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UNDERSTANDING CONTRACT LAW

In law, a contract is a legally binding agreement between two or more parties which, if it contains the elements of a valid legal agreement, is enforceable by law or by binding arbitration. A legally enforceable contract is an exchange of promises with specific legal remedies for breach. These can include compensatory remedy, whereby the defaulting party is required to pay monies that would otherwise have been exchanged were the contract honored, or an Equitable remedy such as Specific Performance, in which the person who entered into the contract is required to carry out the specific action they have reneged upon.

An agreement is said to be reached when an offer capable of immediate acceptance is met with a "mirror image" acceptance (i.e., an unqualified acceptance). The parties must have the necessary capacity to contract and the contract must not be either trifling, indeterminate, impossible, or illegal. Contract law is based on the principle that agreements are to be kept. Breach of contract is recognized by the law and remedies can be provided.

As long as the good or service provided is legal, any oral agreement between two parties can constitute a binding legal contract. The practical limitation to this, however, is that generally only parties to a written agreement have material evidence (the written contract itself) to prove the actual terms uttered at the time the agreement was struck. In daily life, most contracts can be and are made orally, such as purchasing a book or a sandwich. Sometimes written contracts are required by either the parties, or by statutory law within various jurisdiction for certain types of agreement, for example when buying a house or land.

The seven key requirements for the creation of a contract are:

  • Mutual assent (valid offer and acceptance);
  • Capacity to contract;
  • Consideration (a legally-sufficient but not necessarily legally-adequate benefit or detriment accruing to the parties) or substitute therefore, such as through promissory estoppel, moral obligation, or execution and delivery of a writing memorializing the contract executed under sea;
  • Lawfulness of purpose;
  • Legality of form;
  • Intention to create legal relations; and
  • Consent to contract.

Defenses to formation of contract

Vitiating factors constituting defenses to purported contract formation include (1) mistake; (2) undue influence; (3) misrepresentation; and (4) duress. In addition, where defenses exist, they operate to determine whether a purported contract is either (1) void; or, (2) voidable. And, a contract can be avoided for frustration of purpose, if the lawful purpose of the contract existed at time of contract formation but no longer exists at the time set for performance.

Freedom to contract and Hurley v. Eddingfield

In most systems of law, parties have freedom to choose whether or not they wish to enter into a contract, absent superseding duties. In American law, one early case exemplifying this proposition is Hurley v. Eddingfield (1901), in which the Supreme Court of Indiana ruled in favor of a physician who voluntarily decided not to help a patient whom the physician had treated on past occasions, despite the lack of other available medical assistance and the patient's subsequent death.

In addition, for some contracts formalities must be complied with under legislation sometimes called a statute of frauds (especially transactions in real property or for relatively large cash amounts).

Offer and acceptance

The most important feature of a contract is that one party makes an offer for an arrangement that another accepts. This can be called a concurrence of wills or ad idem (meeting of the minds) of two or more parties. The concept is somewhat contested. The obvious objection is that a court cannot read minds and the existence or otherwise of agreement is judged objectively, with only limited room for questioning subjective intention: see Smith v. Hughes. Richard Austen-Baker has suggested that the perpetuation of the idea of 'meeting of minds' may come from a misunderstanding of the Latin term 'consensus ad idem', which actually means 'agreement to the [same] thing'. There must be evidence that the parties had each from an objective perspective engaged in conduct manifesting their assent, and a contract will be formed when the parties have met such a requirement. An objective perspective means that it is only necessary that somebody gives the impression of offering or accepting contractual terms in the eyes of a reasonable person, not that they actually did want to form a contract.

The case of Carlill v Carbolic Smoke Ball Company is an example of a 'unilateral contract', obligations are only imposed upon one party upon acceptance by performance of a condition. In the United States, the general rule is that in "case of doubt, an offer is interpreted as inviting the offeree to accept either by promising to perform what the offer requests or by rendering the performance, as the offeree chooses."

