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After reading this chapter, you should understand the following:
This chapter continues our inquiry into whether the parties created a valid contract. In Chapter 9 "The Agreement", we saw that the first requisite of a valid contract is an agreement: offer and acceptance. In this chapter, we assume that agreement has been reached and concentrate on one of its crucial aspects: the existence of consideration. Which of the following, if any, is a contract?
In American law, only the second situation is a binding contract, because only that contract contains considerationThe surrender of any legal right (a detriment) in return for the promise of some benefit in return., a set of mutual promises in which each party agrees to give up something to the benefit of the other. This chapter will explore the meaning and rationale of that statement.
The question of what constitutes a binding contract has been answered differently throughout history and in other cultures. For example, under Roman law, a contract without consideration was binding if certain formal requirements were met. And in the Anglo-American tradition, the presence of a seal—the wax impression affixed to a document—was once sufficient to make a contract binding without any other consideration. The seal is no longer a substitute for consideration, although in some states it creates a presumption of consideration; in forty-nine states, the Uniform Commercial Code (UCC) has abolished the seal on contracts for the sale of goods. (Louisiana has not adopted UCC Article 2.)
Whatever its original historical purposes, and however apparently arcane, the doctrine of consideration serves some still-useful purposes. It provides objective evidence for asserting that a contract exists; it distinguishes between enforceable and unenforceable bargains; and it is a check against rash, unconsidered action, against thoughtless promise making.Lon L. Fuller, “Consideration and Form,” Columbia Law Review 41 (1941): 799.
Consideration is said to exist when the promisor receives some benefit for his promise and the promisee gives up something in return; it is the bargained-for price you pay for what you get. That may seem simple enough. But as with much in the law, the complicating situations are never very far away. The “something” that is promised or delivered cannot be just anything, such as a feeling of pride, warmth, amusement, or friendship; it must be something known as a legal detrimentThe giving up by a person of that which he or she had a right to retain.—an act, forbearance, or a promise of such from the promisee. The detriment need not be an actual detriment; it may in fact be a benefit to the promisee, or at least not a loss. The detriment to one side is usually a legal benefitThe receipt by one person of something legal he or she had no preexisting right to. to the other, but the detriment to the promisee need not confer a tangible benefit on the promisor; the promisee can agree to forego something without that something being given to the promisor. Whether consideration is legally sufficient has nothing to do with whether it is morally or economically adequate to make the bargain a fair one. Moreover, legal consideration need not even be certain; it can be a promise contingent on an event that may never happen. Consideration is a legal concept, and it centers on the giving up of a legal right or benefit.
Consideration has two elements. The first, as just outlined, is whether the promisee has incurred a legal detriment—given up something, paid some “price,” though it may be, for example, the promise to do something, like paint a house. (Some courts—although a minority—take the view that a bargained-for legal benefit to the promisor is sufficient consideration.) The second element is whether the legal detriment was bargained for: did the promisor specifically intend the act, forbearance, or promise in return for his promise? Applying this two-pronged test to the three examples given at the outset of the chapter, we can easily see why only in the second is there legally sufficient consideration. In the first, Lou incurred no legal detriment; he made no pledge to act or to forbear from acting, nor did he in fact act or forbear from acting. In the third example, what might appear to be such a promise is not really so. Betty made a promise on a condition that Lou comes to her house; the intent clearly is to make a gift.
Consideration is—with some exceptions—a required element of a contract. It is the bargained-for giving up of something of legal value for something in return. It serves the purposes of making formal the intention to contract and reducing rash promise making.
As suggested in Section 11.1 "General Perspectives on Consideration", what is required in contract is the exchange of a legal detriment and a legal benefit; if that happens, the consideration is said to have legal sufficiencySomething of value enough to constitute consideration..
Suppose Phil offers George $500 if George will quit smoking for one year. Is Phil’s promise binding? Because George is presumably benefiting by making and sticking to the agreement—surely his health will improve if he gives up smoking—how can his act be considered a legal detriment? The answer is that there is forbearance on George’s part: George is legally entitled to smoke, and by contracting not to, he suffers a loss of his legal right to do so. This is a legal detriment; consideration does not require an actual detriment.
Scrooge offers to buy Caspar’s motorcycle, worth $700, for $10 and a shiny new fountain pen (worth $5). Caspar agrees. Is this agreement supported by adequate consideration? Yes, because both have agreed to give up something that is theirs: Scrooge, the cash and the pen; Caspar, the motorcycle. Courts are not generally concerned with the economic adequacy of the consideration but instead with whether it is present. As Judge Richard A. Posner puts it, “To ask whether there is consideration is simply to inquire whether the situation is one of exchange and a bargain has been struck. To go further and ask whether the consideration is adequate would require the court to do what…it is less well equipped to do than the parties—decide whether the price (and other essential terms) specified in the contract are reasonable.”Richard A. Posner, Economic Analysis of Law (New York: Aspen, 1973), 46. In short, “courts do not inquire into the adequacy of consideration.”
Of course, normally, parties to contracts will not make such a one-sided deal as Scrooge and Caspar’s. But there is a common class of contracts in which nominal consideration—usually one dollar—is recited in printed forms. Usually these are option contracts, in which “in consideration of one dollar in hand paid and receipt of which is hereby acknowledged” one party agrees to hold open the right of the other to make a purchase on agreed terms. The courts will enforce these contracts if the dollar is intended “to support a short-time option proposing an exchange on fair terms.”Restatement (Second) of Contracts, Section 87(b). If, however, the option is for an unreasonably long period of time and the underlying bargain is unfair (the Restatement gives as an example a ten-year option permitting the optionee to take phosphate rock from a widow’s land at a per-ton payment of only one-fourth the prevailing rate), then the courts are unlikely to hold that the nominal consideration makes the option irrevocable.
