If a building is to be in a satisfactory condition for use as a post office, it must not only have a sound roof and a floor that will not collapse -- it must be orderly and clean, which means that from time to time it must be painted. The post office is the only contact many people have with the United States government. An attractive, well-kept building conveys a message, subjective though it may be, of governmental efficiency. It also provides a suitable working environment which spurs employee morale and aids in the efficient execution of Postal Service purposes.
On two prior occasions, 1960 and 1962, the building was painted by the owners, the original parties to the lease. This fact, plus the government's assertion that it is the Postal Service's policy to regard painting as the lessor's obligation, is indicative of the parties' intent when they entered into this agreement. There is "a clearly discernible tendency on the part of courts to cast aside technicalities in the interpretation of leases and to concentrate their attention, as in the case of other contracts, on the intention of the parties . . ." 6 Williston on Contracts § 890A (Jaeger 3d ed. 1962). The particular paragraph in a lease embodying a covenant to repair is controlling in determining the obligation between the parties, but in construing the language of such a paragraph, the court will ascertain the intent of the parties from the four corners of the instrument and from the surrounding circumstances. Patton, supra, 139 F. Supp. at 283-4. Any obligation which the agreement imposed on the original lessor is obviously now imposed on J. & R.
The Government relies on McClure v. United States, 382 F. Supp. 988 (D. Kan. 1974), to support its position that it is entitled to withhold the entire $5200. spent for painting. I must disagree. The lease and issues involved in McClure and the present case are quite similar.
However, painting in McClure was but a minor remedy when compared with the total amount of work that was required.
In addition, this work was necessitated by water damage resulting from a leaking roof, a structure plainly within the responsibility of the lessor to maintain. I have no disagreement with the court's decision that repairs listed were necessary to maintain the premises in good repair and tenantable condition, but find also that the circumstances present in McClure, namely the vast amount of repair work required and the relative unimportance of the painting in comparison thereto, do not warrant holding that McClure stands for the proposition that painting the entire building is the lessor's obligation per se under the terms of the present lease.
Here, the entire interior of the building was painted, including such areas as closets, rest rooms, storage rooms, the vault and boiler room. Relying upon a discovery that the roof cooling tower, ventilator and platform support columns were rusting, the government had the exterior of the building painted also, including the exterior woodwork, the employe's entrance door and frame, the inspector's entrance door and frame, all ornamental ironwork, and the flag pole.
While I can go so far as to hold that places such as the lobby, which encompasses one-third of the interior floor area, the work room, the superintendent's office and the rest rooms are areas where painting may be necessary to render the premises suitable for post office operation, other rooms perhaps should not be included. The same is true of certain aspects of the work done on the outside of the building, among them the replacement of cracked glass, which may or may not have been caused by government employes, the polishing of door plates, halyard replacement and the ornamental metal work painting. It is quite possible that the government was not justified in contracting for this type work and stepped beyond its rights in doing so.
The second and final issue presented involves the government's right to set off the cost of the repairs against the rent due to J. & R. Paragraph 10 of the lease provides:
Whenever any building or part of a building becomes unfit for use as a post office, no rent shall be paid until the same shall be put in a satisfactory condition by the owner thereof for occupation as a post office, or the lease may be cancelled, at the option of the Postmaster General.
The court in McClure, supra, 382 F. Supp. at 992, considered a similar lease provision and determined that the United States was not limited in remedies to an abatement of rent or cancellation of the lease but could elect to make the repairs and deduct the expense from the rental payments. Prior Pennsylvania state court decisions have advanced this same reasoning for many years. See Demas v. Laskey, 358 Pa. 633, 635, 58 A. 2d 134 (1948). McDanel v. Mack Realty Co., et al, 315 Pa. 174, 177, 172 A. 97, 98 (1934); Osso v. Rohanna, 187 Pa. Super. 280, 284, 144 A. 2d 862, 864 (1958); Jackson v. Farrell, 6 Pa. Super. 31, 35 (1897). Accordingly, it is clear that the government was within its right to set-off the costs of the necessary painting.
I conclude that the plaintiff had a responsibility to perform a significant portion of the painting ordered by the government and, further, that the government was justified in withholding from its rental payments the costs of those repairs determined to be necessary. However, a determination of the repairs to be declared essential, as well as the fairness and reasonableness of the charges for them cannot be made at this time. These issues involve disputed questions of fact, incapable of solution on motions for summary judgment. Therefore, the motions must be denied.
AND NOW, this 30th day of June 1976, for the reasons expressed in the accompanying Opinion, it is Ordered that the cross-motions for summary judgment are denied.
BY THE COURT:
J. William DiHer, Jr. / J.