Offer and acceptance does not always need to be expressed orally or in writing. An implied contract is one in which some of the terms are not expressed in words. This can take two forms. A contract which is implied in fact is one in which the circumstances imply that parties have reached an agreement even though they have not done so expressly. For example, by going to a doctor for a checkup, a patient agrees that he will pay a fair price for the service. If one refuses to pay after being examined, the patient has breached a contract implied in fact. A contract which is implied in law is also called a quasi-contract, because it is not in fact a contract; rather, it is a means for the courts to remedy situations in which one party would be unjustly enriched were he or she not required to compensate the other. For example, a plumber accidentally installs a sprinkler system in the lawn of the wrong house. The owner of the house had learned the previous day that his neighbor was getting new sprinklers. That morning, he sees the plumber installing them in his lawn. Pleased at the mistake, he says nothing, and then refuses to pay when the plumber delivers the bill. Will the man be held liable for payment? Yes, if it could be proven that the man knew that the sprinklers were being installed mistakenly, the court would make him pay because of a quasi-contract. If that knowledge could not be proven, he would not be liable. Such a claim is also referred to as "quantum meruit".

Invitation to treat

Where a product in large quantities is advertised in a newspaper or on a poster, it generally is not considered an offer but instead will be regarded as an invitation to treat, since there is no guarantee that the store can provide the item for everyone who might want one. This was the basis of the decision in Partridge v. Crittenden a criminal case in which the defendant was charged with "offering for sale" bramblefinch cocks and hens. The court held that the newspaper advertisement could only be an invitation to treat, since it could not have been intended as an offer to the world, so the defendant was not guilty of "offering" them for sale. Similarly, a display of goods in a shop window is an invitation to treat, as was held in Fisher v. Bell another criminal case which turned on the correct analysis of offers as against invitations to treat. In this instance the defendant was charged with "offering for sale" prohibited kinds of knife, which he had displayed in his shop window with prices attached. The court held that this was an invitation to treat, the offer would be made by a purchaser going into the shop and asking to buy a knife, with acceptance being by the shopkeeper, which he could withhold. (The law was later amended to "exposing for sale".) A display of goods on the shelves of a self-service shop is also an invitation to treat, with the offer being made by the purchaser at the checkout and being accepted by the shop assistant operating the checkout: Pharmaceutical Society of Great Britain v. Boots Cash Chemists (Southern) Ltd. If the person who is to buy the advertised product is of importance, for instance because of his personality, etc., when buying land, it is regarded merely as an invitation to treat. In Carbolic Smoke Ball, the major difference was that a reward was included in the advertisement, which is a general exception to the rule and is then treated as an offer.

Contract for Minors

Most states consider persons under the age of 18 to be minors. Minors lack capacity to enter into a contract. If they do enter into a contract, the contract is generally considered voidable. They have the right to cancel the contact at any time before and even after reaching the age of 18. If, however, a minor cancels the contract, the benefits that he or she received must be returned.

Consideration and estoppel

Consideration is known as 'the price of a promise' and is a requirement for contracts under common law. The idea behind consideration is that both parties to a contract must bring something to the bargain. A party seeking to enforce a contract must show that it conferred some benefit or suffered some detriment (though it might be trivial, see below) that is recognized by law. For example, money is often recognized as consideration, but in some cases money will not suffice as consideration (for example, when one party agrees to make partial payment of a debt in exchange for being released from the full amount).

Although several rules govern consideration, the following are the principal rules.