Because the consideration on such option contracts is nominal, its recital in the written instrument is usually a mere formality, and it is frequently never paid; in effect, the recital of nominal consideration is false. Nevertheless, the courts will enforce the contract—precisely because the recital has become a formality and nobody objects to the charade. Moreover, it would be easy enough to upset an option based on nominal consideration by falsifying oral testimony that the dollar was never paid or received. In a contest between oral testimonies where the incentive to lie is strong and there is a written document clearly incorporating the parties’ agreement, the courts prefer the latter. However, as Section 11.4.1 "Consideration for an Option", Board of Control of Eastern Michigan University v. Burgess, demonstrates, the state courts are not uniform on this point, and it is a safe practice always to deliver the consideration, no matter how nominal.
This section discusses several common circumstances where the issue of whether the consideration proffered (offered up) is adequate.
Because every person has the legal right to file suit if he or she feels aggrieved, a promise to refrain from going to court is sufficient consideration to support a promise of payment or performance. In Dedeaux v. Young, Dedeaux purchased property and promised to make certain payments to Young, the broker.Dedeaux v. Young, 170 So.2d 561 (1965). But Dedeaux thereafter failed to make these payments, and Young threatened suit; had he filed papers in court, the transfer of title could have been blocked. To keep Young from suing, Dedeaux promised to pay a 5 percent commission if Young would stay out of court. Dedeaux later resisted paying on the ground that he had never made such a promise and that even if he had, it did not amount to a contract because there was no consideration from Young. The court disagreed, holding that the evidence supported Young’s contention that Dedeaux had indeed made such a promise and upholding Young’s claim for the commission because “a request to forbear to exercise a legal right has been generally accepted as sufficient consideration to support a contract.” If Young had had no grounds to sue—for example, if he had threatened to sue a stranger, or if it could be shown that Dedeaux had no obligation to him originally—then there would have been no consideration because Young would not have been giving up a legal right. A promise to forebear suing in return for settlement of a dispute is called a covenant not to sueAn agreement not to pursue legal action. (covenant is another word for agreement).
Frequently, the parties to a contract will dispute the meaning of its terms and conditions, especially the amount of money actually due. When the dispute is genuine (and not the unjustified attempt of one party to avoid paying a sum clearly due), it can be settled by the parties’ agreement on a fixed sum as the amount due. This second agreement, which substitutes for the disputed first agreement, is called an accord, and when the payment or other term is discharged, the completed second contract is known as an accord and satisfactionAn agreement to substitute a new contract for a disputed one; when executed, the accord is satisfied.. A suit brought for an alleged breach of the original contract could be defended by citing the later accord and satisfaction.
An accord is a contract and must therefore be supported by consideration. Suppose Jan owes Andy $7,000, due November 1. On November 1, Jan pays only $3,500 in exchange for Andy’s promise to release Jan from the remainder of the debt. Has Andy (the promisor) made a binding promise? He has not, because there is no consideration for the accord. Jan has incurred no detriment; she has received something (release of the obligation to pay the remaining $3,500), but she has given up nothing. But if Jan and Andy had agreed that Jan would pay the $3,500 on October 25, then there would be consideration; Jan would have incurred a legal detriment by obligating herself to make a payment earlier than the original contract required her to. If Jan had paid the $3,500 on November 11 and had given Andy something else agreed to—a pen, a keg of beer, a peppercorn—the required detriment would also be present.
Let’s take a look at some examples of the accord and satisfaction principle. The dispute that gives rise to the parties’ agreement to settle by an accord and satisfaction may come up in several typical ways: where there is an unliquidated debt; a disputed debt; an “in-full-payment check” for less than what the creditor claims is due; unforeseen difficulties that give rise to a contract modification, or a novation; or a composition among creditors. But no obligation ever arises—and no real legal dispute can arise—where a person promises a benefit if someone will do that which he has a preexisting obligation to, or where a person promises a benefit to someone not to do that which the promisee is already disallowed from doing, or where one makes an illusory promise.
An unliquidated debtA money obligation the amount of which is unknown. is one that is uncertain in amount. Such debts frequently occur when people consult professionals in whose offices precise fees are rarely discussed, or where one party agrees, expressly or by implication, to pay the customary or reasonable fees of the other without fixing the exact amount. It is certain that a debt is owed, but it is not certain how much. (A liquidated debtA money obligation the value of which is known., on the other hand, is one that is fixed in amount, certain. A debt can be liquidated by being written down in unambiguous terms—“IOU $100”—or by being mathematically ascertainable—$1 per pound of ice ordered and 60 pounds delivered; hence the liquidated debt is $60.)
Here is how the matter plays out: Assume a patient goes to the hospital for a gallbladder operation. The cost of the operation has not been discussed beforehand in detail, although the cost in the metropolitan area is normally around $8,000. After the operation, the patient and the surgeon agree on a bill of $6,000. The patient pays the bill; a month later the surgeon sues for another $2,000. Who wins? The patient: he has forgone his right to challenge the reasonableness of the fee by agreeing to a fixed amount payable at a certain time. The agreement liquidating the debt is an accord and is enforceable. If, however, the patient and the surgeon had agreed on an $8,000 fee before the operation, and if the patient arbitrarily refused to pay this liquidated debt unless the surgeon agreed to cut her fee in half, then the surgeon would be entitled to recover the other half in a lawsuit, because the patient would have given no consideration—given up nothing, “suffered no detriment”—for the surgeon’s subsequent agreement to cut the fee.
