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12.3: Agreements in Violation of Statute

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    Learning Objectives
    1. Understand that various types of bargains may be made illegal by statute, including gambling, some service-for-fee agreements involving unlicensed practitioners, and usury.
    2. Recognize that while gambling contracts are often illegal, some agreements that might appear to involve gambling are not.


    Any bargain that violates the criminal law—including statutes that govern extortion, robbery, embezzlement, forgery, some gambling, licensing, and consumer credit transactions—is illegal. Thus determining whether contracts are lawful may seem to be an easy enough task. Clearly, whenever the statute itself explicitly forbids the making of the contract or the performance agreed upon, the bargain (such as a contract to sell drugs) is unlawful. But when the statute does not expressly prohibit the making of the contract, courts examine a number of factors, as discussed in Section 12.5.1 "Extension of Statutory Illegality Based on Public Policy" involving the apparently innocent sale of a jewelry manufacturing firm whose real business was making marijuana-smoking paraphernalia.

    Types of Bargains Made Illegal by Statute

    Gambling Contracts

    All states have regulations affecting gambling (wagering) contracts because gambling tends to be an antiutilitarian activity most attractive to those who can least afford it, because gambling tends to reinforce fatalistic mind-sets fundamentally incompatible with capitalism and democracy, because gambling can be addictive, and because gambling inevitably attracts criminal elements lured by readily available money. With the spread of antitax enthusiasms over the last thirty-some years, however, some kinds of gambling have been legalized and regulated, including state-sponsored lotteries. Gambling is betting on an outcome of an event over which the bettors have no control where the purpose is to play with the risk.

    But because the outcome is contingent on events that lie outside the power of the parties to control does not transform a bargain into a wager. For example, if a gardener agrees to care for the grounds of a septuagenarian for life in return for an advance payment of $10,000, the uncertainty of the date of the landowner’s death does not make the deal a wager. The parties have struck a bargain that accurately assesses, to the satisfaction of each, the risks of the contingency in question. Likewise, the fact that an agreement is phrased in the form of a wager does not make it one. Thus a father says to his daughter, “I’ll bet you can’t get an A in organic chemistry. If you do, I’ll give you $50.” This is a unilateral contract, the consideration to the father being the daughter’s achieving a good grade, a matter over which she has complete control.

    Despite the general rule against enforcing wagers, there are exceptions, most statutory but some rooted in the common law. The common law permits the sale or purchase of securities: Sally invests $6,000 in stock in Acme Company, hoping the stock will increase in value, though she has no control over the firm’s management. It is not called gambling; it is considered respectable risk taking in the capitalist system, or “entrepreneurialism.” (It really is gambling, though, similar to horse-race gambling.) But because there are speculative elements to some agreements, they are subject to state and federal regulation.

    Insurance contracts are also speculative, but unless one party has no insurable interest (a concern for the person or thing insured) in the insured, the contract is not a wager. Thus if you took out a life insurance contract on the life of someone whose name you picked out of the phone book, the agreement would be void because you and the insurance company would have been gambling on a contingent event. (You bet that the person would die within the term of the policy, the insurance company that she would not.) If, however, you insure your spouse, your business partner, or your home, the contingency does not make the policy a wagering agreement because you will have suffered a direct loss should it occur, and the agreement, while compensating for a possible loss, does not create a new risk just for the “game.”

    Sunday Contracts

    At common law, contracts entered into on Sundays, as well as other commercial activities, were valid and enforceable. But a separate, religious tradition that traces to the Second Commandment frowned on work performed on “the Lord’s Day.” In 1781 a New Haven city ordinance banning Sunday work was printed on blue paper, and since that time such laws have been known as blue laws. The first statewide blue law was enacted in the United States in 1788; it prohibited travel, work, sports and amusements, and the carrying on of any business or occupation on Sundays. The only exceptions in most states throughout most of the nineteenth century were mutual promises to marry and contracts of necessity or charity. As the Puritan fervor wore off, and citizens were, more and more, importuned to consider themselves “consumers” in a capitalistic economic system, the laws have faded in importance and are mostly repealed, moribund, or unenforced. Washington State, up until 2008, completely prohibited hard alcohol sales on Sunday, and all liquor stores were closed, but subsequently the state—desperate for tax revenue—relaxed the prohibition.


