- Find out when the Uniform Commercial Code (UCC) is the appropriate law to apply and when the common law is the appropriate law.
- Learn the elements of common-law contracts.
- Identify the difference between common-law contracts and contracts between merchants.
A contract is a legally enforceable promise. Therefore, it is important to know whether promises made are legally enforceable. You certainly have made many promises in your life. You have probably broken a few promises, too. For example, if you promised your best friend that you would be best friends forever, but then your relationship changed, we might say that is a broken promise. However, you would not be held legally liable to pay damages for breaking that promise. On the other hand, if you promised your bank that you would make payments to it in exchange for the bank loaning money to you to purchase a car, and if you broke that promise by failing to pay as scheduled, then you have broken a legally enforceable promise. The bank could seek damages from you to make itself whole again. What is the difference between these two promises? Why would you have to pay damages to the bank but not to your former best friend? More specifically, why is one considered a breach of contract and the other simply a broken promise?
This section explores contract formation. We can examine the elements of formation to determine whether the contract is valid or whether it suffers some deficiency that renders it not legally enforceable.
In the United States, two primary sources of law govern our contracts: the common law and the Uniform Commercial Code. The Uniform Commercial Code (UCC) Article 2 governs contracts between a merchant and the sale of goods. Essentially, the UCC contains two sets of rules for contracts. One set involves rules for everyone, and the other set involves rules for merchants. In this section, we will explore the UCC as it applies to merchants. Chiefly, we will examine how the UCC requirements differ from common law in contract formation
However, we will first address common-law contracts. Common law governs contracts for services as well as contracts not otherwise governed by the UCC. It is important to recognize the elements of common-law contract formation because they are more stringent than the requirements for formation between merchants under the UCC. If all elements of common-law contract formation do not exist, then the contract may be void or voidable.
The elements of common-law contract formation include offer, acceptance, and consideration. Offer and acceptance together form mutual assent. Additionally, to be enforceable, the contract must be for a legal purpose and parties to the contract must have capacity to enter into the contract.
An offer gives power of acceptance to another party, and it includes the agreement’s essential elements, which must be definite and certain. For example, if an offerer says to you, “I offer to sell you my scooter for four hundred dollars,” then that offer is valid. It contains the price, the person to whom the offer is made, and the object of the offer (i.e., the scooter). It creates a power of acceptance in you, the offeree.
Importantly, in common-law contracts, the acceptance must be a mirror image of the offer to constitute valid acceptance. This means that the acceptance must be precisely the same as the offer. If the acceptance is not precisely the same, then it will fail to meet the requirements of an acceptance, and it will not constitute a valid element of formation in contract. To accept the offer, the offeree could say something like this: “I agree to buy your scooter for four hundred dollars.” If a counteroffer is made, then that would not be acceptance, because the counteroffer would not be a mirror image of the offer itself. So, for example, if the offeree said, “I agree to buy your scooter for three hundred dollars,” that would not be an acceptance. In fact, a counteroffer is a rejection of the offer. Once an offeree rejects an offer—either outright (e.g., by declining to accept) or through counteroffer, the offerer is free to walk away from the failed negotiation. In this example, he no longer has to sell his scooter at all, not even if the offeree changes his mind and agrees to pay four hundred dollars. Likewise, if the offerer revokes an offer before the offeree accepts, then the power of acceptance has been withdrawn by that revocation. The offerer would no longer have to sell the item originally offered. If the offerer wished to limit the time that an offer was valid, he could do so by limiting the time that the offer may be accepted. If the offer is not accepted during that time, then the offerer is not required to honor any acceptance that is made after expiration of the offer.
What if you saw an advertisement for a scooter for sale at a local shop? Perhaps the advertisement looked like this:
Do you think that this advertisement should create the power of acceptance in you, a potential customer? The fact is that an advertisement is not an offer. It is simply an invitation to bargain. Advertisements are requests for people to make offers. This places the power of acceptance on the merchant, who is free to reject offers or to choose to whom he sells. Of course, certain statutory protections exist today to protect consumers against unscrupulous merchants who might engage in unethical behavior, such as bait-and-switch or false advertising, or race-based denial of services or refusal to contract. Specifically, consumer protection statutes and civil rights statutes, respectively, would protect consumers in such circumstances.
If an offer is valid, then the acceptance must be a mirror image, as mentioned previously. A bilateral contract is a contract in which both parties make a promise. The previous example is an example of a bilateral contract. The following is a promise for a promise:
The offerer says, “I offer to sell you my scooter for four hundred dollars.”
