In an economic system mostly governed by contract, parties may not only make the kinds of deals they wish but may make them in any form they wish—with some significant exceptions. The most significant issue of form in contract law is whether the contract must be written or may be oral and still be enforceable. The question can be answered by paying close attention to the Statute of Frauds and court decisions interpreting it. In general, as we have seen, the following types of contracts must be in writing: interests in real property, promises to pay the debt of another, certain agreements of executors and administrators, performances that cannot be completed within one year, sale of goods for $500 or more, and sale of securities. There are exceptions to all these rules.
Another significant rule that permeates contract law is the parol evidence rule: prior statements, agreements, or promises, whether oral or written, made during the negotiation process are often discharged by a subsequent written agreement. No matter what you were promised before you signed on the dotted line, you are stuck if you sign an integrated agreement without the promise. Again, of course, exceptions lie in wait for the unwary: Is the agreement only partially integrated? Are there grounds to invalidate the entire agreement? Is the contract subject to an oral condition? Is a fact recited in the contract untrue?
Contracts are not always clear and straightforward. Often they are murky and ambiguous. Interpreting them when the parties disagree is for the courts. To aid them in the task, the courts over the years have developed a series of guidelines such as these: Does the agreement have a plain meaning on its face? If there is an ambiguity, against whom should it be construed? Are there usages of trade or courses of dealing or performance that would help explain the terms?
- Plaintiff’s and Defendant’s cars crashed. Plaintiff hired an attorney, who negotiated with Defendant’s insurance adjuster. Plaintiff’s attorney claimed he and the adjuster reached an oral settlement, but the insurance company refused to honor it and filed for summary judgment, raising the Statute of Frauds’ suretyship provision as a defense: a promise by one person (the insurance company here) to pay the debts of another (the insured) must be evidenced by some writing, and there was no writing. Is the defense good? Explain.
- Plaintiff Irma Kozlowski cohabited with Defendant Thaddeus Kozlowski for fifteen years without marriage. She repeatedly asked him specifically about her financial situation should he predecease her, and he assured her—she said—that he would arrange to provide for her for the rest of her life. She had provided the necessary household services and emotional support to permit him to successfully pursue his business career; she had performed housekeeping, cleaning, and shopping services and had run the household and raised the children, her own as well as his. When they separated and she was “literally forced out of the house,” she was sixty-three years old and had no means or wherewithal for survival. When she sued, he raised the Statute of Frauds’ one-year rule as a defense. Is the defense good? 1
- Carlson purchased a parcel of real estate that was landlocked. Carlson called his neighbor, Peterson, and asked if he could use an abandoned drive on Peterson’s property to travel to his (Carlson’s) property from the highway. Peterson said, “Sure, anytime.” Later the two became engaged in a dispute, and Peterson blocked the drive. May Carlson enforce Peterson’s promise that he could use the drive “anytime”? Why?
- Silverman, who was elderly and somewhat disabled, lived alone on a farm. Silverman called Burch and said, “Burch, if you will move in with me and help me take care of the farm, it will be yours when I die.” Burch did as Silverman requested and on Silverman’s death two years later, claimed the farm on the basis of their oral agreement, but the estate resisted. Is Burch entitled to the farm? Why?
- On February 12, Sally was hired to manage a company for a period of one year. She reported for work on February 26 but was fired two weeks later. She sued the owner of the company for breach of their one-year oral contract. May she recover? Why?
- Baker entered into an oral contract to sell her car to Clyde for $8,600. She delivered the car to Clyde; Clyde inspected it, found no problems, kept it for three days, but then refused to pay and now wants to return the car. Is the contract enforceable? Why?
- Wayne, a building contractor, built a new house and offered it for sale. A young couple accepted the offer, and the parties entered into an oral agreement covering all the terms of sale. The couple later tried to back out of the agreement. Wayne filed suit, and during the trial, the couple admitted making the contract. Is the contract enforceable? Why?
- Plaintiff leased commercial space from Defendant for a florist shop. After the lease was signed, Plaintiff learned that the county code allowed only one freestanding sign on the property, and one was already up, advertising Defendant’s business. Plaintiff claimed Defendant breached the lease by not providing them space for a sign; Defendant pointed to the lease, paragraph 16 of which provided that “Tenant shall not erect or install any sign…without written consent of the Landlord.” But Plaintiff claimed Defendant said during negotiations he could have a sign, evidence Defendant objected to based on the parol evidence rule. Defendant admitted that during negotiations he told Plaintiff that despite paragraph 16, he could have a sign (but not freestanding); that despite language in the lease requiring renovation plans to be in writing, they did not have to be. Defendant also testified that the written form lease he used was not drafted specifically for this property, and that although the lease required attachments of exhibits, there were no attachments. Is Plaintiff barred by the parol evidence rule from showing that Defendant said he could have a freestanding sign?
- On March 1, 2010, Milton talked to Harriet and, as Harriet claimed, said, “I will hire you as sales manager for one year at a salary of $57,000. You start next Monday, March 8.” Harriet agreed. Four months later Milton discharged Harriet and she sued, claiming breach of employment contract. Is the alleged contract enforceable?
- Al Booth’s Inc. sued Boyd-Scarp (a contractor) and James Rathmann for nonpayment following delivery of various appliances to Rathmann’s new home being built by Boyd-Scarp. Booth’s was aware that Boyd-Scarp was having financial problems and allegedly contacted Rathmann prior to delivery, asking him to guarantee payment. Evidence was adduced that Rathmann orally promised to pay in the event the builder did not and that the goods were then delivered. Rathmann denied any such promise, raising the Statute of Frauds, and Al Booth’s sued. Will Al Booth’s prevail?
1. As a general rule
a. contracts do not have to be in writing to be enforceable
b. contracts that can be performed in one year must be in writing
c. all oral contracts are unenforceable
d. a suretyship agreement need not be in writing to be enforceable
2. An exception to the UCC Statute of Frauds provision is
a. the one-year rule
b. the reply doctrine
c. executor agreements
d. all of the above
3. Rules that require certain contracts to be in writing are found in
a. state statutory law
b. the UCC
c. the Statute of Frauds
d. all of the above
4. The parol evidence rule
a. applies only when contracts must be in writing
b. does not apply to real estate contracts
c. states that a written contract discharges all prior or contemporaneous promises that add to, vary, or conflict with it
d. is designed to hold parties to promises they made during negotiations
5. A merger clause
a. is required when goods are sold for $500 or more
b. is used when two parcels of real estate are sold in the same contract
c. invalidates a contract for the sale of securities
d. evidences an intention that the written contract is the parties’ full understanding