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17.4 General Obligations under UCC Article 2

Learning Objectives

  1. Know that the Uniform Commercial Code (UCC) imposes a general obligation to act in good faith and that it makes unconscionable contracts or parts of a contract unenforceable.
  2. Recognize that though the UCC applies to all sales contracts, merchants have special obligations.
  3. See that the UCC is the “default position”—that within limits, parties are free to put anything they want to in their contract.

Article 2 of the UCC of course has rules governing the obligations of parties specifically as to the offer, acceptance, performance of sales contracts, and so on. But it also imposes some general obligations on the parties. Two are called out here: one deals with unfair contract terms, and the second with obligations imposed on merchants.

Obligation of Good-Faith Dealings in General

Under the UCC

Section 1-203 of the UCC provides, “Every contract or duty within this Act imposes an obligation of good faith in its performance or enforcement.” Good faith is defined at Section 2-103(j) as “honesty in fact and the observance of reasonable commercial standards of fair dealing.” This is pretty much the same as what is held by common law, which “imposes a duty of good faith and fair dealing upon the parties in performing and enforcing the contract.”Restatement (Second) of Contracts, Section 205.

The UCC’s good faith in “performance or enforcement” of the contract is one thing, but what if the terms of the contract itself are unfair? Under Section 2-302(1), the courts may tinker with a contract if they determine that it is particularly unfair. The provision reads as follows: “If the court as a matter of law finds the contract or any clause of the contract to have been unconscionable at the time it was made the court may refuse to enforce the contract, or it may enforce the remainder of the contract without the unconscionable clause, or it may so limit the application of any unconscionable clause as to avoid any unconscionable result.”

The court thus has considerable flexibility. It may refuse to enforce the entire contract, strike a particular clause or set of clauses, or limit the application of a particular clause or set of clauses.

And what does “unconscionable” mean? The UCC provides little guidance on this crucial question. According to Section 2-302(1), the test is “whether, in the light of the general commercial background and the commercial needs of the particular trade or case, the clauses involved are so one-sided as to be unconscionable under the circumstances existing at the time of the making of the contract.…The principle is one of the prevention of oppression and unfair surprise and not of disturbance of allocation of risks because of superior bargaining power.”

The definition is somewhat circular. For the most part, judges have had to develop the concept with little help from the statutory language. Unconscionability is much like US Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart’s famous statement about obscenity: “I can’t define it, but I know it when I see it.” In the leading case, Williams v. Walker-Thomas Furniture Co. (Section 12.5.3 "Unconscionability", set out in Chapter 12 "Legality"), Judge J. Skelly Wright attempted to develop a framework for analysis. He refined the meaning of unconscionability by focusing on “absence of meaningful choice” (often referred to as procedural unconscionabilityUnfairness in the process of contract making, as when the contract is in such fine print it cannot be read.) and on terms that are “unreasonably favorable” (commonly referred to as substantive unconscionabilityContract terms so harsh and one-sided as to be unacceptably unfair.). An example of procedural unconscionability is the salesperson who says, “Don’t worry about all that little type on the back of this form.” Substantive unconscionability is the harsh term—the provision that permits the “taking of a pound of flesh” if the contract is not honored.

Despite its fuzziness, the concept of unconscionability has had a dramatic impact on American law. In many cases, in fact, the traditional notion of caveat emptor (Latin for “buyer beware”) has changed to caveat venditor (“let the seller beware”). So important is this provision that courts in recent years have applied the doctrine in cases not involving the sale of goods.

Under the CISG, Article 7: “Regard is to be had…to the observance of good faith in international trade.”

Obligations Owed by Merchants

“Merchant” Sellers

Although the UCC applies to all sales of goods (even when you sell your used car to your neighbor), merchants often have special obligations or are governed by special rules.

As between Merchants

The UCC assumes that merchants should be held to particular standards because they are more experienced and have or should have special knowledge. Rules applicable to professionals ought not apply to the casual or inexperienced buyer or seller. For example, we noted previously that the UCC relaxes the mirror image rule and provides that as “between merchants” additional terms in an acceptance become part of the contract, and we have discussed the “ten-day-reply doctrine” that says that, again “as between merchants,” a writing signed and sent to the other binds the recipient as an exception to the Statute of Frauds.Uniform Commercial Code, Sections 2-205 and 2A–205. There are other sections of the UCC applicable “as between merchants,” too.

