Breach of Contract


As mentioned previously, when the promises in a contract have been fulfilled based on the appropriate standard—substantial performance, strict performance, or personal satisfaction—then the parties are discharged. However, when a material breach occurs, the injured party may bring a claim for damages. But that isn’t necessarily the end of the story. The breaching party may have a valid reason for breaching the contract. These valid reasons are known as defenses to contract. These defenses include formation problems, lack of capacity, illegality of subject matter, impossibility, duress, unconscionability, undue influence, violation of the Statute of Frauds requirement that certain types of contracts must be in writing to be enforceable against the defendant, exceeding the statute of limitations, mistake, misrepresentation, fraud, commercial impracticability, and frustration of purpose. Bankruptcy discharge is a permanent legal excuse from performance, and it will discharge obligations that are dischargeable by law if the debtor successful fulfills his obligations under the bankruptcy. Obligations that are not dischargeable by law will not be permanently discharged by a bankruptcy. However, during the bankruptcy, the performance of contract terms requiring payment of debt incurred prior to filing the bankruptcy petition is suspended by the court until the bankruptcy is terminated either by successful completion of the bankruptcy or by dismissal of the case.

Defenses for Breach of Contract

Formation problems in common-law contracts relate to whether the offer, acceptance, and consideration were valid. For example, if the offer did not contain the essential terms in definite and certain form, then that offer will not be valid. If I offered to sell you my house for a fair price, it would not be a sufficient offer because the price term is an essential element, and in this offer it is vague. To say that a house will be sold “for a fair price” is not specific. Likewise, in a common-law contract, if the acceptance is not a mirror image of the offer, then the acceptance will not be valid. Similarly, if consideration does not firmly commit the parties to the deal, then consideration will fail, as is the case with an illusory promise. For example, if I offered to sell you my house for $150,000, and you agreed to buy it “if you like it,” then that is not a firm commitment. Consideration will fail, and the contract has not formed. As a practical matter, how can this defense be used? The defendant simply needs to show that the contract was never formed in the first place, due to one or more deficiencies in formation. Keep in mind, however, that if the Uniform Commercial Code (UCC) is the relevant type of law, formation is much simpler than in common law. For example, all essential elements do not need to be stated in definite and certain terms (but quantity must be stated), and acceptance does not need to be a mirror image of the offer. Accordingly, in contracts in which the UCC is the relevant type of law, this defense can be more challenging to successfully mount.

Sometimes when all elements of the contract are not present, the court will enforce the promise through an equitable remedy to avoid a perceived injustice that would occur if the contract failed based on a formation defect. Quasi-contract and promissory estoppel are two types of equitable remedies that a court may impose. When detrimental reliance is found, an equitable remedy can substitute for consideration. This allows the court to enforce the terms of the “contract,” even though, technically speaking, there was no contract to begin with.

Quasi-contract is determined when one party will receive a benefit from the other unjustly (unjust enrichment), and the party who tendered the benefit reasonably expected to be paid for it. The party who received the benefit knew that the other party reasonably expected to be paid. For example, imagine that your neighbor hired painters to paint his house, but the painters accidentally appeared at your house to work. Instead of sending them away, you decided to let them paint your house, but you did not tell them that they were at the wrong house. At the end of the job, they demanded payment. You point out that they never had a contract with you. While this would be true in fact, the issue is that you would be unjustly enriched by their painting of your house if you were not made to pay. Additionally, you knew that the painters would reasonably expect to be paid for their services, and you did nothing to stop them. This would be a good case for a court to impose the equitable remedy of quasi-contract. The damages awarded in such case are called quantum meruit, which means “as much as is deserved.” The painters will receive the value of their services in damages. Compare this situation with one in which you were on vacation when the painters painted your house. You knew nothing of their presence. In such a case, quasi-contract would not be imposed as an equitable remedy because you were not aware of their presence. In fact, you would have a potential claim against the painters for interfering with your property and entering your land without your permission. Promissory estoppel is another equitable remedy. It is imposed on parties when one party detrimentally relied on another’s promise, and to avoid injustice, the enforcement of the promise is required. Like quasi-contract, when promissory estoppel is used, there is some formation problem with the contract so, technically speaking, no contract exists.

