Conditional Sales as Substance over Form
U.C.C. § 2-401(2) states, in effect, that even if a seller and buyer expressly agree that the passage of title in a good which is sold on credit is conditioned upon the buyer's payment in full of the purchase price, the U.C.C will treat the transaction as though title vested in the good to the buyer immediately. The seller will only have a purchase money security interest in the good, subject to the perfection and other requirements of Article 9. This can be read, at first blush, as not merely a rejection or disaggregation of "Title" analysis but an abrogation of freedom of contract. These impressions are inaccurate.
U.C.C. § 2-401(2) can only be understood in context. U.C.C. § 9-102(1)(a) provides that Article 9 applies "to any transaction (regardless of its form) which is intended to create a security interest in personal property or fixtures. . . ." U.C.C. § 2-401(2) is not, therefore, a rejection of property or freedom of contract per se but merely a restatement of the general U.C.C principle that substance should prevail over form. A selfserving statement as to the location of "Title" standing alone should not necessarily determine all property-related issues for all commercial-law purposes. This is a corollary to the proposition which I discussed in section II.B of this chapter that conveyances of property, which affect third-party rights, should be "objectively" recognizable and verifiable by third parties. Among themselves (i.e., contract), the two parties may characterize their relationship according to their private, subjective, idiosyncratic will. But if they wish to bind third parties (property), their actions must be public, objective, and recognized by the community. In other words, if possession (title) must be objectified and if exchange (conveyancing) is the process by which possession is altered, the contract of conveyance should also have a Community Objective aspect.
In contradistinction, common-law "Title" doctrine raised form over substance. The (subjective) declaration of the location of "Title" determined property issues despite, not because of, the allocation of the (objective) substantive rights constituting property. Llewellyn called such
declarations of the form of "Title" over the substance of property "paper thunderings."
Formal declarations of "Title" become even more troublesome when one examines the substance of the typical mercantile transaction. During the sales process, "Title" (understood as the totality of all incidences of property) by definition cannot be definitively located because it is a moving target. It cannot, therefore, be fixed through the subjective intent of the contracting parties. This was precisely Llewellyn's criticism of the common law of conditional sales in which
the papers . . . make clear that it is not to be a sale, that "property" is not to pass. Something is to pass: The "buyer" is to get possession, and privileges of user, and come under a solid debt for the price; but "property" he is not to get.
In other words, in a so-called conditional sale the transferee has conditionally acquired significant elements of ownership—the right to immediate physical possession and use. Although the transferee in these transactions may not immediately have the third traditional right of alienation, it is anticipated that she will obtain this right as well upon the payment of the purchase price. Indeed, even when the further alienation of the entire property interest in the collateral by the buyer-debtor is wrongful under the terms of the contract, the debtor always has the power to convey her equity in the collateral.
The seller–secured party also has some property rights in the good. In section II.B of this chapter I discussed how a secured party has rights to repossess the good, and to alienate it in a foreclosure sale or to use it through collection or, less often, in strict foreclosure. Since buyer and seller can both be said to have some form of property rights in a conditionally
sold good, we cannot say that either party owns the good free and clear—that is, full "Title." Nevertheless, in our legal system, when property rights are divided, we customarily say one party "owns" the property, subject to the rights of the other party. Consequently, we need to make a pragmatic decision as to which of the parties—the conditional seller or the buyer—will be called the "owner."
If property should be "objective," then all transactions structured in the same way should be given the same legal treatment. The drafters of the U.C.C. made a pragmatic decision that the division of the significant incidences of property in a conditional sale is substantially identical with the division in a hypothecation. We are accustomed to call the debtor's present rights in a hypothecation "ownership." These rights consist of the residual value in the collateral after payment of the secured transaction. As a buyer in a conditional sale similarly acquires the residual upon payment of the purchase price, it seems consistent also to call the conditional buyer the "owner."
In contradistinction, the common law allowed the private, subjective intent or opinion of the contracting parties to override the public, objective analysis of the transaction—that is, form governed over substance.
This is inconsistent with the competing common-law doctrine of ostensible ownership—property interests which are not open and notorious are constructively fraudulent against creditors.
In other words, the concept of location of "Title" as a matter of subjective intent is inadequate in theory and practice to the lengthy processes of mercantile sales which require property to be determinable by objective evidence. Accordingly, Llewellyn described Article 2's treatment of title as follows:
[A]n objectively manifested act becomes the title-passing point without regard to the intention of the parties to pass or retain title. Such intention is controlling under present law.
This is why U.C.C. § 2-401 provides that the objective rules of Articles 2 and 9 apply despite subjective declarations of the location of "Title" to the contrary.