  • Consideration must be "sufficient" (i.e., recognizable by the law), but need not be "adequate" (i.e., the consideration need not be a fair and reasonable exchange for the benefit of the promise). For instance, agreeing to sell a car for a penny may constitute a binding contract.
  • Consideration must not be from the past. For instance, in Eastwood v. Kenyon, the guardian of a young girl obtained a loan to educate the girl and to improve her marriage prospects. After her marriage, her husband promised to pay off the loan. It was held that the guardian could not enforce the promise because taking out the loan to raise and educate the girl was past consideration-it was completed before the husband promised to repay it.
  • Consideration must move from the promisee. For instance, it is good consideration for person A to pay person C in return for services rendered by person B. If there are joint promisees, then consideration need only to move from one of the promisees.
  • The promise to do something one is already contractually obliged to do is not, traditionally, regarded as good consideration. The classic instance is Stilk v. Myrick, in which a captain's promise to divide the wages of two deserters among the remaining crew if they would sail home from the Baltic short-handed, was found unenforceable on the grounds that the crew were already contracted to sail the ship through all perils of the sea. (The case has been much criticized on grounds that the ship was in port at the time of the promise.) A very specific example is the "rule in Pinnel's Case", brought into the modern law of consideration by the House of Lords in Foakes v. Beer. This rule is to the effect that a smaller sum of money cannot be good consideration for the release of a larger debt, though if the smaller sum is accompanied by something non-monetary in addition, for instance "a horse, a hawk or a robe", or payment is to be made early or in some special place or way, then there will be good consideration for the promise to discharge the debt. This rule has suffered some inroads recently. In Williams v. Roffey Bros & Nicholls (Contractors) Ltd the English Court of Appeal held that a promise by a joiner to complete the contracted work on time, where this was falling behind, was good consideration for the contractor's promise to pay extra money. The reasoning adopted was that the strict rule of Stilk v. Myrick was no longer necessary, as English law now recognized a doctrine of economic duress to vitiate promises obtained when the promisor was "over a barrel" for financial reasons. Therefore, where the promise to pay extra could be seen as conferring a practical benefit on the promisor, that could be good consideration for a variation of the terms. The rule in Pinnel's Case has also been effectively sidestepped in England by the Court of Appeal in the case of Collier v. P & MJ Wright (Holdings) Ltd which held that a promise to accept less in discharge of a pure debt (as opposed to, say, accepting reduced rent, which has long been recognized) could give rise to a promissory estoppel.
  • The promise must not be to do something one is already obliged by the general law to do - e.g., to give refrain from crime or to give evidence in court: Collins v. Godefroy.
  • However, a promise from A to do something for B if B will perform a contractual obligation B owes to C, will be enforceable - B is suffering a legal detriment by making his performance of his contract with A effectively enforceable by C as well as by A.

Intention to be legally bound

There is a presumption for commercial agreements that parties intend to be legally bound (unless the parties expressly state that they do not want to be bound, like in heads of agreement). On the other hand, many kinds of domestic and social agreements are unenforceable on the basis of public policy, for instance between children and parents. One early example is found in Balfour v. Balfour. Using contract-like terms, Mr. Balfour had agreed to give his wife £30 a month as maintenance while he was living in Ceylon (Sri Lanka). Once he left, they separated and Mr. Balfour stopped payments. Mrs. Balfour brought an action to enforce the payments. At the Court of Appeal, the Court held that there was no enforceable agreement as there was not enough evidence to suggest that they were intending to be legally bound by the promise.

The case is often cited in conjunction with Merritt v. Merritt. Here the court distinguished the case from Balfour v. Balfour because Mr. and Mrs. Merritt, although married again, were estranged at the time the agreement was made. Therefore any agreement between them was made with the intention to create legal relations.

Third parties

The doctrine of privity of contract means that only those involved in striking a bargain would have standing to enforce it. In general this is still the case, only parties to a contract may sue for the breach of a contract, although in recent years the rule of privity has eroded somewhat and third party beneficiaries have been allowed to recover damages for breaches of contracts they were not party to. In cases where facts involve third party beneficiaries or debtors to the original contracting party have been allowed to be considered parties for purposes of enforcement of the contract. A recent advance has been seen in the case law as well as statutory recognition to the dilution of the doctrine of privity of contract. The recent tests applied by courts have been the test of benefit and the duty owed test. The duty owed test looks to see if the third party was agreeing to pay a debt for the original party[needs elaboration] and whereas the benefit test looks to see if circumstances indicate that the promisee intends to give the beneficiary the benefit of the promised performance. Any defense allowed to parties of the original contract extend to third party beneficiaries.