    A usury statute is one that sets the maximum allowable interest that may be charged on a loan; usury is charging illegal interest rates. Formerly, such statutes were a matter of real importance because the penalty levied on the lender—ranging from forfeiture of the interest, or of both the principal and the interest, or of some part of the principal—was significant. But usury laws, like Sunday contract laws, have been relaxed to accommodate an ever-more-frenzied consumer society. There are a number of transactions to which the laws do not apply, varying by state: small consumer loans, pawn shop loans, payday loans, and corporate loans. In Marquette v. First Omaha Service Corp., the Supreme Court ruled that a national bank could charge the highest interest rate allowed in its home state to customers living anywhere in the United States, including states with restrictive interest caps. [1] Thus it was that in 1980 Citibank moved its credit card headquarters from cosmopolitan New York City to the somewhat less cosmopolitan Sioux Falls, South Dakota. South Dakota had recently abolished its usury laws, and so, as far as credit-card interest rates, the sky was the limit. That appealed to Citibank and a number of other financial institutions, and to the state: it became a major player in the US financial industry, garnering many jobs. [2]

    Licensing Statutes

    To practice most professions and carry on the trade of an increasing number of occupations, states require that providers of services possess licenses—hairdressers, doctors, plumbers, real estate brokers, and egg inspectors are among those on a long list. As sometimes happens, though, a person may contract for the services of one who is unlicensed either because he is unqualified and carrying on his business without a license or because for technical reasons (e.g., forgetting to mail in the license renewal application) he does not possess a license at the moment. Robin calls Paul, a plumber, to install the pipes for her new kitchen. Paul, who has no license, puts in all the pipes and asks to be paid. Having discovered that Paul is unlicensed, Robin refuses to pay. May Paul collect?

    To answer the question, a three-step analysis is necessary. First, is a license required? Some occupations may be performed without a license (e.g., lawn mowing). Others may be performed with or without certain credentials, the difference lying in what the professional may tell the public. (For instance, an accountant need not be a certified public accountant to carry on most accounting functions.) Let us assume that the state requires everyone who does any sort of plumbing for pay to have a valid license.

    The second step is to determine whether the licensing statute explicitly bars recovery by someone who has performed work while unlicensed. Some do; many others contain no specific provision on the point. Statutes that do bar recovery must of course govern the courts when they are presented with the question.

    If the statute is silent, courts must, in the third step of the analysis, distinguish between “regulatory” and “revenue” licenses. A regulatory license is intended to protect the public health, safety, and welfare. To obtain these licenses, the practitioner of the art must generally demonstrate his or her abilities by taking some sort of examination, like the bar exam for lawyers or the medical boards for doctors. A plumber’s or electrician’s licensing requirement might fall into this category. A revenue license generally requires no such examination and is imposed for the sake of raising revenue and to ensure that practitioners register their address so they can be found if a disgruntled client wants to serve them legal papers for a lawsuit. Some revenue licenses, in addition to requiring registration, require practitioners to demonstrate that they have insurance. A license to deliver milk, open to anyone who applies and pays the fee, would be an example of a revenue license. (In some states, plumbing licenses are for revenue purposes only.)

    Generally speaking, failure to hold a regulatory license bars recovery, but the absence of a revenue or registration license does not—the person may obtain the license and then move to recover. See Section 12.5.2 "Unlicensed Practitioner Cannot Collect Fee" for an example of a situation in which the state statute demands practitioners be licensed.

    Key Takeaway

    Gambling, interest rates, and Sunday contracts are among the types of contracts that have, variously, been subject to legislative illegality. Laws may require certain persons to have licenses in order to practice a trade or profession. Whether an unlicensed person is barred from recovering a fee for service depends on the language of the statute and the purpose of the requirement: if it is a mere revenue-raising or registration statute, recovery will often be allowed. If the practitioner is required to prove competency, no recovery is possible for an unlicensed person.


    1. List the typical kinds of contracts made illegal by statute.

    2. Why are some practitioners completely prohibited from collecting a fee for service if they don’t have a license, and others allowed to collect the fee after they get the license?

    3. If no competency test is required, why do some statutes require the practitioner to be licensed?

    [1] Marquette v. First Omaha Service Corp., 439 US 299 (1978).
    [2] See Thomas M. Reardon, “T. M. Reardon’s first-hand account of Citibank’s move to South Dakota,” NorthWestern Financial Review, September 15, 2004, accessed March 1, 2011, Mr. Reardon was a member of the South Dakota Bankers’ Association.

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