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15.1 Discharge of Contract Duties

Learning Objectives

  1. Understand how performance, partial performance, or no performance may discharge contractual obligations.
  2. Recognize what rights accrue to the nonbreaching party when the other side announces, before the time for performance, that performance will not be forthcoming—anticipatory breach.
  3. Understand the concept of the right to adequate assurances, and the consequences if no such assurances are forthcoming.

A person is liable to perform agreed-to contract duties until or unless he or she is discharged. If the person fails to perform without being discharged, liability for damages arises. Here we deal with the second-to-the-last of the four broad themes of contract law: how contract duties are discharged.

Discharge by Performance (or Nonperformance) of the Duty

A contract can be discharged by complete performance or material nonperformance of the contractual duty. Note, in passing, that the modern trend at common law (and explicit under the Uniform Commercial Code [UCC], Section 1-203) is that the parties have a good-faith dutyThe duty to act with honesty in fact in commercial transactions. to perform to each other. There is in every contract “an implied covenant of good faith” (honesty in fact in the transaction) that the parties will deal fairly, keep their promises, and not frustrate the other party’s reasonable expectations of what was given and what received.

Full Performance

Full performance of the contractual obligation discharges the duty. If Ralph does a fine job of plumbing Betty’s new bathroom, she pays him. Both are discharged.

Nonperformance, Material Breach

If Ralph doesn’t do any work at all on Betty’s bathroom, or almost none, then Betty owes him nothing. She—the nonbreaching party—is discharged, and Ralph is liable for breach of contract.

Under UCC Section 2-106(4), a party that ends a contract breached by the other party is said to have effected a cancellationThe termination of a contract by one party in response to its material breach by the other.. The cancelling party retains the right to seek a remedy for breach of the whole contract or any unperformed obligation. The UCC distinguishes cancellation from terminationThe lawful right to end the contract other than for breach., which occurs when either party exercises a lawful right to end the contract other than for breach. When a contract is terminated, all executory duties are discharged on both sides, but if there has been a partial breach, the right to seek a remedy survives.Uniform Commercial Code, Section 2-106(3).

Substantial Performance

Logically, anything less than full performance, even a slight deviation from what is owed, is sufficient to prevent the duty from being discharged and can amount to a breach of contract. So if Ralph does all the plumbing for Betty’s new bathroom except hook up the toilet feed, he has not really “plumbed the new bathroom.” He has only plumbed part of it. At classic common law, that was it: either you did the thing you promised completely or you had materially breached. But under modern theories, an ameliorative doctrine has developed, called substantial performanceAt common law, the idea that a promisee should not be denied all payment under a contract when his or her performance was imperfect if significant benefit has been conferred on the promisor, who must pay for the value received.: if one side has substantially, but not completely, performed, so that the other side has received a benefit, the nonbreaching party owes something for the value received. The Restatement (Second) of Contracts puts it this way:Restatement (Second) of Contracts, Section 237(d).

Substantial Performance.

In an important category of disputes over failure of performance, one party asserts the right to payment on the ground that he has completed his performance, while the other party refuses to pay on the ground that there is an uncured material failure of performance.…In such cases it is common to state the issue…in terms of whether there has been substantial performance.…If there has been substantial although not full performance, the building contractor has a claim for the unpaid balance and the owner has a claim only for damages. If there has not been substantial performance, the building contractor has no claim for the unpaid balance, although he may have a claim in restitution.

The contest here is between the one who claims discharge by the other’s material breach and the one who asserts there has been substantial performance. What constitutes substantial performance is a question of fact, as illustrated in Section 15.2.1 "Substantial Performance; Conditions Precedent", TA Operating Corp. v. Solar Applications Engineering, Inc. The doctrine has no applicability where the breaching party willfully failed to follow the contract, as where a plumber substitutes a different faucet for the one ordered; installation of the incorrect faucet is a breach, even if it is of equal or greater value than the one ordered.

Under the UCC, there is no such thing as substantial performance. Section 2-601 requires that the goods delivered according to the contract be the exact things ordered—that there be a perfect tenderThe precise performance of a contractual obligation. (unless the parties agree otherwise).