Formalities and writing

A verbal exchange of promises may be binding and be as legally valid as a written contract. An unwritten, unspoken contract, also known as "a contract implied by the acts of the parties", which can be either implied in fact or implied in law, may also be legally binding.

Most jurisdictions have rules of law or statutes which may render otherwise valid oral contracts unenforceable. This is especially true regarding oral contracts involving large amounts of money or real estate. For example, in the U.S., generally speaking, a contract is unenforceable if it violates the common law statute of frauds or equivalent state statutes which require certain contracts to be in writing. An example of the above is an oral contract for the sale of a motorcycle for US$5,000 in a jurisdiction which requires a contract for the sale of goods over US $500 to be in writing to be enforceable. The point of the Statute of frauds is to prevent false allegations of the existence of contracts that were never made, by requiring formal (i.e. written) evidence of the contract. However, a common remark is that more frauds have been committed through the application of the Statute of frauds than have ever been prevented. Contracts that do not meet the requirements of common law or statutory Statutes of frauds are unenforceable, but are not necessarily thereby void. However, a party unjustly enriched by an unenforceable contract may be required to provide restitution for unjust enrichment. Statutes of frauds are typically codified in state statutes covering specific types of contracts, such as contracts for the sale of real estate.

Bilateral and unilateral contracts

Unilateral contract of adhesion on timekeeping ticket dispensed by vending machine at parking lot entrance

Contracts may be bilateral or unilateral. A bilateral contract is the kind of contract that most people think of when they think "contract." It is an agreement in which each of the parties to the contract makes a promise or promises to the other party. For example, in a contract for the sale of a home, the buyer promises to pay the seller $200,000 in exchange for the seller's promise to deliver title to the property.

In a unilateral contract, only one party to the contract makes a promise. A typical example is the reward contract: A promises to pay a reward to B if B finds A's dog. B is not obliged to find A's dog, but A is obliged to pay the reward to B if B finds the dog. The consideration for the contract here is B's reliance on A's promise, or B giving up his legal right to do whatever he wanted at the time he was engaged in the finding of the dog.

In this example, the finding of the dog is a condition precedent to A's obligation to pay, although it is not a legal condition precedent, because technically no contract here has arisen until the dog is found (because B has not accepted A's offer until he finds the dog, and a contract requires offer, acceptance, and consideration), and the term "condition precedent" is used in contract law to designate a condition of a promise in a contract. For example, if B promised to find A's dog, and A promised to pay B when the dog was found, A's promise would have a condition attached to it, and offer and acceptance would already have occurred. This is a situation in which a condition precedent is attached to a bilateral contract.

Condition precedents can also be attached to unilateral contracts, however. This would require A to require a further condition to be met before he pays B for finding his dog. So, for example, A could say "If anyone finds my dog, and the sky falls down, I will give that person $100." In this situation, even if the dog is found by B, he would not be entitled to the $100 until the sky falls down. Therefore the sky falling down is a condition precedent to A's duty being actualized, even though they are already in a contract, since A has made an offer and B has accepted.

An offer of a unilateral contract may often be made to many people (or 'to the world') by means of an advertisement. In that situation, acceptance will only occur on satisfaction of the condition (such as the finding of the offeror's dog). If the condition is something that only one party can perform, both the offeror and offeree are protected - the offeror is protected because he will only ever be contractually obliged to one of the many offerees; and the offeree is protected, because if she does perform the condition, the offeror will be contractually obliged to pay her.

