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.
1. Hornbuckle purchased equipment from Continental Gin (CG) for $6,300. However, after some of the equipment proved defective, Hornbuckle sent CG a check for $4,000 marked “by endorsement this check is accepted in full payment,” and CG endorsed and deposited the check. May CG force Hornbuckle to pay the remaining $2,300? Why?
2. Joseph Hoffman alleged that Red Owl Stores promised him that it would build a store building in Chilton, Wisconsin, and stock it with merchandise for Hoffman to operate in return for Hoffman’s investment of $18,000. The size, cost, design, and layout of the store building was not discussed, nor were the terms of the lease as to rent, maintenance, and purchase options. Nevertheless, in reliance on Red Owl’s promise, the Hoffmans sold their bakery and grocery store business, purchased the building site in Chilton, and rented a residence there for the family. The deal was never consummated: a dispute arose, Red Owl did not build the store, and it denied liability to Hoffman on the basis that its promise to him was too indefinite with respect to all details for a contract to have resulted. Is Hoffman entitled to some relief? On what theory?
3. Raquel contracted to deliver one hundred widgets to Sam on December 15, for which he would pay $4,000. On November 25, Sam called her and asked if she could deliver the widgets on December 5. Raquel said she could, and she promised delivery on that day. Is her promise binding? Why?
4. Richard promised to have Darlene’s deck awning constructed by July 10. On June 20, Darlene called him and asked if he could get the job done by July 3, in time for Independence Day. Richard said he could, but he failed to do so, and Darlene had to rent two canopies at some expense. Darlene claims that because Richard breached his promise, he is liable for the cost of awning rental. Is she correct—was his promise binding? Why?
5. Seller agreed to deliver gasoline to Buyer at $3.15 per gallon over a period of one year. By the sixth month, gasoline had increased in price over a dollar a gallon. Although Seller had gasoline available for sale, he told Buyer the price would have to increase by that much or he would be unable to deliver. Buyer agreed to the increase, but when billed, refused to pay the additional amount. Is Buyer bound by the promise? Explain.
6. Montbanks’s son, Charles, was seeking an account executive position with Dobbs, Smith & Fogarty, Inc., a large brokerage firm. Charles was independent and wished no interference by his well-known father. The firm, after several weeks’ deliberation, decided to hire Charles. They made him an offer on April 12, 2010, and Charles accepted. Montbanks, unaware that his son had been hired and concerned that he might not be, mailed a letter to Dobbs on April 13 in which he promised to give the brokerage firm $150,000 in commission business if the firm would hire his son. The letter was received by Dobbs, and the firm wishes to enforce it against Montbanks. May Dobbs enforce the promise? Why?
7. In 1869, William E. Story promised his nephew, William E. Story II (then sixteen years old), $5,000 (about $120,000 in today’s money) if “Willie” would abstain from drinking alcohol, smoking, swearing, and playing cards or billiards for money until the nephew reached twenty-one years of age. All of these were legally permissible activities for the teenager at that time in New York State. Willie accepted his uncle’s promise and did refrain from the prohibited acts until he turned twenty-one. When the young man asked for the money, his uncle wrote to him that he would honor the promise but would rather wait until Willie was older before delivering the money, interest added on. Willie agreed. Subsequently, Willie assigned the right to receive the money to one Hamer (Willie wanted the money sooner), and Story I died without making any payment. The estate, administered by Franklin Sidway, refused to pay, asserting there was no binding contract due to lack of consideration: the boy suffered no “detriment,” and the uncle got no benefit. The trial court agreed with the estate, and the plaintiff appealed. Should the court on appeal affirm or reverse? Explain.
8. Harold Pearsall and Joe Alexander were friends for over twenty-five years. About twice a week, they bought what they called a package: a half-pint of vodka, orange juice, two cups, and two lottery tickets. They went to Alexander’s house to watch TV, drink screwdrivers, and scratch the lottery tickets. The two had been sharing tickets and screwdrivers since the Washington, DC, lottery began. On the evening in issue, Pearsall bought the package and asked Alexander, “Are you in on it?” Alexander said yes. Pearsall asked for his half of the purchase price, but Alexander had no money. A few hours later, Alexander, having come by some funds of his own, bought another package. He handed one ticket to Pearsall, and they both scratched the tickets; Alexander’s was a $20,000 winner. When Pearsall asked for his share, Alexander refused to give him anything. Are the necessary elements of offer, acceptance, and consideration present here so as to support Pearsall’s assertion the parties had a contract?
9. Defendant, Lee Taylor, had assaulted his wife, who took refuge in the house of Plaintiff, Harrington. The next day, Taylor gained access to the house and began another assault upon his wife. Mrs. Taylor knocked him down with an axe and was on the point of cutting his head open or decapitating him while he was lying on the floor when Plaintiff intervened and caught the axe as it was descending. The blow intended for Defendant fell upon Harrington’s hand, mutilating it badly, but saving Defendant’s life. Subsequently, Defendant orally promised to pay Plaintiff her damages but, after paying a small sum, failed to pay anything more. Is Harrington entitled to enforce Taylor’s entire promise?
10. White Sands Forest Products (Defendant) purchased logging equipment from Clark Corporation (Plaintiff) under an installment contract that gave Plaintiff the right to repossess and resell the equipment if Defendant defaulted on the contract. Defendant did default and agreed to deliver the equipment to Plaintiff if Plaintiff would then discharge Defendant from further obligation. Plaintiff accepted delivery and resold the equipment, but the sale left a deficiency (there was still money owing by Defendant). Plaintiff then sued for the deficiency, and Defendant set up as a defense the accord and satisfaction. Is the defense good?
a. can consist of a written acknowledgment of some benefit received, even if in fact the benefit is not delivered
b. cannot be nominal in amount
c. is a bargained-for act, forbearance, or promise from the promisee
d. is all of the above
2. An example of valid consideration is a promise
a. by a seventeen-year-old to refrain from drinking alcohol
b. to refrain from going to court
c. to cook dinner if the promisor can get around to it
d. to repay a friend for the four years of free legal advice he had provided
3. An unliquidated debt is a debt
a. one is not able to pay
b. not yet paid
c. of uncertain amount
d. that is unenforceable debt
4. The rule that if one party to a contract has not made a binding obligation, the other party is not bound is called
b. mutuality of obligation
c. accord and satisfaction
5. Examples of promises enforceable without consideration include
a. an agreement modifying a sales contract
b. a promise to pay a debt after the statute of limitations has run
c. a debtor’s promise to repay a debt that has been discharged in bankruptcy
d. all of the above