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17.1 Commercial Transactions: the Uniform Commercial Code

Learning Objectives

  1. Understand why there is a separate body of law governing commercial transactions.
  2. Be aware of the scope of the Uniform Commercial Code.
  3. Have a sense of this text’s presentation of the law of commercial transactions.

History of the UCC

In Chapter 8 "Introduction to Contract Law" we introduced the Uniform Commercial Code. As we noted, the UCC has become a national law, adopted in every state—although Louisiana has not enacted Article 2, and differences in the law exist from state to state. Of all the uniform laws related to commercial transactions, the UCC is by far the most successful, and its history goes back to feudal times.

In a mostly agricultural, self-sufficient society there is little need for trade, and almost all law deals with things related to land (real estate): its sale, lease, and devising (transmission of ownership by inheritance); services performed on the land; and damages to the land or to things related to it or to its productive capacity (torts). Such trade as existed in England before the late fourteenth century was dominated by foreigners. But after the pandemic of the Black Death in 1348–49 (when something like 30 percent to 40 percent of the English population died), the self-sufficient feudal manors began to break down. There was a shortage of labor. People could move off the manors to find better work, and no longer tied immediately to the old estates, they migrated to towns. Urban centers—cities—began to develop. Urbanization inevitably reached the point where citizens’ needs could not be met locally. Enterprising people recognized that some places had a surplus of a product and that other places were in need of that surplus and had a surplus of their own to exchange for it. So then, by necessity, people developed the means to transport the surpluses. Enter ships, roads, some medium of exchange, standardized weights and measures, accountants, lawyers, and rules governing merchandising. And enter merchants.

The power of merchants was expressed through franchises obtained from the government which entitled merchants to create their own rules of law and to enforce these rules through their own courts. Franchises to hold fairs [retail exchanges] were temporary; but the franchises of the staple cities, empowered to deal in certain basic commodities [and to have mercantile courts], were permanent.…Many trading towns had their own adaptations of commercial law.… The seventeenth century movement toward national governments resulted in a decline of separate mercantile franchises and their courts. The staple towns…had outlived their usefulness. When the law merchant became incorporated into a national system of laws enforced by national courts of general jurisdiction, the local codes were finally extinguished. But national systems of law necessarily depended upon the older codes for their stock of ideas and on the changing customs of merchants for new developments.Frederick G. Kempin Jr., Historical Introduction to Anglo-American Law (Eagan, MN: West, 1973), 217–18, 219–20, 221.

When the American colonies declared independence from Britain, they continued to use British law, including the laws related to commercial transactions. By the early twentieth century, the states had inconsistent rules, making interstate commerce difficult and problematic. Several uniform laws affecting commercial transactions were floated in the late nineteenth century, but few were widely adopted. In 1942, the American Law Institute (ALI)American Law Insitute, “ALI Overview,” accessed March 1, 2011, http://www.ali.org/index.cfm?fuseaction=about.overview. hired staff to begin work on a rationalized, simplified, and harmonized national body of modern commercial law. The ALI’s first draft of the UCC was completed in 1951.The UCC was adopted by Pennsylvania two years later, and other states followed in the 1950s and 1960s.

In the 1980s and 1990s, the leasing of personal property became a significant factor in commercial transactions, and although the UCC had some sections that were applicable to leases, the law regarding the sale of goods was inadequate to address leases. Article 2A governing the leasing of goods was approved by the ALI in 1987. It essentially repeats Article 2 but applies to leases instead of sales. In 2001, amendments to Article 1—which applies to the entire UCC—were proposed and subsequently have been adopted by over half the states. No state has yet adopted the modernizing amendments to Article 2 and 2A that the ALI proposed in 2003.

That’s the short history of why the body of commercial transaction law is separate from the common law.

Scope of the UCC and This Text’s Presentation of the UCC

The UCC embraces the law of commercial transactions, a term of some ambiguity. A commercial transaction may seem to be a series of separate transactions; it may include, for example, the making of a contract for the sale of goods, the signing of a check, the endorsement of the check, the shipment of goods under a bill of lading, and so on. However, the UCC presupposes that each of these transactions is a facet of one single transaction: the lease or sale of, and payment for, goods. The code deals with phases of this transaction from start to finish. These phases are organized according to the following articles:

  • Sales (Article 2)
  • Leases (Article 2A)
  • Commercial Paper (Article 3)
  • Bank Deposits and Collections (Article 4)
  • Funds Transfers (Article 4A)
  • Letters of Credit (Article 5)
  • Bulk Transfers (Article 6)
  • Warehouse Receipts, Bills of Lading, and Other Documents of Title (Article 7)
  • Investment Securities (Article 8)
  • Secured Transactions; Sales of Accounts and Chattel Paper (Article 9)

Although the UCC comprehensively covers commercial transactions, it does not deal with every aspect of commercial law. Among the subjects not covered are the sale of real property, mortgages, insurance contracts, suretyship transactions (unless the surety is party to a negotiable instrument), and bankruptcy. Moreover, common-law principles of contract law that were examined in previous chapters continue to apply to many transactions covered in a particular way by the UCC. These principles include capacity to contract, misrepresentation, coercion, and mistake. Many federal laws supersede the UCC; these include the Bills of Lading Act, the Consumer Credit Protection Act, the warranty provisions of the Magnuson-Moss Act, and other regulatory statutes.

We follow the general outlines of the UCC in this chapter and in Chapter 18 "Title and Risk of Loss" and Chapter 19 "Performance and Remedies". In this chapter, we cover the law governing sales (Article 2) and make some reference to leases (Article 2A), though space constraints preclude an exhaustive analysis of leases. The use of documents of title to ship and store goods is closely related to sales, and so we cover documents of title (Article 7) as well as the law of bailments in Chapter 21 "Bailments and the Storage, Shipment, and Leasing of Goods".

In Chapter 22 "Nature and Form of Commercial Paper", Chapter 23 "Negotiation of Commercial Paper", Chapter 24 "Holder in Due Course and Defenses", and Chapter 25 "Liability and Discharge", we cover the giving of a check, draft, or note (commercial paper) for part or all of the purchase price and the negotiation of the commercial paper (Article 3). Related matters, such as bank deposits and collections (Article 4), funds transfers (Article 4A), and letters of credit (Article 5), are also covered there.

In Chapter 28 "Secured Transactions and Suretyship" we turn to acceptance of security by the seller or lender for financing the balance of the payment due. Key to this area is the law of secured transactions (Article 9), but other types of security (e.g., mortgages and suretyship) not covered in the UCC will also be discussed in Chapter 29 "Mortgages and Nonconsensual Liens". Chapter 27 "Consumer Credit Transactions" covers consumer credit transactions and Chapter 30 "Bankruptcy" covers bankruptcy law; these topics are important for all creditors, even those lacking some form of security.

We now turn our attention to the sale—the first facet, and the cornerstone, of the commercial transaction.

Key Takeaway

In the development of the English legal system, commercial transactions were originally of such little importance that the rules governing them were left to the merchants themselves. They had their own courts and adopted their own rules based on their customary usage. By the 1700s, the separate courts had been absorbed into the English common law, but the distinct rules applicable to commercial transactions remained and have carried over to the modern UCC. The UCC treats commercial transactions in phases, and this text basically traces those phases.

Exercises

  1. Why were medieval merchants compelled to develop their own rules about commercial transactions?
  2. Why was the UCC developed, and when was the period of its initial adoption by states?