In unilateral contracts, the requirement that acceptance be communicated to the offeror is waived. The offeree accepts by performing the condition, and the offeree's performance is also treated as the price, or consideration, for the offeror's promise. The offeror is master of the offer; it is he who decides whether the contract will be unilateral or bilateral. In unilateral contracts, the offer is made to the public at large.

A bilateral contract is one in which there are duties on both sides, rights on both sides, and consideration on both sides. If an offeror makes an offer such as "If you promise to paint my house, I will give you $100," this is a bilateral contract once the offeree accepts. Each side has promised to do something, and each side will get something in return for what they have done.

Uncertainty, incompleteness and severance

If the terms of the contract are uncertain or incomplete, the parties cannot have reached an agreement in the eyes of the law. An agreement to agree does not constitute a contract, and an inability to agree on key issues, which may include such things as price or safety, may cause the entire contract to fail. However, a court will attempt to give effect to commercial contracts where possible, by construing a reasonable construction of the contract.

Courts may also look to external standards, which are either mentioned explicitly in the contract or implied by common practice in a certain field. In addition, the court may also imply a term; if price is excluded, the court may imply a reasonable price, with the exception of land, and second-hand goods, which are unique.

If there are uncertain or incomplete clauses in the contract, and all options in resolving its true meaning have failed, it may be possible to sever and void just those affected clauses if the contract includes a severability clause. The test of whether a clause is severable is an objective test-whether a reasonable person would see the contract standing even without the clauses.

Contractual terms

A contractual term is "[a]ny provision forming part of a contract". Each term gives rise to a contractual obligation, breach of which can give rise to litigation. Not all terms are stated expressly and some terms carry less legal weight as they are peripheral to the objectives of the contract.

Boilerplate

As discussed in Tina L. Stark's Negotiating and Drafting Contract Boilerplate, when lawyers refer to a "boilerplate" provision, they are referring to any standardized, "one size fits all" contract provision. But lawyers also use the term in a more narrow context to refer to certain provisions that appear at the end of the contract. Typically, these provisions tell the parties how to govern their relationship and administer the contract. Although often thought to be of secondary importance, these provisions have significant business and legal consequences. Common provisions include the governing law provision, venue, assignment and delegation provisions, waiver of jury trial provisions, notice provisions, and force majeure provisions.

Classification of term

It is an objective matter of fact whether a term goes to the root of a contract. By way of illustration, an actress' obligation to perform the opening night of a theatrical production is a condition, whereas a singer's obligation to perform during the first three days of rehearsal is a warranty.

Status as a term

Status as a term is important as a party can only take legal action for the non fulfillment of a term as opposed to representations or mere puffery. Legally speaking, only statements that amount to a term create contractual obligations. There are various factor that a court may take into account in determining the nature of a statement. In particular, the importance apparently placed on the statement by the parties at the time the contract is made is likely to be significant. In Bannerman v. White it was held a term of a contract for sale and purchase of hops that they had not been treated with sulphur, since the buyer made very explicit his unwillingness to accept hops so treated, saying that he had no use for them. The relative knowledge of the parties may also be a factor, as in Bissett v. Wilkin in which a statement that farmland being sold would carry 2000 sheep if worked by one team was held merely a representation (it was also only an opinion and therefore not actionable as misrepresentation). The reason this was not a term was that the seller had no basis for making the statement, as the buyer knew, and the buyer was prepared to rely on his own and his son's knowledge of farming.

Implied terms

A term may either be express or implied. An express term is stated by the parties during negotiation or written in a contractual document. Implied terms are not stated but nevertheless form a provision of the contract.

Setting aside the contract

There can be four different ways in which contracts can be set aside. A contract may be deemed 'void', 'voidable', 'unenforceable 'or 'ineffective'. Voidness implies that a contract never came into existence. Voidability implies that one or both parties may declare a contract ineffective at their wish. Unenforceability implies that neither party may have recourse to a court for a remedy. Ineffectiveness implies that the contract terminates by order of a court where a public body has failed to satisfy public procurement law. To rescind is to set aside or unmake a contract.