Anticipatory Breach and Demand for Reasonable Assurances

When a promisor announces before the time his performance is due that he will not perform, he is said to have committed an anticipatory breach (or repudiation)A communication that informs a party that the obligations of the original contract will not be fulfilled when due; gives rise to an immediate right to sue.. 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.Hochster v. De La Tour, 2 Ellis & Blackburn 678 (Q.B. 1853).

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 a demand for reasonable assurancesA demand to be reassured that contractual performance will be forthcoming when reasonable grounds for insecurity arise with respect to the performance of the other party; failure to get such is an anticipatory breach. 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.

Key Takeaway

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).

Exercises

  1. What types of performance discharge a contractual obligation?
  2. Under the UCC, what is the difference between cancellation and termination of a contract?
  3. What is an anticipatory breach, and under what circumstances can a party claim it?

Discharge by Conditions

Learning Objectives

  1. Understand the concept of conditions in a contract.
  2. Recognize that conditions can be classified on the basis of how they are created, their effect on the duty to perform, the essentialness of timely performance, or performance to someone’s satisfaction.

Usually contracts consist of an exchange of promises—a pledge or commitment by each party that somebody will or will not do something. Andy’s promise to cut Anne’s lawn “over the weekend” in return for Anne’s promise to pay twenty-five dollars is a commitment to have the lawn mowed by Sunday night or Monday morning. Andy’s promise “not to tell anyone what I saw you doing Saturday night” in return for Anne’s promise to pay one hundred dollars is a commitment that an event (the revealing of a secret) will not occur. These promises are known as independent or absolute or unconditional, because their performance does not depend on any outside event. Such promises, if contractually binding, create a present duty to perform (or a duty to perform at the time stated).

However, it is common that the obligation to perform a contract is conditioned (or conditional). A conditionAn uncertain future act or event whose occurrence or nonoccurrence determines the rights or obligations of a party under a legal instrument, especially a contract. is an event the happening or nonhappening of which gives rise to a duty to perform (or discharges a duty to perform). Conditions may be express or implied; they may also be precedent, concurrent, subsequent, or to the satisfaction of a party.

Conditions Classified Based on How They Are Created

Express conditionsA condition in words, oral or in writing. are stated in words in the contract, orally or written. Andy promises to mow Anne’s lawn “provided it doesn’t rain.” “Provided it doesn’t rain” is an express condition. If rain comes, there is no duty to cut the lawn, and Andy’s failure to do so is not a breach of promise. Express conditions are usually introduced by language such as “provided that,” “if,” “when,” “assuming that,” “as soon as,” “after,” and the like. Implied conditionsA provision not explicitly stated in an agreement but considered an important item. are unexpressed but understood to be part of the contract. If Mr. Olson guarantees Jack’s used car for ninety days, it is implied that his obligation to fix any defects doesn’t arise until Jack lets him know the car is defective. If Ralph is hired to plumb Betty’s new bathroom, it is implied that Betty’s duty to pay is conditioned on Ralph’s completion of the job.

Conditions Classified Based on Their Effect on Duty to Perform

A condition precedent is a term in a contract (express or implied) that requires performance only in the event something else happens first. Jack will buy a car from Mr. Olson if Jack gets financing. “If Jack gets financing” is a condition precedent. A concurrent conditionA condition that is to be fulfilled by one party at the same time that a mutual condition is to be fulfilled by another party. arises when the duty to perform the contract is simultaneous: the promise of a landowner to transfer title to the purchaser and the purchaser to tender payment to the seller. The duty of each to perform is conditioned on the performance by the other. (As a practical matter, of course, somebody has to make the first move, proffering deed or tendering the check.) A condition that terminates an already existing duty of performance is known as a condition subsequentAn event that terminates an existing duty of performance.. Ralph agrees to do preventive plumbing maintenance on Deborah Dairy’s milking equipment for as long as David Dairy, Deb’s husband, is stationed overseas. When David returns, Ralph’s obligation to do the maintenance (and Deb’s duty to pay him) terminates.