The remaining defenses discussed in this chapter are relevant if the contract is valid. That is, there are no formation problems. For example, if a party lacks capacity to enter into a binding contract, that can be used as a defense. When people lack the mental ability to understand, they lack capacity. Sometimes, it may seem that someone understands, even though he or she might actually lack legal capacity. This is the case with minors. Though some may certainly understand the terms of a contract, they lack the legal capacity to be bound to it. That means that they can disaffirm the contract if they wish. Likewise, someone who suffers from a temporary or permanent cognitive defect lacks capacity to be bound to a contract. This may be the case with an infant, a person who suffers from dementia, or a person who has other profound cognitive or mental impairment. Use of alcohol or drugs may impair capacity, but the courts are reluctant to find this as a convincing defense, particularly if the person voluntarily imbibed in the alcohol or drug use themselves. If they were involuntarily drugged, however, then lack of capacity can be a good defense. If someone does not read or speak the language in which the contract is written, that can also indicate a lack of capacity.

If the subject matter of a contract or the terms of the contract are illegal, then the contract may be void at the outset, or it may become void if the subject matter or the terms of the contract become illegal after the contract is formed. The former case can be illustrated by imagining a contract for the production of illegal drugs. A defense to performance is that the contract itself concerns an illegal subject matter. A court will not step in to such a contract to enforce its promises.

The latter case of illegality of the terms of the contract is an example of impossibility as a defense. Impossibility is a defense that can be used when performing the contract has become truly impossible. For example, if you entered into a contract to do business in a country that was subsequently placed on a no-trade list by the federal government, then you would be excused from performing your obligations under that contract, because it would violate federal law for you to perform as promised. It would be impossible, and impossibility would be a valid defense. Sometimes impossibility does not involve the legality of the subject matter or the terms of the contract. Instead, it might simply be a matter of the destruction of the subject matter of the contract. In our scooter example, imagine that before the transaction was completed, the scooter was crushed by the trash collector by accident. The subject matter of the contract was destroyed, and so it would be impossible for the offeror to perform. The offeror would not need to find another scooter to sell to fulfill the obligations under the contract. Instead, he or she would use the defense of impossibility.

Another defense to contract performance is duress. If a party suffers from duress when entering the contract, that party will have a valid defense. Duress means that the party had no other reasonable alternative but to enter into the contract. The party was coerced into entering into the agreement. For example, imagine that you entered into a contract for automobile insurance. Part of your insurance contract requires your insurance company to defend you in the event of a lawsuit arising from a traffic accident. Imagine that you are involved in a traffic accident and your insurance company refuses to defend you. This is bad news, because you will still need to mount a defense. You will probably expend a great deal of money defending yourself, not to mention trying to launch a complaint against your insurance company for breach of contract. After spending all of your savings and borrowing just to pay your bills, imagine that your insurance company comes to you with an offer to pay you fifty thousand dollars if you sign a waiver that it has no liability to you. You will probably sign that waiver and take the money. Why? Because you have no reasonable alternative. This is an example of economic duress, and it is likely that no court would enforce the waiver for the benefit of the insurance company given such facts. The insurance company forced you into signing an agreement with it that you would not have signed if you had any other reasonable alternative.

Unconscionability is a defense used when the contract contains markedly unfair terms against the party with less bargaining power or sophistication than the party who created the terms and induced the other party to sign it. For example, imagine a biotech company discovering a cure for cancer from a plant growing on the private lands of an indigenous people. Imagine that the indigenous people did not understand the importance of the discovery, and they did not understand the value of it. If the biotech company offered to pay for the absolute and complete rights to the plant with ten dollars and a bag of flour, that contract might be said to be unconscionable.

Undue influence is a defense that can be used when one party ceases to be able to exercise his or her free will due to the superior power and influence exerted over that party by the other. For example, imagine an elderly person who is completely isolated from social contact due to poor health and remote living conditions. That person might be quite lonely and eager for company. Say that an unscrupulous person entered that elderly person’s life and exerted influence over that person so that the elderly person really could not exercise his free will any longer. If, consequently, the elderly person entered into a contract with the other party to transfer all of his wealth to that person, we might say that this is a case of undue influence. How might this happen? Maybe the unscrupulous intruder is the only human contact that the elderly person has, and maybe he or she led the wealthy elderly person to believe that the only way to salvation is by handing over his assets.