A disputed debt arises where the parties did agree on (liquidated) the price or fee but subsequently get into a dispute about its fairness, and then settle. When this dispute is settled, the parties have given consideration to an agreement to accept a fixed sum as payment for the amount due. Assume that in the gallbladder case the patient agrees in advance to pay $8,000. Eight months after the operation and as a result of nausea and vomiting spells, the patient undergoes a second operation; the surgeons discover a surgical sponge embedded in the patient’s intestine. The patient refuses to pay the full sum of the original surgeon’s bill; they settle on $6,000, which the patient pays. This is a binding agreement because subsequent facts arose to make legitimate the patient’s quarrel over his obligation to pay the full bill. As long as the dispute is based in fact and is not trumped up, as long as the promisee is acting in good faith, then consideration is present when a disputed debt is settled.
To discharge his liquidated debt for $8,000 to the surgeon, the patient sends a check for $6,000 marked “payment in full.” The surgeon cashes it. There is no dispute. May the surgeon sue for the remaining $2,000? This may appear to be an accord: by cashing the check, the surgeon seems to be agreeing with the patient to accept the $6,000 in full payment. But consideration is lacking. Because the surgeon is owed more than the face amount of the check, she causes the patient no legal detriment by accepting the check. If the rule were otherwise, debtors could easily tempt hard-pressed creditors to accept less than the amount owed by presenting immediate cash. The key to the enforceability of a “payment in full” legend is the character of the debt. If unliquidated, or if there is a dispute, then “payment in full” can serve as accord and satisfaction when written on a check that is accepted for payment by a creditor. But if the debt is liquidated and undisputed, there is no consideration when the check is for a lesser amount. (However, it is arguable that if the check is considered to be an agreement modifying a sales contract, no consideration is necessary under Uniform Commercial Code (UCC) Section 2-209.)
An unforeseen difficultyProblems in executing a contract so great as to warrant the assumption that the contract is modified. arising after a contract is made may be resolved by an accord and satisfaction, too. Difficulties that no one could foresee can sometimes serve as catalyst for a further promise that may appear to be without consideration but that the courts will enforce nevertheless. Suppose Peter contracts to build Jerry a house for $390,000. While excavating, Peter unexpectedly discovers quicksand, the removal of which will cost an additional $10,000. To ensure that Peter does not delay, Jerry promises to pay Peter $10,000 more than originally agreed. But when the house is completed, Jerry reneges on his promise. Is Jerry liable? Logically perhaps not: Peter has incurred no legal detriment in exchange for the $10,000; he had already contracted to build the house. But most courts would allow Peter to recover on the theory that the original contract was terminated, or modified, either by mutual agreement or by an implied condition that the original contract would be discharged if unforeseen difficulties developed. In short, the courts will enforce the parties’ own mutual recognition that the unforeseen conditions had made the old contract unfair. The parties either have modified their original contract (which requires consideration at common law) or have given up their original contract and made a new one (called a novationA new contract substituting for an old one, or a new party to a contract replacing a former party.).
It is a question of fact whether the new circumstance is new and difficult enough to make a preexisting obligation into an unforeseen difficulty. Obviously, if Peter encounters only a small pocket of quicksand—say two gallons’ worth—he would have to deal with it as part of his already-agreed-to job. If he encounters as much quicksand as would fill an Olympic-sized swimming pool, that’s clearly unforeseen, and he should get extra to deal with it. Someplace between the two quantities of quicksand there is enough of the stuff so that Peter’s duty to remove it is outside the original agreement and new consideration would be needed in exchange for its removal.
A creditors’ compositionAn agreement among creditors, each accepting less than full payment from a debtor so that each gets something. may give rise to debt settlement by an accord and satisfaction. It is an agreement whereby two or more creditors of a debtor consent to the debtor’s paying them pro rata shares of the debt due in full satisfaction of their claims. A composition agreement can be critically important to a business in trouble; through it, the business might manage to stave off bankruptcy. Even though the share accepted is less than the full amount due and is payable after the due date so that consideration appears to be lacking, courts routinely enforce these agreements. The promise of each creditor to accept a lesser share than that owed in return for getting something is taken as consideration to support the promises of the others. A debtor has $3,000 on hand. He owes $3,000 each to A, B, and C. A, B, and C agree to accept $1,000 each and discharge the debtor. Each creditor has given up $2,000 but in return has at least received something, the $1,000. Without the composition, one might have received the entire amount owed her, but the others would have received nothing.
Not amenable to settlement by an accord and satisfaction is the situation where a party has a preexisting duty and he or she is offered a benefit to discharge it. When the only consideration offered the promisor is an act or promise to act to carry out a preexisting duty, there is no valid contract. As Denney v. Reppert (Section 11.4.2 "Consideration: Preexisting Obligation") makes clear, the promisee suffers no legal detriment in promising to undertake that which he is already obligated to do. Where a person is promised a benefit not to do that which he is already disallowed from doing, there is no consideration. David is sixteen years old; his uncle promises him $50 if he will refrain from smoking. The promise is not enforceable: legally, David already must refrain from smoking, so he has promised to give up nothing to which he had a legal right. As noted previously, the difficulty arises where it is unclear whether a person has a preexisting obligation or whether such unforeseen difficulties have arisen as to warrant the recognition that the parties have modified the contract or entered into a novation. What if Peter insists on additional payment for him to remove one wheelbarrow full of quicksand from the excavation? Surely that’s not enough “unforeseen difficulty.” How much quicksand is enough?