Condition of Timeliness

If, as often occurs, it does not matter a great deal whether a contract is performed exactly on time, failure to do so is not a material breach, and the promisee has to accept the performance and deduct any losses caused by the delay. If, though, it makes a difference to the promisee whether the promisor acts on time, then it is said that “time is of the essenceA clause asserting that any tardy performance is a material breach, discharging the nonbreaching party..” Time as a condition can be made explicit in a clause reciting that time is of the essence. If there is no express clause, the courts will read it in when the purpose of the contract was clearly to provide for performance at or by a certain time, and the promisee will gain little from late performance. But even express clauses are subject to a rule of reason, and if the promisor would suffer greatly by enforcement of the clause (and the promisee would suffer only slightly or not at all from a refusal to invoke it), the courts will generally excuse the untimely performance, as long as it was completed within a reasonable time. A builder’s failure to finish a house by July 1 will not discharge the buyer’s obligation to pay if the house is finished a week or even a month later, although the builder will be liable to the buyer for expenses incurred because of the lateness (storage charges for furniture, costs for housing during the interim, extra travel, and the like).

Condition That a Party Must Be Satisfied

“You must be satisfied or your money back” is a common advertisement. A party to a contract can require that he need not pay or otherwise carry out his undertaking unless satisfied by the obligor’s performance, or unless a third party is satisfied by the performance.

Parties may contract to perform to one side’s personal satisfaction. Andy tells Anne, a prospective client, that he will cut her hair better than her regular hairdresser, and that if she is not satisfied, she need not pay him. Andy cuts her hair, but Anne frowns and says, “I don’t like it.” Assume that Andy’s work is excellent. Whether Anne must pay depends on the standard for judging to be employed—a standard of objective or subjective satisfaction. The objective standard is that which would satisfy the reasonable purchaser. Most courts apply this standard when the contract involves the performance of a mechanical job or the sale of a machine whose performance is capable of objective measurement. So even if the obligee requires performance to his “personal satisfaction,” the courts will hold that the obligor has performed if the service performed or the goods produced are in fact satisfactory. By contrast, if the goods or services contracted for involve personal judgment and taste, the duty to pay will be discharged if the obligee states personal (subjective) dissatisfaction. No reason at all need be given, but it must be for a good-faith reason, not just to escape payment.

The duty to make a contract payment may be conditioned on the satisfaction of a third party. Building contracts frequently make the purchaser’s duty to pay conditional on the builder’s receipt of an architect’s certificate of compliance with all contractual terms; road construction contracts often require that the work be done “to the satisfaction of the County Engineer.” These conditions can be onerous. The builder has already erected the structure and cannot “return” what he has done. Nevertheless, because the purchaser wants assurance that the building (obviously a major purchase) or road meets his specifications, the courts will hold the contractor to the condition unless it is impossible to provide a certificate (e.g., architect may have died) or the architect has acted in bad faith, or the purchaser has somehow prevented the certificate from issuing. The third party’s refusal to issue a certificate needs to be reasonable.

Key Takeaway

Parties may, expressly or implicitly, condition the requirement for contractual performance on the happening or nonhappening of an event, or on timeliness. They may condition performance on satisfaction to one of the parties to the contract or to the satisfaction of a third party; in any event, dissatisfaction must be in good faith.

Exercises

  1. What is “conditioned” by a condition in a contract?
  2. What conditions are based on how they are made?
  3. What conditions are based on their effect on the duty of performance?
  4. What typical situations involve performance to a party’s satisfaction?

Discharge by Agreement of the Parties

Learning Objective

  1. Recognize that there are various ways the parties may agree between themselves to terminate mutual obligations under the contract.

Parties are free to agree to almost any contract they want, and they are free to agree to end the contract whenever they want. There are several ways this is done.

Mutual Rescission

The parties may agree to give up the duties to perform, called mutual rescissionThe giving up by both sides of the right to demand contract performance.. This may be by a formal written releaseA contractual discharge of obligation by one side to another. saying the obligor is discharged upon delivery of the writing or upon occurrence of a condition. Or an obligation may be discharged by a contract not to sue about it.

The Restatement terms this an agreement of rescission.Restatement (Second) of Contracts, Section 283. An agreement to rescind will be given effect even though partial performance has been made or one or both parties have a claim for partial breach. The agreement need not be in writing or even expressed in words. By their actions, such as failure to take steps to perform or enforce, the parties may signal their mutual intent to rescind. Andy starts to mow Anne’s lawn as they agreed. He begins the job, but it is unbearably hot. She sees how uncomfortable he is and readily agrees with him when he says, “Why don’t we just forget the whole thing?” Andy’s duty to finish mowing is discharged, as is Anne’s duty to pay Andy, either for the whole job or for the part he has done.