Remember, too, that the Statute of Frauds requires certain contracts to be in writing and signed by the defendant to be enforceable against the defendant. If those types of contracts are not in writing, that can be used as a defense to performance. Contracts for any interest in land, in consideration of marriage, and to pay the debts of another that cannot be performed within one year and contracts for the sale of goods with a price of five hundred dollars or more are all examples of contracts that are required to be in writing to be enforceable according to the Statute of Frauds. If a contract exists for these items, but the contract is not in writing, it may be performed. However, if there is a dispute arising under the contract, it will not be enforced because it violates the Statute of Frauds requirement for a writing.

The statute of limitations is an affirmative defense that can be raised by a defendant to argue that the complaint is being brought too late, by law, to do anything about it. This means that if a dispute arises under a contract, then the plaintiff must bring a complaint concerning that dispute within a certain time period. Every state has different statutes of limitations for different types of disputes. Contracts statutes of limitations range from three to ten years, depending on whether the contract was oral or written, and depending on the jurisdiction.

Mistake is rarely a successful defense to contract, but it is a defense nonetheless. Mistake does not mean bad bargaining. After all, we have the freedom to bargain badly, and the courts will not step in to save us if we do so. For instance, if you agree to buy a house for $170,000, but the house is only worth $150,000, you may have bargained badly, particularly if the seller did not deceive you in any way. The court will not step in to rewrite the contract or allow you to use mistake as a defense to excuse your performance. Indeed, the court will enforce the terms of the contract if it is a valid contract. Mistake refers to something that is truly a mistake either by one party or by both. If the parties to a contract truly make a mistake with respect to essential terms of the contract, then that can be used as a defense to performance.

Misrepresentation and fraud are also defenses to contract. Misrepresentation is when a party makes a false statement that induces the other party to enter into the contract. Fraud is a closely related concept, and it simply means that one party has used deception to acquire money or property. Often, unscrupulous salespeople will commit fraud or misrepresent the subject matter of the contract in such a way that the other party will enter into the contract. However, fraud and misrepresentation both may be used as successful defenses in such circumstances.

Commercial impracticability is a defense that can be used when fulfilling a contract has become extraordinarily difficult or unfair for one party.

Frustration of purpose is when the contract has become essentially worthless to one party, though the event giving rise to that state was nonexistent or unknown to both parties to the contract at formation.

Finally, sometimes a party to a contract files for bankruptcy protection. When that party is required to pay a debt that was incurred before the bankruptcy was filed, that duty is suspended temporarily or permanently when the bankruptcy is filed through the court’s automatic stay. In other words, the debt does not have to be paid during the course of the bankruptcy. At the conclusion of the bankruptcy, if the debtor is successful in bankruptcy and if the contract obligation is a dischargeable debt, then the debt will never have to be paid. The debt is, in fact, discharged. Bankruptcy is a defense to performance of contract for debtors who file for bankruptcy protection.

Remedies for breach of contract are typically monetary damages. Expectation damages, including compensatory and consequential damages, can be recovered. However, consequential damages may not be speculative. Indeed, they must be foreseeable to both parties at the time of the contract formation to constitute damages by breach. Specific performance might be required under certain types of contracts, such as in contracts for land. For example, in contracts for real property, the assumption is that land is unique. Therefore, monetary damages are not adequate, because “replacement” land cannot be found that would be like the land that is the subject of the contract. Importantly, specific performance is not an appropriate remedy for service contracts, given the prohibition against involuntary servitude in the Thirteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. Finally, it is important to note that on breach, the injured party has a duty to mitigate his damages. This means that he must avoid damages by making reasonable efforts to do so. If a tenant breaches a contract by moving out of his apartment before the lease is over, the landlord will be able to recover damages from that tenant for breaking the lease (i.e., breaching the contract). However, the landlord also has a duty to mitigate those damages by trying to find another tenant.

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