Not every promise is a pledge to do something. Sometimes it is an illusory promiseThe promisor actually gives up no consideration, as in “I will paint your house in June if I feel like it.”, where the terms of the contract really bind the promisor to give up nothing, to suffer no detriment. For example, Lydia offers to pay Juliette $10 for mowing Lydia’s lawn. Juliette promises to mow the lawn if she feels like it. May Juliette enforce the contract? No, because Juliette has incurred no legal detriment; her promise is illusory, since by doing nothing she still falls within the literal wording of her promise. The doctrine that such bargains are unenforceable is sometimes referred to as the rule of mutuality of obligation: if one party to a contract has not made a binding obligation, neither is the other party bound. Thus if A contracts to hire B for a year at $6,000 a month, reserving the right to dismiss B at any time (an “option to cancel” clause), and B agrees to work for a year, A has not really promised anything; A is not bound to the agreement, and neither is B.
The illusory promise presents a special problem in agreements for exclusive dealing, outputs, and needs contracts.
In an exclusive dealing agreementA contract—as between buyer and seller—where the parties agree only to deal with each other., one party (the franchisor) promises to deal solely with the other party (the franchisee)—for example, a franchisor-designer agrees to sell all of her specially designed clothes to a particular department store (the franchisee). In return, the store promises to pay a certain percentage of the sales price to the designer. On closer inspection, it may appear that the store’s promise is illusory: it pays the designer only if it manages to sell dresses, but it may sell none. The franchisor-designer may therefore attempt to back out of the deal by arguing that because the franchisee is not obligated to do anything, there was no consideration for her promise to deal exclusively with the store.
Courts, however, have upheld exclusive dealing contracts on the theory that the franchisee has an obligation to use reasonable efforts to promote and sell the product or services. This obligation may be spelled out in the contract or implied by its terms. In the classic statement of this concept, Judge Benjamin N. Cardozo, then on the New York Court of Appeals, in upholding such a contract, declared:
It is true that [the franchisee] does not promise in so many words that he will use reasonable efforts to place the defendant’s endorsements and market her designs. We think, however, that such a promise is fairly to be implied. The law has outgrown its primitive stage of formalism when the precise word was the sovereign talisman, and every slip was fatal. It takes a broader view today. A promise may be lacking, and yet the whole writing may be “instinct with an obligation,” imperfectly expressed.…His promise to pay the defendant one-half of the profits and revenues resulting from the exclusive agency and to render accounts monthly was a promise to use reasonable efforts to bring profits and revenues into existence.Otis F. Wood v. Lucy, Lady Duff-Gordon, 118 N.E. 214 (1917).
The UCC follows the same rule. In the absence of language specifically delineating the seller’s or buyer’s duties, an exclusive dealing contract under Section 2-306(2) imposes “an obligation by the seller to use best efforts to supply the goods and by the buyer to use best efforts to promote their sale.”
A similar issue arises with outputs contracts and needs contracts. In an outputs contractAn agreement to sell all of one’s goods or services to a single person., the seller—say a coal company—agrees to sell its entire yearly output of coal to an electric utility. Has it really agreed to produce and sell any coal at all? What if the coal-mine owner decides to shut down production to take a year’s vacation—is that a violation of the agreement? Yes. The law imposes upon the seller here a duty to produce and sell a reasonable amount. Similarly, if the electric utility contracted to buy all its requirements of coal from the coal company—a needs contractAn agreement to buy all of one’s requirements (of goods or services) from a single source.—could it decide to stop operation entirely and take no coal? No, it is required to take a reasonable amount.
Courts do not inquire into the adequacy of consideration, but (with some exceptions) do require the promisor to incur a legal detriment (the surrender of any legal right he or she possesses—to give up something) in order to receive the bargained-for benefit. The surrender of the right to sue is a legal detriment, and the issue arises in analyzing various kinds of dispute settlement agreements (accord and satisfaction): the obligation to pay the full amount claimed by a creditor on a liquidated debt, an unliquidated debt, and a disputed debt. Where unforeseen difficulties arise, an obligor will be entitled to additional compensation (consideration) to resolve them either because the contract is modified or because the parties have entered into a novation, but no additional consideration is owing to one who performs a preexisting obligation or forbears from performing that which he or she is under a legal duty not to perform. If a promisor gives an illusory promise, he or she gives no consideration and no contract is formed; but exclusive dealing agreements, needs contracts, and outputs contracts are not treated as illusory.
For a variety of policy reasons, courts will enforce certain types of promises even though consideration may be absent. Some of these are governed by the Uniform Commercial Code (UCC); others are part of the established common law.
Ordinarily, past considerationA promise subsequent to a promisee’s act, not bargained for; it does not count as consideration. is not sufficient to support a promise. By past consideration, the courts mean an act that could have served as consideration if it had been bargained for at the time but that was not the subject of a bargain. For example, Mrs. Ace’s dog Fluffy escapes from her mistress’s condo at dusk. Robert finds Fluffy, sees Mrs. Ace, who is herself out looking for her pet, and gives Fluffy to her. She says, “Oh, thank you for finding my dear dog. Come by my place tomorrow morning and I’ll give you fifty dollars as a reward.” The next day Robert stops by Mrs. Ace’s condo, but she says, “Well, I don’t know. Fluffy soiled the carpet again last night. I think maybe a twenty-dollar reward would be plenty.” Robert cannot collect the fifty dollars. Even though Mrs. Ace might have a moral obligation to pay him and honor her promise, there was no consideration for it. Robert incurred no legal detriment; his contribution—finding the dog—was paid out before her promise, and his past consideration is invalid to support a contract. There was no bargained-for exchange.