Article 1 of the CISG abolishes any distinction between merchants and nonmerchants: “Neither the nationality of the parties nor the civil or commercial character of the parties or of the contract is to be taken into consideration in determining the application of this Convention.”

Merchant to Nonmerchant

In addition to duties imposed between merchants, the UCC imposes certain duties on a merchant when she sells to a nonmerchant. A merchant who sells her merchandise makes an important implied warranty of merchantabilityAn unexpressed promise that goods bought from a merchant are suitable for the purposes for which such goods are normally intended.. That is, she promises that goods sold will be fit for the purpose for which such goods are normally intended. A nonmerchant makes no such promise, nor does a merchant who is not selling merchandise—for example, a supermarket selling a display case is not a “merchant” in display cases.

In Sheeskin v. Giant Foods, Inc., the problem of whether a merchant made an implied warranty of merchantability was nicely presented. Mr. Seigel, the plaintiff, was carrying a six-pack carton of Coca-Cola from a display bin to his shopping cart when one or more of the bottles exploded. He lost his footing and was injured. When he sued the supermarket and the bottler for breach of the implied warranty of fitness, the defendants denied there had been a sale: he never paid for the soda pop, thus no sale by a merchant and thus no warranty. The court said that Mr. Seigel’s act of reaching for the soda to put it in his cart was a “reasonable manner of acceptance” (quoting UCC, Section 2-206(1)).Sheeskin v. Giant Food, Inc., 318 A.2d 874 (Md. Ct. App. 1974).

Who Is a Merchant?

Section 2-104(1) of the UCC defines a merchant as one “who deals in goods of the kind or otherwise by his occupation holds himself out as having knowledge or skill peculiar to the practices or goods involved in the transaction.” A phrase that recurs throughout Article 2—“between merchants”—refers to any transaction in which both parties are chargeable with the knowledge or skill of merchants.Uniform Commercial Code, Section 2-104(3). Not every businessperson is a merchant with respect to every possible transaction. But a person or institution normally not considered a merchant can be one under Article 2 if he employs an agent or broker who holds himself out as having such knowledge or skill. (Thus a university with a purchasing office can be a merchant with respect to transactions handled by that department.)

Determining whether a particular person operating a business is a merchant under Article 2-104 is a common problem for the courts. Goldkist, Inc. v. Brownlee, Section 17.5.2 "“Merchants” under the UCC", shows that making the determination is difficult and contentious, with significant public policy implications.

Obligations May Be Determined by Parties

Under the UCC

Under the UCC, the parties to a contract are free to put into their contract pretty much anything they want. Article 1-102 states that “the effect of provisions of this Act may be varied by agreement…except that the obligations of good faith, diligence, reasonableness and care prescribed by this Act may not be disclaimed by agreement but the parties may by agreement determine the standards by which the performance of such obligations is to be measure if such standards are not manifestly unreasonable.” Thus the UCC is the “default” position: if the parties want the contract to operate in a specific way, they can provide for that. If they don’t put anything in their agreement about some aspect of their contract’s operation, the UCC applies. For example, if they do not state where “delivery” will occur, the UCC provides that term. (Section 2-308 says it would be at the “seller’s place of business or if he has none, his residence.”)

Article 6 of the CISG similarly gives the parties freedom to contract. It provides, “The parties may exclude the application of this Convention or…vary the effect of any of its provisions.”

Key Takeaway

The UCC imposes some general obligations on parties to a sales contract. They must act in good faith, and unconscionable contracts or terms thereof will not be enforced. The UCC applies to any sale of goods, but sometimes special obligations are imposed on merchants. While the UCC imposes various general (and more specific) obligations on the parties, they are free, within limits, to make up their own contract terms and obligations; if they do not, the UCC applies. The CISG tends to follow the basic thrust of the UCC.

Exercises

  1. What does the UCC say about the standard duty parties to a contract owe each other?
  2. Why are merchants treated specially by the UCC in some circumstances?
  3. Give an example of a merchant-to-merchant duty imposed by the UCC and of a merchant-to-nonmerchant duty.
  4. What does it mean to say the UCC is the “default” contract term?