Business executives live by contracts, but they do not necessarily die by them. A sociologist who studied business behavior under contract discovered a generation ago—and it is still valid—that in the great majority of cases in which one party wishes to “cancel an order,” the other party permits it without renegotiation, even though the cancellation amounts to a repudiation of a contract. As one lawyer was quoted as saying,

Often business[people] do not feel they have “a contract”—rather they have an “order.” They speak of “cancelling the order” rather than “breaching our contract.” When I began practice I referred to order cancellations as breaches of contract, but my clients objected since they do not think of cancellation as wrong. Most clients, in heavy industry at least, believe that there is a right to cancel as part of the buyer-seller relationship. There is a widespread attitude that one can back out of any deal within some very vague limits. Lawyers are often surprised by this attitude.Stewart Macaulay, “Non-contractual Relations in Business: A Preliminary Study,” American Sociological Review 28, no. 1 (1963): 55, 61.

This attitude is understandable. People who depend for their economic survival on continuing relationships will be loath to react to every change in plans with a lawsuit. The legal consequences of most of these cancellations are an agreement of rescission. Under UCC Section 2-720, the use of a word like “cancellation” or “rescission” does not by itself amount to a renunciation of the right to sue for breach of a provision that occurred before the rescission. If the parties mean to discharge each other fully from all duties owed, they must say so explicitly. Actions continue to speak more loudly than words, however, and in law, so can inactions. Legal rights under contracts may be lost by both parties if they fail to act; by abandoning their claims, they can affect rescission.

Waiver

A second means of discharge is by waiverThe surrender of a legal right., whereby a party voluntarily gives up a right she has under a contract but doesn’t give up the entire right to performance by the other side. Tenant is supposed to pay rent on the first of the month, but because his employer pays on the tenth, Tenant pays Landlady on that day. If Landlady accepts the late payment without objection, she has waived her right to insist on payment by the first of the month, unless the lease provides that no waiver occurs from the acceptance of any late payments. See Section 15.2.2 "Waiver of Contract Rights; Nonwaiver Provisions", Minor v. Chase Auto Finance Corporation. A “waiver” is permission to deviate from the contract; a “release” means to let go of the whole thing.

Substituted Agreement

Discharge by substituted agreement is a third way of mutual rescission. The parties may enter into a novationThe replacement of one obligation by another by mutual agreement of both parties; usually the replacement of one of the original parties to a contract with the consent of the remaining party., either a new contract or one whereby a new person is substituted for the original obligor, and the latter is discharged. If Mr. Olson is obligated to deliver a car to Jack, Jack and Mr. Olson may agree that Dewey Dealer should deliver the car to Jack instead of Mr. Olson; the latter is discharged by this novation. A substituted agreementA new agreement between original parties who have given up rights under the old agreement. may also simply replace the original one between the original parties.

Accord and Satisfaction

Discharge by accord and satisfactionThe settlement of a dispute by offering up less consideration than demanded in exchange for extinguishing the obligation. The original obligation remains viable until the accord is performed. is a fourth way of mutual rescission. Here the parties to a contract (usually a disputed one) agree to substitute some performance different from what was originally agreed, and once this new agreement is executed, the original contract (as well as the more recent accord) is satisfied. But before then, the original agreement is only suspended: if the obligor does not satisfy the accord, the other side can sue on the original obligation or on the accord.

Key Takeaway

Parties to a contract may agree to give it up. This may be by mutual rescission, release, waiver, novation, substituted agreement, or accord and satisfaction.

Exercises

  1. How does mutual rescission discharge a common-law contract without apparent new consideration?
  2. What is the difference between a substituted agreement and a novation?
  3. What happens if the parties negotiate an accord and satisfaction and one side fails to perform it?
  4. If an obligee accepts performance from the obligor that deviates from the contract, under what circumstances can the obligee nevertheless insist on strict compliance in the future?