However, a valid consideration, given in the past to support a promise, can be the basis for another, later contract under certain circumstances. These occur when a person’s duty to act for one reason or another has become no longer binding. If the person then makes a new promise based on the unfulfilled past duty, the new promise is binding without further consideration. Three types of cases follow.
A statute of limitationsThe law stipulating how long after a cause of action arises that a person has to sue on it. is a law requiring a lawsuit to be filed within a specified period of years. For example, in many states a contract claim must be sued on within six years; if the plaintiff waits longer than that, the claim will be dismissed, regardless of its merits. When the time period set forth in the statute of limitations has lapsed, the statute is said to have “run.” If a debtor renews a promise to pay or acknowledges a debt after the running of a statute of limitations, then under the common law the promise is binding, although there is no consideration in the usual sense. In many states, this promise or acknowledgment must be in writing and signed by the debtor. Also, in many states, the courts will imply a promise or acknowledgment if the debtor makes a partial payment after the statute has run.
Some promises that might otherwise serve as consideration are voidable by the promisor, for a variety of reasons, including infancy, fraud, duress, or mistake. But a voidable contract does not automatically become void, and if the promisor has not avoided the contract but instead thereafter renews his promise, it is binding. For example, Mr. Melvin sells his bicycle to Seth, age thirteen. Seth promises to pay Mr. Melvin one hundred dollars. Seth may repudiate the contract, but he does not. When he turns eighteen, he renews his promise to pay the one hundred dollars. This promise is binding. (However, a promise made up to the time he turned eighteen would not be binding, since he would still have been a minor.)
We examined the meaning of this forbidding phrase in Chapter 8 "Introduction to Contract Law" (recall the English High Trees case). It represents another type of promise that the courts will enforce without consideration. Simply stated, promissory estoppelTo be prohibited from denying a promise when another subsequently has relied on it. means that the courts will stop the promisor from claiming that there was no consideration. The doctrine of promissory estoppel is invoked in the interests of justice when three conditions are met: (1) the promise is one that the promisor should reasonably expect to induce the promisee to take action or forbear from taking action of a definite and substantial character; (2) the action or forbearance is taken; and (3) injustice can be avoided only by enforcing the promise. (The complete phraseology is “promissory estoppel with detrimental reliance.”)
Timko served on the board of trustees of a school. He recommended that the school purchase a building for a substantial sum of money, and to induce the trustees to vote for the purchase, he promised to help with the purchase and to pay at the end of five years the purchase price less the down payment. At the end of four years, Timko died. The school sued his estate, which defended on the ground that there was no consideration for the promise. Timko was promised or given nothing in return, and the purchase of the building was of no direct benefit to him (which would have made the promise enforceable as a unilateral contract). The court ruled that under the three-pronged promissory estoppel test, Timko’s estate was liable.Estate of Timko v. Oral Roberts Evangelistic Assn., 215 N.W.2d 750 (Mich. App. 1974).
Cases involving pledges of charitable contributions have long been troublesome to courts. Recognizing the necessity to charitable institutions of such pledges, the courts have also been mindful that a mere pledge of money to the general funds of a hospital, university, or similar institution does not usually induce substantial action but is, rather, simply a promise without consideration. When the pledge does prompt a charitable institution to act, promissory estoppel is available as a remedy. In about one-quarter of the states, another doctrine is available for cases involving simple pledges: the “mutual promises” theory, whereby the pledges of many individuals are taken as consideration for each other and are binding against each promisor. This theory was not available to the plaintiff in Timko because his was the only promise.
The Restatement allows, under some circumstances, the enforcement of past-consideration contracts. It provides as follows in Section 86, “Promise for Benefit Received”:
A promise made in recognition of a benefit previously received by the promisor from the promisee is binding to the extent necessary to prevent injustice.
A promise is not binding under Subsection (1)
if the promisee conferred the benefit as a gift or for other reasons the promisor has not been unjustly enriched; or
to the extent that its value is disproportionate to the benefit.
We have touched on several common-law exceptions to the consideration requirement. Some also are provided by statute.
The UCC permits one party to discharge, without consideration, a claim or right arising out of an alleged breach of contract by the other party. This is accomplished by delivering to the other party a signed written waiverAn informed choice wherein one surrenders the right to pursue some otherwise available legal remedy. or renunciationA formal rejection of something, as a contract..Uniform Commercial Code, Section 1-107. This provision applies to any contract governed by the UCC and is not limited to the sales provisions of Article 2.
The UCC also permits a party to discharge the other side without consideration when there is no breach, and it permits parties to modify their Article 2 contract without consideration.Uniform Commercial Code, Sections 2-209(4) and 2-209(1). The official comments to the UCC section add the following: “However, modifications made thereunder must meet the test of good faith imposed by this Act. The effective use of bad faith to escape performance on the original contract terms is barred, and the extortion of a “modification” without legitimate commercial reason is ineffective as a violation of the duty of good faith.”
Seller agrees to deliver a ton of coal within seven days. Buyer needs the coal sooner and asks Seller to deliver within four days. Seller agrees. This promise is binding even though Seller received no additional consideration beyond the purchase price for the additional duty agreed to (the duty to get the coal to Buyer sooner than originally agreed). The UCC allows a merchant’s firm offerA signed promise made by a merchant to hold an offer open., signed, in writing, to bind the merchant to keep the offer to buy or sell open without consideration.Uniform Commercial Code, Section 2-205. This is the UCC’s equivalent of a common-law option, which, as you recall, does require consideration.
