. Rodowsky, J., delivered the opinion of the Court.


The liability of an undisclosed principal has been called an "anomaly" from the standpoint of the law of contracts.*fn1 Here we focus on a particular aspect of the anomaly. Where the creditor obtains a final judgment against one of the parties to the agency relationship, after learning of the existence and identity of the principal, the creditor is precluded from obtaining judgment against the other party. This is so even if the first judgment is unsatisfied. Reexamination of this rule of law convinces us that it is unsound and should no longer be followed. We adopt the rule that, absent other defenses, the third party may ordinarily proceed against the agent, or the previously undisclosed principal, or both, until the performance is satisfied.

This appeal arises out of a common business situation. G. Elvin Grinder (Grinder) of Marbury, Maryland is a building contractor. He did business as an individual and traded as "Grinder Construction." Grinder maintained an open account, on his individual credit, with Bryans Road Building & Supply Co., Inc. (the Plaintiff). On May 1, 1973 G. Elvin Grinder Construction, Inc., a Maryland corporation (the

Company), was formed. Grinder owned 52% of the stock. On May 1, 1978 the Plaintiff sued Grinder, individually and trading as Grinder Construction, on the open account, on which the balance represented exclusively purchases made after May 1, 1973. A motion for summary judgment, with supporting affidavits and exhibits, accompanied the declaration. In his affidavit in opposition to the requested summary judgment Grinder swore that the purchases were made by the Company, acting either through him as president, or through others as agents for the Company, and that all purchases were used entirely on construction projects of the Company. As a result the Plaintiff on August 15, 1978 filed an amended declaration which joined the Company as an additional defendant. On February 23, 1979 the Plaintiff moved for summary judgment against the Company, predicating its motion on the sworn admissions of Grinder, the president of the Company, in his affidavit. This motion was not opposed and summary judgment was entered against the Company in the amount of $5,912.68 on May 28, 1979.*fn2 At trial on the merits of the claim against Grinder, the Plaintiff's position was that it had never been advised that the Company was making purchases, that the purchases were made on the account of Grinder, the individual, and that he was liable for the balance. Grinder testified that the Plaintiff had been advised to convert the account to a corporate account. His counsel argued that the Plaintiff was estopped to deny that the account was a corporate one because the Plaintiff had taken summary judgment against the corporation. The trial court found as a fact that Grinder

had not notified the Plaintiff either that the billing on the open account should be transferred to a corporation or that Grinder's individual liability should be terminated. In its oral opinion from the bench, the trial court further found that the Company had received the assets for which the individual agent was billed, that the Plaintiff was unaware of the principal-agent relationship and that it was relying on the credit of the agent. In an application of pure legal reasoning, untainted by citation to the precedents, the trial court held that merely taking summary judgment against the principal did not estop the Plaintiff from obtaining judgment against the agent, Grinder. Judgment nisi was entered against Grinder on June 4, 1979.

Three days thereafter, Grinder filed a "motion to strike and enter judgment" which the court in effect treated as a motion for new trial under Md. Rule 567 by deferring entry of final judgment. Grinder's supporting statement of authorities referred to E. J. Codd Company v. Parker, 97 Md. 319, 55 A. 623 (1903) and thereby, for the first time, injected the concept of election into the case. In Codd the creditor, upon finding that it had been dealing with an agent, made claim against the principal in a proceeding in equity where an auditor's account was finally stated and ratified but under which no dividends were paid to the creditor. In a subsequent action by the creditor against the agent, in which the agent by special plea had set up the defense of election based upon the prior judgment against the principal, judgment went for the agent and was affirmed on appeal. This Court said (97 Md. at 325, 55 A. at 624):

And the general principle appears to be established that where an agent contracts in his own name, without disclosing his interest, though in fact for the exclusive benefit of another person, who is afterwards discovered, the creditor may sue either, but after he has elected whom to sue and has sued either the agent or the principal to final judgment, he cannot after that sue the other, whether the first suit has been successful or not. [Emphasis in text.]

At a hearing on July 2, 1979, the trial court struck the judgment against Grinder and entered judgment in his favor against the Plaintiff for costs. The Plaintiff timely filed an order to "[e]nter an appeal to the Court of Special Appeals from the judgment entered in this action on July 2, 1979."

