When a promisor announces before the time his performance is due that he will not perform, he is said to have committed ananticipatory breach (or repudiation). Of course a person cannot fail to perform a duty before performance is due, but the law allows the promisee to treat the situation as a material breach that gives rise to a claim for damages and discharges the obligee from performing duties required of him under the contract. The common-law rule was first recognized in the well-known 1853 British case Hochster v. De La Tour. In April, De La Tour hired Hochster as his courier, the job to commence in June. In May, De La Tour changed his mind and told Hochster not to bother to report for duty. Before June, Hochster secured an appointment as courier to Lord Ashburton, but that job was not to begin until July. Also in May, Hochster sued De La Tour, who argued that he should not have to pay Hochster because Hochster had not stood ready and willing to begin work in June, having already agreed to work for Lord Ashburton. The court ruled for the plaintiff Hochster:
[I]t is surely much more rational, and more for the benefit of both parties, that, after the renunciation of the agreement by the defendant, the plaintiff should be at liberty to consider himself absolved from any future performance of it, retaining his right to sue for any damage he has suffered from the breach of it. Thus, instead of remaining idle and laying out money in preparations which must be useless, he is at liberty to seek service under another employer, which would go in mitigation of the damages to which he would otherwise be entitled for a breach of the contract. It seems strange that the defendant, after renouncing the contract, and absolutely declaring that he will never act under it, should be permitted to object that faith is given to his assertion, and that an opportunity is not left to him of changing his mind. 1
Another type of anticipatory breach consists of any voluntary act by a party that destroys, or seriously impairs, that party’s ability to perform the promise made to the other side. If a seller of land, having agreed to sell a lot to one person at a date certain, sells it instead to a third party before that time, there is an anticipatory breach. If Carpenter announces in May that instead of building Owner’s deck in July, as agreed, he is going on a trip to Europe, there is an anticipatory breach. In the first instance, there would be no point to showing up at the lawyer’s office when the date arrives to await the deed, so the law gives a right to sue when the land is sold to the other person. In the second instance, there would be no point to waiting until July, when indeed Carpenter does not do the job, so the law gives the right to sue when the future nonperformance is announced.
These same general rules prevail for contracts for the sale of goods under UCC Section 2-610.
Related to the concept of anticipatory breach is the idea that the obligee has a right to demand reasonable assurances from the obligor that contractual duties will be performed. If the obligee makes such ademand for reasonable assurances and no adequate assurances are forthcoming, the obligee may assume that the obligor will commit an anticipatory breach, and consider it so. That is, after making the contract, the obligee may come upon the disquieting news that the obligor’s ability to perform is shaky. A change in financial condition occurs, an unknown claimant to rights in land appears, a labor strike arises, or any of a number of situations may crop up that will interfere with the carrying out of contractual duties. Under such circumstances, the obligee has the right to a demand for reasonable assurance that the obligor will perform as contractually obligated. The general reason for such a rule is given in UCC Section 2-609(1), which states that a contract “imposes an obligation on each party that the other’s expectation of receiving due performance will not be impaired.” Moreover, an obligee would be foolish not to make alternative arrangements, if possible, when it becomes obvious that his original obligor will be unable to perform. The obligee must have reasonable grounds to believe that the obligor will breach. The fear must be that of a failure of performance that would amount to a total breach; a minor defect that can be cured and that at most would give rise to an offset in price for damages will not generally support a demand for assurances.
Under UCC Section 2-609(1), the demand must be in writing, but at common law the demand may be oral if it is reasonable in view of the circumstances. If the obligor fails within a reasonable time to give adequate assurance, the obligee may treat the failure to do so as an anticipatory repudiation, or she may wait to see if the obligor might change his mind and perform.
Contracts can be discharged by performance: complete performance discharges both sides; material breach discharges the breaching party, who has a right to claim damages; substantial performance obligates the promisee to pay something for the benefit conferred but is a breach. A party may demand reasonable assurances of performance, which, if not forthcoming, may be treated as an anticipatory breach (or repudiation).
- What types of performance discharge a contractual obligation?
- Under the UCC, what is the difference between cancellation and termination of a contract?
- What is an anticipatory breach, and under what circumstances can a party claim it?