Section 1-207 of the UCC allows a party a reservation of rightsA statement that one is intentionally retaining all or some legal rights, so as to warn others of those rights. while performing a contract. This section raises a difficult question when a debtor issues an in-full-payment check in payment of a disputed debt. As noted earlier in this chapter, because under the common law the creditor’s acceptance of an in-full-payment check in payment of a disputed debt constitutes an accord and satisfaction, the creditor cannot collect an amount beyond the check. But what if the creditor, in cashing the check, reserves the right (under Section 1-207) to sue for an amount beyond what the debtor is offering? The courts are split on the issue: regarding the sale of goods governed by the UCC, some courts allow the creditor to sue for the unpaid debt notwithstanding the check being marked “paid in full,” and others do not.
Bankruptcy is, of course, federal statutory law. The rule here regarding a promise to pay after the obligation is discharged is similar to that governing statutes of limitations. Traditionally, a promise to repay debts after a bankruptcy court has discharged them makes the debtor liable once again. This traditional rule gives rise to potential abuse; after undergoing the rigors of bankruptcy, a debtor could be badgered by creditors into reaffirmationTo confirm again the validity of a promise that was discharged, as in bankruptcy., putting him in a worse position than before, since he must wait six years before being allowed to avail himself of bankruptcy again.
The federal Bankruptcy Act includes certain procedural protections to ensure that the debtor knowingly enters into a reaffirmation of his debt. Among its provisions, the law requires the debtor to have reaffirmed the debt before the debtor is discharged in bankruptcy; he then has sixty days to rescind his reaffirmation. If the bankrupt party is an individual, the law also requires that a court hearing be held at which the consequences of his reaffirmation must be explained, and reaffirmation of certain consumer debts is subject to court approval if the debtor is not represented by an attorney.
Contracts governed by the Convention on Contracts for the International Sale of Goods (as mentioned in Chapter 8 "Introduction to Contract Law") do not require consideration to be binding.
There are some exceptions to the consideration requirement. At common law, past consideration doesn’t count, but no consideration is necessary in these cases: where a promise barred by the statute of limitations is revived, where a voidable duty is reaffirmed, where there has been detrimental reliance on a promise (i.e., promissory estoppel), or where a court simply finds the promisor has a moral obligation to keep the promise.
Under statutory law, the UCC has several exceptions to the consideration requirement. No consideration is needed to revive a debt discharged in bankruptcy, and none is called for under the Convention on Contracts for the International Sale of Goods.
Board of Control of Eastern Michigan University v. Burgess
206 N.W.2d 256 (Mich. 1973)
On February 15, 1966, defendant signed a document which purported to grant to plaintiff a 60-day option to purchase defendant’s home. That document, which was drafted by plaintiff’s agent, acknowledged receipt by defendant of “One and no/100 ($1.00) Dollar and other valuable consideration.” Plaintiff concedes that neither the one dollar nor any other consideration was ever paid or even tendered to defendant. On April 14, 1966, plaintiff delivered to defendant written notice of its intention to exercise the option. On the closing date defendant rejected plaintiff’s tender of the purchase price. Thereupon, plaintiff commenced this action for specific performance.
At trial defendant claimed that the purported option was void for want of consideration, that any underlying offer by defendant had been revoked prior to acceptance by plaintiff, and that the agreed purchase price was the product of fraud and mutual mistake. The trial judge concluded that no fraud was involved, and that any mutual mistake was not material. He also held that defendant’s acknowledgment of receipt of consideration bars any subsequent contention to the contrary. Accordingly, the trial judge entered judgment for plaintiff.
Options for the purchase of land, if based on valid consideration, are contracts which may be specifically enforced. [Citations] Conversely, that which purports to be an option, but which is not based on valid consideration, is not a contract and will not be enforced. [Citations] One dollar is valid consideration for an option to purchase land, provided the dollar is paid or at least tendered. [Citations] In the instant case defendant received no consideration for the purported option of February 15, 1966.
A written acknowledgment of receipt of consideration merely creates a rebuttable presumption that consideration has, in fact, passed. Neither the parol evidence rule nor the doctrine of estoppel bars the presentation of evidence to contradict any such acknowledgment. [Citation]
It is our opinion that the document signed by defendant on February 15, 1966, is not an enforceable option, and that defendant is not barred from so asserting.
The trial court premised its holding to the contrary on Lawrence v. McCalmont…(1844). That case is significantly distinguishable from the instant case. Mr. Justice Story held that ‘(t)he guarantor acknowledged the receipt of one dollar, and is now estopped to deny it.’ However, in reliance upon the guaranty substantial credit had been extended to the guarantor’s sons. The guarantor had received everything she bargained for, save one dollar. In the instant case defendant claims that she never received any of the consideration promised her.
That which purports to be an option for the purchase of land, but which is not based on valid consideration, is a simple offer to sell the same land. [Citation] An option is a contract collateral to an offer to sell whereby the offer is made irrevocable for a specified period. [Citation] Ordinarily, an offer is revocable at the will of the offeror. Accordingly, a failure of consideration affects only the collateral contract to keep the offer open, not the underlying offer.
A simple offer may be revoked for any reason or for no reason by the offeror at any time prior to its acceptance by the offeree. [Citation] Thus, the question in this case becomes, ‘Did defendant effectively revoke her offer to sell before plaintiff accepted that offer?’…
Defendant testified that within hours of signing the purported option she telephoned plaintiff’s agent and informed him that she would not abide by the option unless the purchase price was increased. Defendant also testified that when plaintiff’s agent delivered to her on April 14, 1966, plaintiff’s notice of its intention to exercise the purported option, she told him that ‘the option was off’.
