256 US 170 Marcus Brown Holding Co v. Feldman

256 U.S. 170

41 S.Ct. 465

65 L.Ed. 877

FELDMAN et al.

No. 731.

Argued March 3 and 7, 1921.

Decided April 18, 1921.

[Syllabus from pages 170-171 intentionally omitted]

Mr. Joseph A. Seidman, of New York City. for appellant.

[Argument of Counsel from pages 173-181 intentionally omitted]

Mr. David L. Podell, of New York City, for appellees.

Mr. William D. Guthrie, of New York City, for the Attorney General of New York, amicus curiae.

[Argument of Counsel from pages 181-196 intentionally omitted]

Mr. Justice HOLMES delivered the opinion of the Court.

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This is a bill in equity brought by the Marcus Brown Holding Company, the appellant, owner of a large apartment house in the city of New York, against the tenants of an apartment in the house and the District Attorney of the County of New York. The tenants are holding over after their lease has expired, which it did on September 30, 1920, claiming the right to do so under Chapters 942 and 947 of the Laws of New York of 1920. The object of the bill is to have these and other connected laws declared unconstitutional. The District Attorney is joined in order to prevent his enforcing by criminal proceedings Chapters 131 and 951 of the acts of the same year, which make it a misdemeanor for the lessor or any agent or janitor intentionally to fail to furnish such water, heat, light, elevator, telephone, or other service as may be required by the terms of the lease and necessary to the proper or customary use of the building. The case was heard in the District Court by three judges upon the bill, answer, affidavits and some public documents, all of which may be summed up in a few works. The bill alleges at length the rights given to a lessor by the common law and statutes of New York before the enactment of the statutes relied upon by the tenants, a covenant by the latter to surrender possession at the termination of their lease, and due demand, and claims protection under Article 1, Section 10 and the Fourteenth Amendment of the Constitution of the United States. An affidavit alleges that before the passage of the new statutes another lease of the premises had been made, to go into effect on October 1, 1920. The answer of the tenants relies upon the new statutes and alleges a willingness to pay a reasonable rent and any reasonable increase as the same may be determined by a court of competent jurisdiction. It also alleges that they made efforts to obtain another suitable apartment but failed. The District Attorney moved to dismiss the bill. The judged considered the case upon the merits, upheld the laws and ordered the bill to be dismissed.


By the above mentioned Chapters 942 and 947, a public emergency is declared to exist and it is provided by Chapter 947 that no action 'shall be maintained to recover possession of real property in a city of a population of one million or more or in a city in a county adjoining such city, occupied for dwelling purposes, except an action to recover such possession upon the ground that the person is holding over and is objectionable, * * * or an action where the owner of record of the building, being a natural person, seeks in good faith to recover possession of the same or a room or rooms therein for the im mediateand personal occupancy by himself and his family as a dwelling; or an action to recover premises for the purpose of demolishing the same with the intention of constructing a new building. * * *' The earlier Chapter 942 is similar with some further details. Both acts are to be in effect only until November 1, 1922. It is unnecessary to state the provisions of Chapter 944 for disputes as to what is a reasonable rent. They are dealt with in the decisions of the Court of Appeals cited below and in Edgar A. Levy Leasing Co., Inc., v. Siegel, 130 N. E. 923, March 8, 1921, by the same Court. In this as in the previous case of Block v. Hirsh, 256 U. S. 135, 41 Sup. Ct. 458, 65 L. Ed. ——, we shall assume in accordance with the statutes, the finding of the Court below and of the Court of Appeals of the State, in People ex rel. Durham Realty Corporation v. La Feltra, 230 N. Y. 429, 130 N. E. 601, March 8, 1921, and Guttag v. Shatzkin, 130 N. E. 929, March 8, 1921, that the emergency declared exists. Hebe Co. v. Shaw, 248 U. S. 297, 303, 39 Sup. Ct. 125, 63 L. Ed. 255; Hairston v. Danville & Western Ry. Co., 208 U. S. 598, 607, 28 Sup. Ct. 331, 52 L. Ed. 637, 13 Ann. Cas. 1008.


