- Learn about assignment and delegation.
- Examine novation.
- Explore restrictions on assignment, exculpatory clauses, noncompete clauses, mandatory arbitration clauses, acceleration clauses, and liquidated damages clauses.
- Explore the parol evidence rule.
What if you formed a contract with a rock ’n’ roll band for its services? Specifically, you wanted the band to play at your nightclub, because you thought that your customers would enjoy the band enough to pay to see it perform. You hired this specific band because you heard that it drew large crowds of paying customers. Imagine your surprise when, as you anticipate the band’s performance, you discover that another band—one you have never heard of—has come to play instead of the original contracting band. On inquiry, you learn that the original band transferred its duties to perform to a lesser-known band. Can it do that?
Contract elements—the terms of the contract—are important. They may, among other things, foreclose your ability to bring a complaint in court, they may render you unable to be hired in your profession (at least within certain boundaries), or they may limit liability to a party that had a role in causing injury to you. If you are not aware of these elements, then you may face an unpleasant surprise if you act in a way contrary to the restrictions imposed by those terms. Likewise, contracts possess certain qualities that prohibit parties from acting in certain ways, unless those qualities are expressly waived. This section identifies common properties of contracts, as well as commonly used elements of contracts. If you are negotiating a contract and you do not like a term, then you should not agree to it. In law, there is a presumption that you have read, understood, and agreed to each and every term of any contract to which you are a party. Arguing that you did not understand or that you did not approve of a particular term in the contract will not be a valid excuse to performance. You should know what you can expect when you enter into a contract. Are you getting the band that you wanted to hire to play in your nightclub, or are you really getting any band that the original band happens to transfer its duties to?
As a preliminary matter, it is important to realize that contracts are, by law, assignable and delegable. This means that the rights conveyed by the contract may be transferred to another party by assignment, unless an express restriction on assignment exists within the contract, or unless an assignment would violate public policy. Likewise, the duties imposed on a party may be transferred to another party by delegation, unless the contract expressly restricts delegation, or there is a substantial interest in personal performance by the original party to the contract, or if delegation would violate public policy. In the case of a band hired to perform at a nightclub, an argument could be made that the original band cannot delegate its duties under the contract because there was a substantial interest in personal performance by the original band. This would render the contract nondelegable. To be on the safe side, your contract with that band should have had a clause expressly prohibiting delegation.
Many students have seen restrictions on assignment in the form of no-sublease clauses in leases with landlords. Do you have a no-sublease clause in your lease? If so, that is a restriction on assignment. This clause is necessary to prevent you from assigning your rights under the lease—your rights to inhabit the premises—to another party. It is necessary for the landlord to include that provision expressly if she wishes to prevent you from subleasing the unit, because there is a presumption in law that assignment is permitted unless it is expressly prohibited by the contract or unless the assignment would violate public policy. Since it is unlikely that letting someone else live in your housing unit in your absence would violate public policy, then the landlord must expressly prohibit the assignment within the original contract if she wishes to prevent tenants from subleasing. A landlord may have a very good reason to wish to prevent subleasing; she may wish to ensure that each tenant is creditworthy prior to allowing the tenant to live in the property.
Note that in delegation and in assignment, the original contracting party is not “off the hook” if it transfers its duties or rights to another party. For instance, if subleasing was not prohibited, and the new tenant assumed the rights and duties imposed by the original contract, the original party to the contract is still liable for the payment of rent. If the subleasing tenant does not pay the rent, the original party to the lease is still liable. The way to excuse oneself from this liability is to form a three-way novation with the original party and the new party, thereby excusing the exiting party from future liability arising under the contract. A novation is essentially a new contract that transfers all rights and duties to the new party to the contract and releases the previous party from any further obligation arising from the original contract.