Discharge When Performance Becomes Impossible or Very Difficult

Learning Objective

  1. Recognize that there are several circumstances when performance of the contract becomes variously impossible, very difficult, or useless, and that these may give rise to discharge.

There are at least five circumstances in which parties may be discharged from contractual obligations because performance is impossible, difficult, or useless.

Overview

Every contract contains some element of risk: the buyer may run out of money before he can pay; the seller may run out of goods before he can deliver; the cost of raw materials may skyrocket, throwing off the manufacturer’s fine financial calculations. Should the obligor’s luck run out, he is stuck with the consequences—or, in the legal phrase, his liability is strict: he must either perform or risk paying damages for breach of contract, even if his failure is due to events beyond his control. Of course, an obligor can always limit his liability through the contract itself. Instead of obligating himself to deliver one million units, he can restrict his obligation to “one million units or factory output, whichever is less.” Instead of guaranteeing to finish a job by a certain date, he can agree to use his “best efforts” to do so. Similarly, damages in the event of breach can be limited. A party can even include a clause canceling the contract in the event of an untoward happening. But if these provisions are absent, the obligor is generally held to the terms of his bargain.

Exceptions include the concepts of impossibility, impracticability, and frustration of purpose.

Impossibility

If performance is impossible, the duty is discharged. The categories here are death or incapacity of a personal services contractor, destruction of a thing necessary for performance, and performance prohibited by government order.

Death or Incapacity of a Personal Services Contractor

If Buyer makes a contract to purchase a car and dies before delivery, Buyer’s estate could be held liable; it is not impossible (for the estate) to perform. The estate of a painter hired to do a portrait cannot be sued for damages because the painter died before she could complete the work.

Destruction or Deterioration of a Thing Necessary for Performance

When a specific object is necessary for the obligor’s performance, its destruction or deterioration making its use impracticable (or its failure to come into existence) discharges the obligor’s duty. Diane’s Dyers contracts to buy the annual wool output of the Sheepish Ranch, but the sheep die of an epidemic disease before they can be shorn. Since the specific thing for which the contract was made has been destroyed, Sheepish is discharged from its duty to supply Diane’s with wool, and Diane’s has no claim against the Ranch. However, if the contract had called for a quantity of wool, without specifying that it was to be from Sheepish’s flock, the duty would not be discharged; since wool is available on the open market, Sheepish could buy that and resell it to Diane’s.

Performance Prohibited by Government Regulation or Order

When a government promulgates a rule after a contract is made, and the rule either bars performance or will make it impracticable, the obligor’s duty is discharged. An obligor is not required to break the law and risk the consequences. Financier Bank contracts to sell World Mortgage Company certain collateralized loan instruments. The federal government, in a bank reform measure, prohibits such sales. The contract is discharged. If the Supreme Court later declared the prohibition unconstitutional, World Mortgage’s duty to buy (or Financier Bank’s to sell) would not revive.

Impracticability

Less entirely undoable than impossibility, but still grounds for discharge, are common-law impracticability and its relative, commercial impracticability.

Common-Law Impracticability

ImpracticabilityAn excuse for nonperformance of a duty where it has become unexpectedly difficult or expensive for the party who was to perform. is said to exist when there is a radical departure from the circumstances that the parties reasonably contemplated would exist at the time they entered into the contract; on such facts, the courts might grant relief. They will do so when extraordinary circumstances (often called “acts of God” or “force majeure”) make it unjust to hold a party liable for performance. Although the justification for judicial relief could be found in an implied condition in all contracts that extraordinary events shall not occur, the Restatement eschews so obvious a bootstrap logic and adopts the language of UCC Section 2-615(a), which states that the crux of the analysis is whether the nonoccurrence of the extraordinary circumstance was “a basic assumption on which the contract was made.”Restatement (Second) of Contracts, Section 261. If it was—if, that is, the parties assumed that the circumstance would not occur—then the duty is discharged if the circumstance later does occur.