Misrepresentation

Misrepresentation means a false statement of fact made by one party to another party and has the effect of inducing that party into the contract. For example, under certain circumstances, false statements or promises made by a seller of goods regarding the quality or nature of the product that the seller has may constitute misrepresentation. A finding of misrepresentation allows for a remedy of rescission and sometimes damages depending on the type of misrepresentation.

There are two types of misrepresentation in contract law, fraud in the factum and fraud in inducement. Fraud in the factum focuses on whether the party in question knew they were creating a contract. If the party did not know that they were entering into a contract, there is no meeting of the minds, and the contract is void. Fraud in inducement focuses on misrepresentation attempting to get the party to enter into the contract. Misrepresentation of a material fact (if the party knew the truth, that party would not have entered into the contract) makes a contract voidable.

According to Gordon v. Selico it is possible to make a misrepresentation either by words or by conduct, although not everything said or done is capable of constituting a misrepresentation. Generally, statements of opinion or intention are not statements of fact in the context of misrepresentation.

Both an order for specific performance and an injunction are discretionary remedies, originating for the most part in equity. Neither is available as of right and in most jurisdictions and most circumstances a court will not normally order specific performance. A contract for the sale of real property is a notable exception. In most jurisdictions, the sale of real property is enforceable by specific performance. Even in this case the defenses to an action in equity (such as laches, the bona fide purchaser rule, or unclean hands) may act as a bar to specific performance.

Related to orders for specific performance, an injunction may be requested when the contract prohibits a certain action. Action for injunction would prohibit the person from performing the act specified in the contract.

Procedure

In the United States, in order to obtain damages for breach of contract or to obtain specific performance or other equitable relief, the aggrieved injured party may file a civil (non-criminal) lawsuit in state court (unless there is diversity of citizenship giving rise to federal jurisdiction). If the contract contains an arbitration clause, the aggrieved party must submit an arbitration claim in accordance with the procedures set forth in the agreement.

Many contracts provide that all disputes arising there under will be resolved by arbitration, rather than litigated in courts. Customer claims against securities brokers and dealers are almost always resolved by arbitration because securities dealers are required, under the terms of their membership in self-regulatory organizations such as the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority (formerly the NASD) or NYSE to arbitrate disputes with their customers. The firms then began including arbitration agreements in their customer agreements, requiring their customers to arbitrate disputes. On the other hand, certain claims have been held to be non-arbitrable if they implicate a public interest that goes beyond the narrow interests of the parties to the agreement (i.e., claims that a party violated a contract by engaging in illegal anti-competitive conduct or civil rights violations). Arbitration judgments may generally be enforced in the same manner as ordinary court judgments. However, arbitral decisions are generally immune from appeal in the United States unless there is a showing that the arbitrator's decision was irrational or tainted by fraud. Virtually all states have adopted the Uniform Arbitration Act to facilitate the enforcement of arbitrated judgments. Notably, New York State, where a sizable portion of major commercial agreements are executed and performed, has not adopted the Uniform Arbitration Act.

Other contract

Online contracts, which are easily made, are usually valid on a smaller scale for a period of one to three months, while on a larger scale can last about five years. As with all things legal, especially in regards to the ever-evolving internet, general rules like length of validity have many exceptions. All cases are evaluated on their own merits, and those merits are defined by the facts presented in each instance. It is up to the owner of the site to do what it can to guarantee enforceability of its contracts. Though 90% of people sign online contracts before reading the content, E-signature laws have made the electronic contract and signature as legally valid as a paper contract. It has been estimated that roughly one hundred and ten electronic contracts are signed every second.

The above information is general in nature and may not be relied on for a specific case. For a specific case contact the Nawash Law Office.

Call attorney Kamal Nawash if you live in Washington, DC, Maryland or Virginia.