Restrictions on assignment or delegation are not the only common elements that can be found in contracts. For example, you have probably encountered exculpatory clauses. An exculpatory clause is an express limitation on potential or actual liability arising under the subject matter of the contract. In short, exculpatory clauses are often employed when risk of injury exists. They seek to limit one party’s liability to another. You most certainly have signed exculpatory agreements or contracts containing exculpatory clauses if you have participated in any potentially dangerous activity at a club or with an organized group that could incur liability from injuries suffered by its patrons or members. For example, if you join a kayaking club, you will most likely be asked to sign such an agreement to “hold harmless” the club in the event of any accident or injury. However, despite the existence of an exculpatory clause, liability will not be limited (that is, the liability limitations will be unenforceable) when the party who would benefit from the limitation on liability acted with gross negligence, committed an intentional tort, or possessed greatly unequal bargaining power, or if the limitation on liability violates public policy. Imagine that you signed an agreement to engage in kayaking activities with a kayaking group, but the leader of the group battered you with her oar because she was angry with you for mishandling your kayak. Since battery is an intentional tort, the exculpatory clause will not protect the kayaking organization from liability it incurred through the actions of its employee.
Another common contract element that you may have encountered is a noncompete clause. A noncompete clause attempts to restrict competition for a specified period of time, within a certain geographic region, and for specified activities. Noncomplete clauses are generally valid against the party who signed it if the time, place, and scope are reasonable. These are very common clauses in employment contracts, particularly where the duties involved in employment are likely to involve trade secrets or other proprietary information that the company wishes to protect.
A mandatory arbitration clause is very common in consumer contracts and employment contracts. You have certainly subjected yourself to the restrictions imposed by these clauses if you have signed a contract for a credit card. Mandatory arbitration clauses require parties to a contract that contains such a clause to submit to mandatory arbitration in the event of a dispute arising under the contract. Mandatory arbitration clauses frequently foreclose any possibility of appealing arbitration awards in court.
An acceleration clause commonly exists in contracts where periodic payments are contemplated by the agreement. For example, if you signed a lease for your housing unit, then you most likely pay rent on a month-to-month basis. If you breached your lease, you would still owe rent for each subsequent month contemplated by the lease agreement. This means that your landlord would have new injury every month that you did not pay. An acceleration clause accelerates all payments due under the contract on breach. This allows the injured party—in this case, the landlord—to sue for all damages due for unpaid rent under that contract at once, rather than having to bring a new suit each month to seek monthly unpaid rent.
A liquidated damages clause allows parties to set the amount of damages in the event of breach. Agreeing to a damage amount before any breach occurs can save money and time spent litigating. Providing that the liquidated damages clause does not look like a penalty, the clause will be valid and enforced by a court that hears a dispute arising under the contract. For example, imagine that you entered into a contract for the sale of your car. If the liquidated damages clause provided for two thousand dollars of damages in the event of breach, that will probably be a valid liquidated damages clause, providing that your car is an “average” car. However, if the liquidated damages clause provided for one million dollars of damages payable by the breaching party, then that would not be enforceable by the court because it looks like a penalty. The proposed liquidated damages far exceed the value of the car that is the subject of the agreement.
Of course, there are additional common elements to contracts. This is not an exhaustive study of possible provisions, though it is a list of commonly encountered elements. For example, time of performance is often included as a separate provision. However, time for performance is an essential element in common-law contract formation, and without it, the contract may fail due to lack of definite and certain terms in formation.
A major assumption made about a written contract is that it is integrated, which means that it contains the entire expression of the parties’ agreement. That means that any statements made before the parties signed the contract are not part of the contract, unless those statements are memorialized in the contract itself. In fact, any statements or actions that are not captured within the four corners of the contract are considered parol evidence, and they will not be used to interpret the meaning of the contract.
Parties to contracts must not only take care to form the agreement so that it is legally enforceable, but they must also be aware of the properties of contracts in general, as well as specific provisions contained within contracts to which they are a party. Properties of contracts include ability to assign, delegate, and exclude parol evidence. Several types of contracts clauses are commonly used to restrict rights and limit liability.
- Think of an example of an exculpatory clause that you have signed. For what type of activity would you be unwilling to sign an exculpatory clause? If your refusal to sign the exculpatory clause or agreement prevented you from participating in that activity, would you still refuse to sign it?
- Do you think that too many limitations and restrictions can be placed on parties in a contract? Should there be more government regulation and standardization of contract terms between private parties? Why or why not?