Plaintiff’s agent testified that defendant did not communicate to him any dissatisfaction until sometime in July, 1966.
If defendant is telling the truth, she effectively revoked her offer several weeks before plaintiff accepted that offer, and no contract of sale was created. If plaintiff’s agent is telling the truth, defendant’s offer was still open when plaintiff accepted that offer, and an enforceable contract was created. The trial judge thought it unnecessary to resolve this particular dispute. In light of our holding the dispute must be resolved.
An appellate court cannot assess the credibility of witnesses. We have neither seen nor heard them testify. [Citation] Accordingly, we remand this case to the trial court for additional findings of fact based on the record already before the court.…
Reversed and remanded for proceedings consistent with this opinion. Costs to defendant.
Denney v. Reppert
432 S.W.2d 647 (Ky. 1968)
R. L. Myre, Sr., Special Commissioner.
The sole question presented in this case is which of several claimants is entitled to an award for information leading to the apprehension and conviction of certain bank robbers.…
On June 12th or 13th, 1963, three armed men entered the First State Bank, Eubank, Kentucky, and with a display of arms and threats robbed the bank of over $30,000 [about $208,000 in 2010 dollars]. Later in the day they were apprehended by State Policemen Garret Godby, Johnny Simms and Tilford Reppert, placed under arrest, and the entire loot was recovered. Later all of the prisoners were convicted and Garret Godby, Johnny Simms and Tilford Reppert appeared as witnesses at the trial.
The First State Bank of Eubank was a member of the Kentucky Bankers Association which provided and advertised a reward of $500.00 for the arrest and conviction of each bank robber. Hence the outstanding reward for the three bank robbers was $1,500.00 [about $11,000 in 2010 dollars]. Many became claimants for the reward and the Kentucky State Bankers Association being unable to determine the merits of the claims for the reward asked the circuit court to determine the merits of the various claims and to adjudge who was entitled to receive the reward or share in it. All of the claimants were made defendants in the action.
At the time of the robbery the claimants Murrell Denney, Joyce Buis, Rebecca McCollum and Jewell Snyder were employees of the First State Bank of Eubank and came out of the grueling situation with great credit and glory. Each one of them deserves approbation and an accolade. They were vigilant in disclosing to the public and the peace officers the details of the crime, and in describing the culprits, and giving all the information that they possessed that would be useful in capturing the robbers. Undoubtedly, they performed a great service. It is in the evidence that the claimant Murrell Denney was conspicuous and energetic in his efforts to make known the robbery, to acquaint the officers as to the personal appearance of the criminals, and to give other pertinent facts.
The first question for determination is whether the employees of the robbed bank are eligible to receive or share in the reward. The great weight of authority answers in the negative. [Citation] states the rule thusly:
‘To the general rule that, when a reward is offered to the general public for the performance of some specified act, such reward may be claimed by any person who performs such act, is the exception of agents, employees and public officials who are acting within the scope of their employment or official duties. * * *.’…
At the time of the robbery the claimants Murrell Denney, Joyce Buis, Rebecca McCollum, and Jewell Snyder were employees of the First State Bank of Eubank. They were under duty to protect and conserve the resources and moneys of the bank, and safeguard every interest of the institution furnishing them employment. Each of these employees exhibited great courage, and cool bravery, in a time of stress and danger. The community and the county have recompensed them in commendation, admiration and high praise, and the world looks on them as heroes. But in making known the robbery and assisting in acquainting the public and the officers with details of the crime and with identification of the robbers, they performed a duty to the bank and the public, for which they cannot claim a reward.
The claims of Corbin Reynolds, Julia Reynolds, Alvie Reynolds and Gene Reynolds also must fail. According to their statements they gave valuable information to the arresting officers. However, they did not follow the procedure as set forth in the offer of reward in that they never filed a claim with the Kentucky Bankers Association. It is well established that a claimant of a reward must comply with the terms and conditions of the offer of reward. [Citation]
State Policemen Garret Godby, Johnny Simms and Tilford Reppert made the arrest of the bank robbers and captured the stolen money. All participated in the prosecution. At the time of the arrest, it was the duty of the state policemen to apprehend the criminals. Under the law they cannot claim or share in the reward and they are interposing no claim to it.
This leaves the defendant, Tilford Reppert the sole eligible claimant. The record shows that at the time of the arrest he was a deputy sheriff in Rockcastle County, but the arrest and recovery of the stolen money took place in Pulaski County. He was out of his jurisdiction, and was thus under no legal duty to make the arrest, and is thus eligible to claim and receive the reward. In [Citation] it was said:
‘It is * * * well established that a public officer with the authority of the law to make an arrest may accept an offer of reward or compensation for acts or services performed outside of his bailiwick or not within the scope of his official duties. * * *.’…
It is manifest from the record that Tilford Reppert is the only claimant qualified and eligible to receive the reward. Therefore, it is the judgment of the circuit court that he is entitled to receive payment of the $1,500.00 reward now deposited with the Clerk of this Court.
The judgment is affirmed.
Gross v. Diehl Specialties International, Inc.
776 S.W.2d 879 (Missouri Ct. App. 1989)
Plaintiff appeals from a jury verdict and resultant judgment for defendant in a breach of employment contract case.…
Plaintiff was employed under a fifteen year employment contract originally executed in 1977 between plaintiff and defendant. Defendant, at that time called Dairy Specialties, Inc., was a company in the business of formulating ingredients to produce non-dairy products for use by customers allergic to cow’s milk. Plaintiff successfully formulated [Vitamite]…for that usage.
