11.2: Legal Sufficiency
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- Know in general what “legal sufficiency” means when examining consideration.
- Recognize how the concept operates in such common situations as threat of litigation, and accord and satisfaction.
- Understand why illusory promises are unenforceable, and how courts deal with needs, outputs, and exclusive dealings contracts.
The Concept of Legal Sufficiency
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 sufficiency.
Actual versus Legal Detriment
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.
Adequacy of Consideration
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.
Applications of the Legal Sufficiency Doctrine
This section discusses several common circumstances where the issue of whether the consideration proffered (offered up) is adequate.
Threat of Litigation: Covenant Not to Sue
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 sue (covenant is another word for agreement).
Accord and Satisfaction Generally
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 satisfaction. 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.
Settling an Unliquidated Debt
An unliquidated debt 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 debt, 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.
Settling a Disputed Debt
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.
The “In-Full-Payment” Check Situation
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 difficulty 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 novation).
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’ composition 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 promise, 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.
Exclusive Dealing Agreement
In an exclusive dealing agreement, 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.”
Outputs Contracts and Needs Contracts
A similar issue arises with outputs contracts and needs contracts. In an outputs contract, 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 contract—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.
- What is meant by “legally sufficient” consideration?
- Why do courts usually not “inquire into the adequacy of consideration”?
- How can it be said there is consideration in the following instances: (a) settlement of an unliquidated debt? (b) settlement of a disputed debt? (c) a person agreeing to do more than originally contracted for because of unforeseen difficulties? (d) a creditor agreeing with other creditors for each of them to accept less than they are owed from the debtor?
- Why is there no consideration where a person demands extra compensation for that which she is already obligated to do, or for forbearing to do that which she already is forbidden from doing?
- What is the difference between a contract modification and a novation?
- How do courts resolve the problem that a needs or outputs contract apparently imposes no detriment—no requirement to pass any consideration to the other side—on the promisor?