The offeree replies, “I agree to buy your scooter for four hundred dollars.”
Specifically, it is a promise to sell the scooter in exchange for a promise to buy the scooter for four hundred dollars. Since this is a promise for a promise, then this is a bilateral contract.
A unilateral contract is one in which the accepting party may only accept through an action. Here is an example:
The offerer says, “I will sell this scooter to the first person who puts four hundred dollars cash in my hands.”
The offeree says nothing but places four hundred dollars cash into the offeror’s hands.
This is a promise for an action. Specifically, it is a promise to sell the scooter in exchange for the action of placing four hundred dollars cash into the offeror’s hands.
Common-law contracts can be either bilateral or unilateral.
Additionally, all common-law contracts must contain valid consideration. This means that there must be a bargained-for exchange of acts or promises, and both parties must incur new legal detriment or obligations as a result of the contract. Imagine that you have accepted a new position with a company. You have a valid employment contract that you’ve successfully negotiated prior to beginning work. All terms of the contract are valid, and both parties are bound to the contract. Basically, this means that you have agreed to work for a specified period of time, and your employer has agreed to compensate you with a specified salary and benefits in exchange for your work. So far, so good, right?
Now, imagine that during your first week, your boss appears in your office and asks you to sign a new contract that, in essence, is a noncompete agreement. This means that your employer now wants you to sign a new contract agreeing not to compete with the company if you decide to terminate your employment arrangement. The employer wants you to make this promise, but the employer does not offer anything additional in return. For the purposes of this example, let’s say that you sign the new agreement. Is this new agreement valid and binding on you? Probably not. Why? Because the company has not suffered any new legal detriment or obligation as a result of the contract. You have agreed to refrain from competing with the company if you leave, but the company itself has not given you anything in return for your promise. To make this contract binding against you, your employer should have provided consideration. For example, it could have asked you to sign the noncompete agreement in consideration of an additional one thousand dollars of salary per year. Then, the contract would have consideration and it would have a much greater chance of being found to be valid. Better yet, the company should have negotiated the noncompete agreement along with your original contract before you assumed your new position.
Let’s continue our example of an offeror who offers to sell his scooter for four hundred dollars. He says, “I offer to sell you my scooter for four hundred dollars.” If you reply, “I agree to buy your scooter for four hundred dollars, if I don’t find one that I like more,” then that does not constitute valid consideration. This is because you have placed a condition on the consideration. In essence, you have made what appears to be a promise to do something, but instead of being a promise, it is only an illusion of a promise. This is called an illusory promise, and it does not constitute valid consideration. There is no legal detriment to you here, because you might find a scooter that you like more than the one offered by the offeror. You have a way out. A legal detriment is a detriment (or burden or obligation) that is legally enforceable. You cannot “get out” of the promise without suffering legal detriment. The other party must be able to rely on the promise for it to constitute valid consideration. The thing bargained for can be an act or a promise (either to do something or to refrain from doing something.)
Additionally, for a contract to be valid, the subject matter of the contract must be for a legal purpose. If a distributor of illegal drugs hires a pilot to fly his illegal cargo to a particular place in exchange for payment, this is a contract for an illegal subject matter. If the drug dealer fails to honor his agreement to pay, or if the pilot fails to honor his agreement to transport the cargo, neither aggrieved party will find a remedy in our courts, even if the elements of contract are all present and perfectly formed.
Moreover, the parties to contract must have capacity to enter into the contract for its terms to be enforceable against them. Adults of sound mind have capacity. Minors lack legal capacity, but they may enter into contracts that they may cancel at their sole option. In other words, a minor who enters into a contract with a party who has capacity may void the contract, but the other party may not. This means that any contract with a minor is voidable by the minor under the infancy doctrine.
Let’s compare common-law contract formation with UCC contract formation. Recall that common law governs contracts for services and contracts not governed by the UCC. Article 2 of the UCC governs the sale of goods, which is defined by §2-105 and includes things that are moveable, but not money or securities. It does not include land or houses. Contracts between merchants are also governed by article 2 of the UCC. Generally speaking, §2-104 defines a merchant as a person who deals in goods or holds himself out as having special knowledge or skill regarding the practices or goods that are the subject of the transaction. Since contracts law is a state law issue, each state can have different laws related to contracts. The UCC seeks to provide uniformity to contracts law among the different states. However, like other uniform laws, the UCC does not become a law until state legislatures adopt it as law. All fifty states have adopted some version of the UCC.