The chief objections to these acts have been dealt with in Block v. Hirsh. In the present case more emphasis is laid upon the impairment of the obligation of the contract of the lessees to surrender possession and of the new lease which was to have gone into effect upon October 1, last year. But contracts are made subject to this exercise of the power of the State when otherwise justified, as we have held this to be. Manigault v. Springs, 199 U. S. 473, 480, 26 Sup. Ct. 127, 50 L. Ed. 274; Louisville & Nashville R. R. Co. v. Mottley, 219 U. S. 467, 482, 31 Sup. Ct. 265, 55 L. Ed. 297, 34 L. R. A. (N. S.) 671; Chicago & Alton R. R. Co. v. Tranbarger, 238 U. S. 67, 76, 77, 35 Sup. Ct. 678, 59 L. Ed. 1204; Union Dry Goods Co. v. Georgia Public Service Corporation, 248 U. S. 372, 375, 39 Sup. Ct. 117, 63 L. Ed. 309, 9 A. L. R. 1420; Producers Transportation Co. v. Railroad Commission of California, 251 U. S. 228, 232, 40 Sup. Ct. 131, 64 L. Ed. 239. It is said too that the laws are discriminating, in respect of the cities affected and the character of the buildings, the laws not extending to buildings occupied for business purposes, hotel property or buildings now in course of erection, etc. But as the evil to be met was a very pressing want of shelter in certain crowded centers the classification was too obviously justified to need explanation, beyond repeating what was said below as to new buildings, that the unknown cost of completing them and the need to encourage such structures sufficiently explain the last item on the excepted list.


It is objected finally that Chapter 951, above stated, in so far as it required active services to be rendered to the tenants is void on the rather singular ground that it infringes the Thirteenth Amendment. It is true that the traditions of our law are opposed to compelling a man to perform strictly personal services against his will even when he had contracted to render them. But the services in question although involving some activities are so far from personal that they constitute the universal and necessary incidents of modern apartment houses. They are analogous to the services that in the old law might issue out of or be attached to land. We perceive no additional difficulties in this statute, if applicable as assumed. The whole case was well discussed below and we are of opinion that the decree should be affirmed.


Decree affirmed.


Mr. Justice McKENNA, The CHIEF JUSTICE, Mr. Justice VAN DEVANTER, and Mr. Justice McREYNOLDS dissent.


This case was submitted with Block, etc., v. Hirsh, No. 640, 256 U. S. 135, 41 Sup. Ct. 458, 65 L. Ed. ——.

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Like that case it involves the right of a lessee of property in this case an apartment in an apartment house in New York City, to retain possession of it under a law of New York after the expiration of the lease. This case is an emphasis of the other, and the argument in that applies to this. It may be more directly applicable for in this case the police power of the state is the especial invocation and the court's judgment is a concession to it. And, as we understand, the opinion, in broader and less hesitating declaration of the extent of the potency of that power. 'More emphasis,' it is said, 'is laid upon the impairment of the obligation of the contract,' than in the Hirsh Case. In measurement of this as a reliance, it is said:


'But contracts are made subject to this exercise of the power of the State when otherwise justified as we have held this to be.'


The italics are ours and we estimate them by the cases that are cited in their explanation and support. We are not disposed to a review of the cases. We leave them in reference, as the opinion does, with the comment that our deduction from them is not that of the opinion. There is not a line in any of them that declares that the explicit and definite covenants of private individuals engaged in a private and personal matter are subject to impairment by a state law, and we submit, as we argued in the Hirsh Case, that if the state have such power—if its power is superior to article 1, § 10, and the Fourteenth Amendment, it is superior to every other limitation upon every power expressed in the Constitution of the United States, commits rights of property to a state's unrestrained conceptions of its interests, and any question of them—remedy against them—is left in such obscurity as to be a denial of both. There is a concession of limitation but no definition of it, and the reasoning of the opinion, as we understand it, and its implications and its incident, establish practically unlimited power.


We are not disposed to further enlarge upon the case or attempt to reconcile the explicit declaration of the Constitution against the power of the state to impair the obligations of a contract or, under any pretense, to disregard the declaration. It is safer, saner, and more consonant with constitutional pre-eminence and its pur poses to regard the declaration of the Constitution as paramount, and not to weaken it by refined dialectics, or bend it to some impulse or emergency 'because of some accident of immediate overwhelming interest which appeals to the feelings and distorts the judgment.' Northern Securities Co. v. United States, 193 U. S. 197, 400, 24 Sup. Ct. 436, 468 (48 L. Ed. 679).


We therefore dissent.