In one well-known case, Autry v. Republic Productions, the famous cowboy movie star Gene Autry had a contract to perform to the defendant. He was drafted into the army in 1942; it was temporarily, at least, impossible for him to perform his movie contractual obligations incurred prior to his service. When he was discharged in 1945, he sued to be relieved of the prewar obligations. The court took notice that there had been a long interruption in Autry’s career and of “the great decrease in the purchasing power of the dollar”—postwar inflation—and determined that to require him to perform under the old contract’s terms would work a “substantial hardship” on him. A world war is an extraordinary circumstance. The temporary impossibility had transformed into impracticability.Autry v. Republic Productions, 180 P.2d 144 (Calif. 1947).

Impracticability refers to the performance, not to the party doing it. Only if the performance is impracticable is the obligor discharged. The distinction is between “the thing cannot be done” and “I cannot do it.” The former refers to that which is objectively impracticableImpossible., and the latter to that which is subjectively impracticable. That a duty is subjectively impracticable does not excuse it if the circumstances that made the duty difficult are not extraordinary. A buyer is liable for the purchase price of a house, and his inability to raise the money does not excuse him or allow him to escape from a suit for damages when the seller tenders the deed.Christy v. Pilkinton, 273 S.W.2d 533 (Ark. 1954). If Andy promises to transport Anne to the football stadium for ten dollars, he cannot wriggle out of his agreement because someone smashed into his car (rendering it inoperable) a half hour before he was due to pick her up. He could rent a car or take her in a taxi, even though that will cost considerably more than the sum she agreed to pay him. But if the agreement was that he would transport her in his car, then the circumstances make his performance objectively impracticable—the equivalent of impossible—and he is excused.

Commercial Impracticability

This common-law concept of impracticability has been adopted by the UCC.Uniform Commercial Code, Section 2-615. When performance cannot be undertaken except with extreme difficulty or at highly unreasonable expense, it might be excused on the theory of commercial impracticabilityRelief from contract obligations may be granted when performance has been rendered excessively difficult, expensive, or harmful by an unforeseen contingency.. However, “impracticable” (the action is impossible) is not the same as “impractical” (the action would yield an insufficient return or would have little practical value). The courts allow a considerable degree of fluctuation in market prices, inflation, weather, and other economic and natural conditions before holding that an extraordinary circumstance has occurred. A manufacturer that based its selling price on last year’s costs for raw materials could not avoid its contracts by claiming that inflation within the historical range had made it difficult or unprofitable to meet its commitments. Examples of circumstances that could excuse might be severe limitations of supply due to war, embargo, or a natural disaster. Thus a shipowner who contracted with a purchaser to carry goods to a foreign port would be excused if an earthquake destroyed the harbor or if war broke out and the military authorities threatened to sink all vessels that entered the harbor. But if the shipowner had planned to steam through a canal that is subsequently closed when a hostile government seizes it, his duty is not discharged if another route is available, even if the route is longer and consequently more expensive.

Frustration of Purpose

If the parties made a basic assumption, express or implied, that certain circumstances would not arise, but they do arise, then a party is discharged from performing his duties if his principal purpose in making the contract has been “substantially frustrated.” This is not a rule of objective impossibility. It operates even though the parties easily might be able to carry out their contractual duties. The frustration of purposeA defense to contractual nonperformance that occurs when an unforeseen event undermines a party’s principal purpose for entering into a contract, and both parties knew of this principal purpose at the time the contract was made. doctrine comes into play when circumstances make the value of one party’s performance virtually worthless to the other. This rule does not permit one party to escape a contract simply because he will make less money than he had planned or because one potential benefit of the contract has disappeared. The purpose that is frustrated must be the core of the contract, known and understood by both parties, and the level of frustration must be severe; that is, the value of the contract to the party seeking to be discharged must be destroyed or nearly destroyed.

The classic illustration of frustration of purpose is the litigation that gave birth to the rule: the so-called coronation cases. In 1901, when King Edward VII was due to be crowned following the death of Queen Victoria, a parade route was announced for the coronation. Scores of people rented rooms in buildings that lined the streets of the route to watch the grand spectacle. But the king fell ill, and the procession was canceled. Many expectant viewers failed to pay, and the building owners took them to court; many lessees who had paid took the owners to court to seek refunds. The court declared that the lessees were not liable because the purpose of the contract had been frustrated by the king’s illness.