As you can imagine, contracts between merchants do not always contain offers that include definite terms, and acceptances are not always mirror images. Merchants typically place a purchase order when they wish to purchase materials, and the seller often sends an invoice with the order when it ships. Merchants frequently use boilerplate language in their individual purchase orders and invoices. Obviously, not every merchant’s contract will contain the same language as those of other merchants. This can lead to discrepancies between terms that would be fatal in common-law contract formation, otherwise known as battle of the forms. However, the UCC provides more flexibility in contract formation than exists in common-law contracts, thereby accommodating the reality of business practices. The requirements for common-law contract formation would be too burdensome for merchants. Can you imagine if every merchant had to issue offers with definite terms and receive mirror image acceptances for every item that it sold or purchased to have valid, enforceable contracts? Such a burden might cause commerce to come to a screeching halt. Or it might lead to many contracts disputes.
The UCC also embodies some elements of the Statute of Frauds. The Statute of Frauds requires certain types of contracts to be in writing to be enforceable. Specifically, it requires contracts to be in writing for goods priced at five hundred dollars or more and signed by the defendant, for those contracts to be enforceable. Other important types of contracts relevant to business that must be in writing and signed by the defendant to be enforceable include contracts for any interest in land, promises to pay the debts of another, and contracts that cannot be performed within one year. The types of contracts that are contemplated by the Statute of Frauds but are not captured by the UCC are often embodied in state statutes. The peculiar name—the Statute of Frauds—is derived from its early incarnation in seventeenth-century England, when a statute was passed by parliament to reduce or prevent fraud in property transactions and other important civil matters.
Of primary concern to students of business are the differences between common-law contracts and the UCC. When analyzing a contracts issue, identification of the type of law that governs the contract should be addressed first. This is because you cannot know which rule applies unless you know which type of law is applicable.
The primary differences between common-law contracts and the UCC are in the UCC’s relaxation of various common-law contract formation requirements. See Table 6.1 "Differences between Contract Formations by Type of Law" for a comparison between common-law and UCC contract formation requirements. When a battle of the forms ensues between merchants, for example, the conflicting terms are not fatal to the contract. This is a major departure from the mirror image rule required by common-law contracts. For the UCC, the primary issue is whether the parties intended to enter into a binding agreement. New or additional terms included in an offer will become part of the contract on acceptance. Terms that conflict with each other will “fall out” of the contract and be replaced by UCC gap fillers, which can create the terms of the contract. Likewise, terms that are left open will be filled in. Gap fillers are terms provided by the UCC, and they can be inserted into a contract when those terms are not definite. While prices, delivery dates, warranties, and other terms can be “filled in” by the UCC gap fillers, quantity cannot. Quantity, therefore, is an essential term that must be specified in the contract for it to be binding.
Table 6.1 Differences between Contract Formations by Type of Law
|Any manner that shows agreement to contract (e.g., words, actions, writing)||Mirror image acceptance required|
|Quantity term required; other terms may be filled in with gap fillers||Essential terms must be definite|
|Contracts between merchants; contracts for sale of goods priced at $500 or more||Contracts for services and for interest in real property|
A contract is a legally enforceable promise. Common law and the UCC are different sources of contract law. Common law is the appropriate type of law for service contracts and contracts that do not fall under the UCC, like real estate contracts. The UCC governs contracts involving the sale of goods with a price of five hundred dollars or more and in contracts between merchants. Common-law contract formation requires a valid offer, acceptance, and consideration. The parties must have capacity, and the subject matter must be a legal purpose. The UCC relaxes formation requirements by allowing the use of gap fillers for undefined or conflicting terms and by allowing a contract to be formed by any manner that shows agreement to contract. Quantity is a required term for contracts governed by the UCC.
- If a contract was not entered in good faith, do you think that fact alone should matter? Consider Locke v. Warner Bros. Inc., which was discussed in the introduction to this chapter. All essential elements of the contract appear to have existed, and the parties performed as required by the wording of the contract. How can lack of good faith be shown?
- Has anyone ever broken a promise to you? Were those promises legally enforceable promises? Why or why not? Be sure to analyze the agreement by checking to see if all elements of contract formation were present. Remember to first determine whether the promise was one governed by the UCC or by common law.
- What are the dangers inherent in making a counteroffer? Imagine that you really wanted to sell your house. You receive an attractive offer, but you wondered whether you might be able to sell the house for a little more money. What types of things should you think about before submitting a counteroffer?