The intermediate appellate court, in an opinion by Judge Wilner which closely reasoned within the letter of our decisions involving the election rule, remanded without affirmance or reversal under Md. Rule 1071. Bryans Road Building & Supply Co. v. Grinder, 46 Md. App. 10, 415 A.2d 615 (1980). Relying on the language of Codd, supra, and of Hospelhorn v. Poe, 174 Md. 242, 259, 198 A. 582, 590 (1938), that court held that election does not occur until the creditor takes a final judgment against the one he chooses to hold to the exclusion of the other. It reasoned that the judgment of May 28, 1979 against the Company was not a final judgment because there were multiple claims in the case and the summary judgment had not been certified as final pursuant to Md. Rule 605 a. Thus, the Plaintiff's election was still open at the point of judgment nisi against Grinder. Recognizing that neither party, nor the court, had fully appreciated the problem until both judgments had been entered, the Court of Special Appeals concluded that "it would be a triumph of legal fiction over justice for [it] to assume, as ultimately did the trial court, that [Plaintiff] made a knowing election in favor of" the judgment against the Company. 46 Md. App. at 20, 415 A.2d at 621. It therefore remanded to permit the Plaintiff to make an election.*fn3

This disposition by the Court of Special Appeals leaves the Plaintiff with a judgment either against Grinder or against the corporation, but not against both. But, in its cross-petition for certiorari, which we granted, the Plaintiff argues that it should be entitled to a judgment against both. That was, of course, the original decision by the trial court. The Plaintiff preserved this argument in its brief to the Court of Special Appeals. Grinder has raised a procedural question which is directed at the remand by the Court of Special Appeals. He contends the Plaintiff's order for appeal limited review to the judgment for costs against it rendered on July 2, and that the Plaintiff could not appeal from the summary judgment against the Company because it was in the Plaintiff's favor. Without intimating whether

these arguments have merit or not in relation to the remand to permit an election, it is clear that the judgment of July 2 was against the Plaintiff and that the order for appeal, even if limited to it, would bring up the question whether the Plaintiff ought to be permitted to take judgment against the agent, in addition to its unsatisfied judgment against the principal. Reexamination of the election rule, at least to some degree, is therefore squarely presented.

Following adoption of the election rule in Codd in 1903, this Court next considered the subject in the 1938 Hospelhorn decision. That litigation involved statutory assessments by the receiver of the insolvent Baltimore Trust Company against its shareholders. One of the cases (Hospelhorn v. Boyce, 174 Md. 275, 198 A. 597 (1938)) involved shares carried on the books of the bank in the name of an employee of a brokerage house which was not disclosed as principal. At issue on demurrer was the alleged misjoinder of principal and agent since, under the election rule, their liability is viewed as alternative and not joint. This Court held the joinder to be proper, but said the plaintiff would have to elect against which of the joined defendants he would take his final judgment. The reasons given in support of joinder are a blend of the intricacies of common law pleading and of practicality. We said that "[t]here is but one contract to be performed in respect of the one subject matter involved, and the principal and agent constitute but one party of the contract." Hospelhorn v. Poe, supra, 174 Md. at 257, 198 A. at 590. Further, because the creditor could simultaneously sue both principal and agent separately until final judgment against one, there was no sound reason why they could not be sued jointly. It was said that the case was not one of consensual contract, but of quasi contract based on a statutory obligation which bound the defendants alternatively, so that the common law prerequisite of a joint promise did not apply; that joinder was justified as a means of satisfying the agent's liability for the statutory assessment by enforcing against the principal the agent's right of indemnification; and that joinder would permit the election to be made after a determination that a relationship of

previously undisclosed principal and agent in fact existed so that the case was one involving alternative remedies in reference to which an election was necessary. Id. at 259-61, 198 A. at 590-92. Of course, joinder of alternative claims, which was so troublesome at the time of Hospelhorn, is today resolved by Md. Rule 313 c 1. But our modern pleading rule does not reach the underlying problem, that of an election occurring by final judgment.

There is an exception to the election rule applicable where the creditor takes judgment against the agent before knowledge of the identity of the principal, in which case the principal is not discharged and judgments against both may stand, with but one satisfaction allowed. This exception was applied as an alternative ground of decision in Wheaton Lumber Co. v. Metz, 229 Md. 78, 82, 181 A.2d 666, 669 (1962).

Our most recent holding which applies the election rule as Maryland law is Garfinkel v. Schwartzman, 253 Md. 710, 254 A.2d 667 (1969), a suit for real estate broker's commissions in which the undisclosed principal seller and his agent to sell were joined. Judgment in favor of the broker against the principal was affirmed. On the broker's cross-appeal from a directed verdict in favor of the agent we said, on the authority of Hospelhorn, that the broker had his judgment against the principal and could not recover his commissions from both. Traylor v. Grafton, 273 Md. 649, 332 A.2d 651 (1975) presented the contrast between the election rule, in force in Maryland, and the Pennsylvania rule, discussed infra, under which judgments against both principal and agent are permitted, with one satisfaction. That case involved a contract made in Pennsylvania to purchase Pennsylvania realty. Pennsylvania law applied and notice of intention to rely upon the law of Pennsylvania was given. See Md. Code (1974, 1980 Repl. Vol.), ยง 10-504 of the Courts and Judicial Proceedings Article.

On the foregoing review of the Maryland precedents, we could dismiss the Plaintiff's request for reexamination of the election rule because it ...

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