In general, illegal contracts are unenforceable. The courts must grapple with two types of illegalities: (1) statutory violations and (2) violations of public policy not expressly declared unlawful by statute. The former include gambling contracts, contracts with unlicensed professionals, and Sunday contracts.
Contracts that violate public policy include many types of covenants not to compete. No general rule for determining their legality can be given, except to say that the more rigid their restrictions against working or competing, the less likely they will withstand judicial scrutiny. Other types of agreements that may violate public policy and hence are unenforceable include provisions that waive tort liability and contracts that interfere with family relationships.
The exceptions to the rule that illegal agreements will not be enforced and that courts leave the parties where they are generally involve situations where the hands-off approach would lead to an unfair result: where the parties are not equally at fault, where one is excusably ignorant or withdraws before performance, or where one is protected by a statute. A court may sometimes divide a contract, enforcing the legal part and not the illegal part.
1. Henrioulle was an unemployed widower with two children who received public assistance from the Marin County (California) Department of Social Services. There was a shortage of housing for low-income residents in Marin County. He entered into a lease agreement on a printed form by which the landlord disclaimed any liability for any injury sustained by the tenants anywhere on the property. Henrioulle fractured his wrist when he tripped on a rock on the common stairs in the apartment building. The landlord had been having a hard time keeping the area clean. Is the disclaimer valid? Explain.
2. Albert Bennett, an amateur cyclist, entered a bicycle race sponsored by the United States Cycling Federation. He signed a release exculpating the federation for liability: “I further understand that serious accidents occasionally occur during bicycle racing and that participants in bicycle racing occasionally sustain mortal or serious personal injuries, and/or property damage, as a consequence thereof. Knowing the risks of bicycle racing, nevertheless I hereby agree to assume those risks and to release and hold harmless all the persons or entities mentioned above who (through negligence or carelessness) might otherwise be liable to me (or my heirs or assigns) for damages.”
During the race, Bennett was hit by an automobile that had been allowed on the otherwise blocked-off street by agents of the defendant. Bennett sued; the trial court dismissed the case on summary judgment. Bennett appealed. What was the decision on appeal?
3. Ramses owned an industrial supply business. He contracted to sell the business to Tut. Clause VI of their Agreement of Sale provided as follows: “In further consideration for the purchase, Ramses agrees that he shall not compete, either directly or indirectly, in the same business as is conducted by the corporation in its established territory.”
Two months after the sale, Ramses opened a competing business across the street from the business now owned by Tut, who brought suit, asking the court to close Ramses’s business on the basis of Clause VI. What should the court decide? Why?
4. After taking a business law class at State U, Elke entered into a contract to sell her business law book to a classmate, Matthew, for $45. As part of the same contract, she agreed to prepare a will for Matthew’s mother for an additional $110. Elke prepared the will and sent the book to Matthew, but he refused to pay her. Is she entitled to any payment? Explain.
5. Elmo, a door-to-door salesman, entered into a contract to sell the Wilson family $320 worth of household products on credit. The Wilsons later learned that Elmo had failed to purchase a city license to make door-to-door sales and refused to pay him. May Elmo collect from the Wilsons? Why?
6. Gardner purchased from Singer a sewing machine ($700) and three vacuums (about $250 each), one after the other, on Singer’s “1 to 36 month plan.” Gardner defaulted after paying a total of $400 on account, and Singer sued to repossess all the purchases. Gardner defended by claiming the purchase plan was unconscionable and pointed to the Williams case (Section 12.5.3 "Unconscionability") as controlling law (that cross-collateral contracts are unconscionable). The trial court ruled for Gardner; Singer appealed. What was the result on appeal?
7. Blubaugh leased a large farm combine from John Deere Leasing by signing an agreement printed on very lightweight paper. The back side of the form was “written in such fine, light print as to be nearly illegible.…The court was required to use a magnifying glass.” And the wording was “unreasonably complex,” but it contained terms much in John Deere’s favor. When Blubaugh defaulted, John Deere repossessed the combine, sold it for more than he had paid, and sued him for additional sums in accordance with the default clauses on the back side of the lease. Blubaugh defended by asserting the clauses were unconscionable. Is this a case of procedural, substantive, or no unconscionability? Decide.
8. Sara Hohe, a fifteen-year-old junior at Mission Bay High School in San Diego, was injured during a campus hypnotism show sponsored by the PTSA as a fund-raiser for the senior class. Hypnotism shows had been held annually since 1980, and Sara had seen the previous year’s show. She was selected at random from a group of many volunteers. Her participation in the “Magic of the Mind Show” was conditioned on signing two release forms. Hohe’s father signed a form entitled “Mission Bay High School PTSA Presents Dr. Karl Santo.” Hohe and her father both signed a form titled “Karl Santo Hypnotist,” releasing Santo and the school district from all liability. During the course of the show, while apparently hypnotized, Hohe slid from her chair and also fell to the floor about six times and was injured. She, through her father, then sued the school district. The Hohes claimed the release was contrary to public policy; the trial court dismissed the suit on summary judgment. Was the release contrary to public policy? Decide.
9. In 1963 the Southern Railway Company was disturbed by an order issued by the Interstate Commerce Commission, a federal agency, which would adversely affect the firm’s profit by some $13 million [about $90 million in 2011 dollars]. Southern hired a lawyer, Robert Troutman, who was a friend of President John F. Kennedy, to lobby the president that the latter might convince the attorney general, Robert Kennedy, to back Southern’s position in a lawsuit against the ICC. It worked; Southern won. Southern then refused to pay Troutman’s bill in the amount of $200,000 [about $14 million in 2011 dollars] and moved for summary judgment dismissing Troutman’s claim, asserting—among other things—that contracts whereby one person is hired to use his influence with a public official are illegal bargains. Should summary judgment issue? Decide.
10. Buyer, representing himself to be experienced in timber negotiations, contracted to buy the timber on Seller’s land. The first $11,500 would go to Buyer, the next $2,000 would go to Seller, and the rest would be divided fifty-fifty after costs of removal of the timber. Buyer said the timber would be worth $18,000–$20,000. When Seller discovered the timber was in fact worth more than $50,000, he sued, claiming the contract was unconscionable. How should the court rule?
1. Gambling contracts are
a. always unenforceable
b. enforceable if written
c. in effect enforceable in certain situations involving the sale of securities
d. always enforceable when made with insurance companies
2. In State X, plumbers must purchase a license but do not have to pass an examination. This is an example of
a. a regulatory license
b. a revenue license
c. both a and b
d. neither a nor b
3. A contract to pay a lobbyist to influence a public official is generally illegal.
4. Exculpatory clauses are sometimes enforceable when they relieve someone from liability for
a. an intentional act
d. all of the above
5. An employee’s promise not to compete with the employer after leaving the company
a. is never enforceable because it restrains trade
b. is always enforceable if in writing
c. is always enforceable
d. is enforceable if related to the employer’s property interests