Thereafter, on August 24, 1977, plaintiff and defendant corporation entered into an employment contract employing plaintiff as general manager of defendant for fifteen years. Compensation was established at $14,400 annually plus cost of living increases. In addition, when 10% of defendant’s gross profits exceeded the annual salary, plaintiff would receive an additional amount of compensation equal to the difference between his compensation and 10% of the gross profits for such year. On top of that plaintiff was to receive a royalty for the use of each of his inventions and formulae of 1% of the selling price of all of the products produced by defendant using one or more of plaintiff’s inventions or formulae during the term of the agreement. That amount was increased to 2% of the selling price following the term of the agreement. The contract further provided that during the term of the agreement the inventions and formulae would be owned equally by plaintiff and defendant and that following the term of the agreement the ownership would revert to plaintiff. During the term of the agreement defendant had exclusive rights to use of the inventions and formulae and after the term of agreement a non-exclusive right of use.
At the time of the execution of the contract, sales had risen from virtually nothing in 1976 to $750,000 annually from sales of Vitamite and a chocolate flavored product formulated by plaintiff called Chocolite. [Dairy’s owner] was in declining health and in 1982 desired to sell his company. At that time yearly sales were $7,500,000. [Owner] sold the company to the Diehl family enterprises for 3 million dollars.
Prior to sale Diehl insisted that a new contract between plaintiff and defendant be executed or Diehl would substantially reduce the amount to be paid for [the company]. A new contract was executed August 24, 1982. It reduced the expressed term of the contract to 10 years, which provided the same expiration date as the prior contract. It maintained the same base salary of $14,400 effective September 1982, thereby eliminating any cost of living increases incurred since the original contract. The 10% of gross profit provision remained the same. The new contract provided that plaintiff’s inventions and formula were exclusively owned by defendant during the term of the contract and after its termination. The 1% royalty during the term of the agreement remained the same, but no royalties were provided for after the term of the agreement. No other changes were made in the agreement. Plaintiff received no compensation for executing the new contract. He was not a party to the sale of the company by [Owner] and received nothing tangible from that sale.
After the sale plaintiff was given the title and responsibilities of president of defendant with additional duties but no additional compensation. In 1983 and 1984 the business of the company declined severely and in October 1984, plaintiff’s employment with defendant was terminated by defendant. This suit followed.…
We turn now to the court’s holding that the 1982 agreement was the operative contract. Plaintiff contends this holding is erroneous because there existed no consideration for the 1982 agreement. We agree. A modification of a contract constitutes the making of a new contract and such new contract must be supported by consideration. [Citation] Where a contract has not been fully performed at the time of the new agreement, the substitution of a new provision, resulting in a modification of the obligations on both sides, for a provision in the old contract still unperformed is sufficient consideration for the new contract. While consideration may consist of either a detriment to the promisee or a benefit to the promisor, a promise to carry out an already existing contractual duty does not constitute consideration. [Citation]
Under the 1982 contract defendant assumed no detriment it did not already have. The term of the contract expired on the same date under both contracts. Defendant undertook no greater obligations than it already had. Plaintiff on the other hand received less than he had under the original contract. His base pay was reduced back to its amount in 1977 despite the provision in the 1977 contract for cost of living adjustments. He lost his equal ownership in his formulae during the term of the agreement and his exclusive ownership after the termination of the agreement. He lost all royalties after termination of the agreement and the right to use and license the formulae subject to defendant’s right to non-exclusive use upon payment of royalties. In exchange for nothing, defendant acquired exclusive ownership of the formulae during and after the agreement, eliminated royalties after the agreement terminated, turned its non-exclusive use after termination into exclusive use and control, and achieved a reduction in plaintiff’s base salary. Defendant did no more than promise to carry out an already existing contractual duty. There was no consideration for the 1982 agreement.
Defendant asserts that consideration flowed to plaintiff because the purchase of defendant by the Diehls might not have occurred without the agreement and the purchase provided plaintiff with continued employment and a financially viable employer. There is no evidence to support this contention. Plaintiff had continued employment with the same employer under the 1977 agreement. Nothing in the 1982 agreement provided for any additional financial protection to plaintiff. The essence of defendant’s position is that [the owner] received more from his sale of the company because of the new agreement than he would have without it. We have difficulty converting [the owner’s] windfall into a benefit to plaintiff.
[Remanded to determine how much plaintiff should receive.]
Most agreements—including contract modification at common law (but not under the Uniform Commercial Code [UCC])—are not binding contracts in the absence of what the law terms “consideration.” Consideration is usually defined as a “legal detriment”—an act, forbearance, or a promise. The act can be the payment of money, the delivery of a service, or the transfer of title to property. Consideration is a legal concept in that it centers on the giving up of a legal right or benefit.
An understanding of consideration is important in many commonplace situations, including those in which (1) a debtor and a creditor enter into an accord that is later disputed, (2) a duty is preexisting, (3) a promise is illusory, and (4) creditors agree to a composition.
Some promises are enforceable without consideration. These include certain promises under the UCC and other circumstances, including (1) contracts barred by the statute of limitations, (2) promises by a bankrupt to repay debts, and (3) situations in which justice will be served by invoking the doctrine of promissory estoppel. Determining whether an agreement should be upheld despite the lack of consideration, technically defined, calls for a diligent assessment of the factual circumstances.
An example of valid consideration is a promise
An unliquidated debt is a debt
The rule that if one party to a contract has not made a binding obligation, the other party is not bound is called
Examples of promises enforceable without consideration include