Supervening government regulations (though here different from illegality), floods that destroy buildings in which an event was to take place, and business failures may all contribute to frustration of purpose. But there can be no general rule: the circumstances of each case are determinative. Suppose, for example, that a manufacturer agrees to supply a crucial circuit board to a computer maker who intends to sell his machine and software to the government for use in the international space station’s ventilation systems. After the contract is made but before the circuit boards are delivered, the government decides to scrap that particular space station module. The computer manufacturer writes the circuit board maker, canceling the contract. Whether the manufacturer is discharged depends on the commercial prospects for the computer and the circuit board. If the circuit board can be used only in the particular computer, and it in turn is only of use on the space station, the duty to take the boards is discharged. But if the computer can be sold elsewhere, or the circuit boards can be used in other computers that the manufacturer makes, it is liable for breach of contract, since its principal purpose—selling computers—is not frustrated.

As before, the parties can provide in the contract that the duty is absolute and that no supervening event shall give rise to discharge by reason of frustration of purpose.

Key Takeaway

The obligations to perform under a contract cannot be dismissed lightly, but a person’s duty to perform a contract duty may be discharged if it becomes impossible or very difficult to do it. This includes impossibility, common-law impracticability, commercial impracticability under the UCC, and frustration of purpose.

Exercises

  1. If it is possible to perform a contract, why might a party be excused because of frustration of purpose?
  2. What is the difference between impractical and impracticable?
  3. How would supervening government regulation be different from supervening illegality?

Other Methods of Discharge

Learning Objectives

  1. Recognize when alteration, power of avoidance, the statute of limitations, and bankruptcy discharge parties from contracts.
  2. In addition to performance (or lack of it), agreement of the parties, the happening or nonhappening of conditions, and variations on the theme of impossibility, there are several other ways contract duties may be discharged.

Cancellation, Destruction, or Surrender

An obligee may unilaterally discharge the obligor’s duty toward him by canceling, destroying, or surrendering the written document embodying the contract or other evidence of the duty. No consideration is necessary; in effect, the obligee is making a gift of the right that he possesses. No particular method of cancellation, destruction, or surrender is necessary, as long as the obligee manifests his intent that the effect of his act is to discharge the duty. The entire document can be handed over to the obligor with the words, “Here, you don’t owe me anything.” The obligee can tear the paper into pieces and tell the obligor that he has done so because he does not want anything more. Or he can mutilate the signatures or cross out the writing.

Power of Avoidance

A contractual duty can be discharged if the obligor can avoid the contract. As discussed in Chapter 10 "Real Assent", a contract is either void or can be avoided if one of the parties lacked capacity (infancy, insanity); if there has been duress, undue influence, misrepresentation, or mistake; or the contract is determined to be unconscionable. Where a party has a power of avoidanceA party’s right to terminate performance of a contract—to avoid it (e.g., a minor has power of avoidance). and exercises it, that party is discharged from further obligation.

Statute of Limitations

When an obligor has breached a contract, the obligee has the right to sue in court for a remedy. But that right does not last forever. Every state has statutes of limitations that establish time periods within which the suit must be brought (different time periods are spelled out for different types of legal wrongs: contract breach, various types of torts, and so on). The time period for contract actions under most statutes of limitations ranges between two and six years. The UCC has a four-year statute of limitationsThe law stating how long people have to bring a lawsuit after the cause of action arises..Uniform Commercial Code, Section 2-725. The period begins to run from the day on which the suit could have been filed in court—for example, from the moment of contract breach. An obligee who waits until after the statute has run—that is, does not seek legal relief within the period prescribed by the statute of limitations—is barred from going to court thereafter (unless she is under some incapacity like infancy), but the obligor is not thereby discharged. The effect is simply that the obligee has no legal remedy. If the parties have a continuing relationship, the obligee might be able to recoup—for example, by applying a payment for another debt to the one barred by the statute, or by offsetting a debt the obligee owes to the obligor.

Bankruptcy

Under the federal bankruptcy laws as discussed in Chapter 35 "Bankruptcy", certain obligations are discharged once a court declares a debtor to be bankrupt. The law spells out the particular types of debts that are canceled upon bankruptcy.

Key Takeaway

Contract duties may be discharged by cancellation, destruction, or surrender of the written contract; by the running of the statute of limitations; or by bankruptcy.