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4.4 Cases

Explicitness: Implied Contract

Roger’s Backhoe Service, Inc. v. Nichols

681 N.W.2d 647 (Iowa 2004)

Carter, J.

Defendant, Jeffrey S. Nichols, is a funeral director in Muscatine.…In early 1998 Nichols decided to build a crematorium on the tract of land on which his funeral home was located. In working with the Small Business Administration, he was required to provide drawings and specifications and obtain estimates for the project. Nichols hired an architect who prepared plans and submitted them to the City of Muscatine for approval. These plans provided that the surface water from the parking lot would drain onto the adjacent street and alley and ultimately enter city storm sewers. These plans were approved by the city.

Nichols contracted with Roger’s [Backhoe Service, Inc.] for the demolition of the foundation of a building that had been razed to provide room for the crematorium and removal of the concrete driveway and sidewalk adjacent to that foundation. Roger’s completed that work and was paid in full.

After construction began, city officials came to the jobsite and informed Roger’s that the proposed drainage of surface water onto the street and alley was unsatisfactory. The city required that an effort be made to drain the surface water into a subterranean creek, which served as part of the city’s storm sewer system. City officials indicated that this subterranean sewer system was about fourteen feet below the surface of the ground.…Roger’s conveyed the city’s mandate to Nichols when he visited the jobsite that same day.

It was Nichols’ testimony at trial that, upon receiving this information, he advised…Roger’s that he was refusing permission to engage in the exploratory excavation that the city required. Nevertheless, it appears without dispute that for the next three days Roger’s did engage in digging down to the subterranean sewer system, which was located approximately twenty feet below the surface. When the underground creek was located, city officials examined the brick walls in which it was encased and determined that it was not feasible to penetrate those walls in order to connect the surface water drainage with the underground creek. As a result of that conclusion, the city reversed its position and once again gave permission to drain the surface water onto the adjacent street and alley.

[T]he invoices at issue in this litigation relate to charges that Roger’s submitted to Nichols for the three days of excavation necessary to locate the underground sewer system and the cost for labor and materials necessary to refill the excavation with compactable materials and attain compaction by means of a tamping process.…The district court found that the charges submitted on the…invoices were fair and reasonable and that they had been performed for Nichols’ benefit and with his tacit approval.…

The court of appeals…concluded that a necessary element in establishing an implied-in-fact contract is that the services performed be beneficial to the alleged obligor. It concluded that Roger’s had failed to show that its services benefited Nichols.…

In describing the elements of an action on an implied contract, the court of appeals stated in [Citation], that the party seeking recovery must show:

(1) the services were carried out under such circumstances as to give the recipient reason to understand:

(a) they were performed for him and not some other person, and

(b) they were not rendered gratuitously, but with the expectation of compensation from the recipient; and

(2) the services were beneficial to the recipient.

In applying the italicized language in [Citation] to the present controversy, it was the conclusion of the court of appeals that Roger’s’ services conferred no benefit on Nichols. We disagree. There was substantial evidence in the record to support a finding that, unless and until an effort was made to locate the subterranean sewer system, the city refused to allow the project to proceed. Consequently, it was necessary to the successful completion of the project that the effort be made. The fact that examination of the brick wall surrounding the underground creek indicated that it was unfeasible to use that source of drainage does not alter the fact that the project was stalemated until drainage into the underground creek was fully explored and rejected. The district court properly concluded that Roger’s’ services conferred a benefit on Nichols.…

Decision of court of appeals vacated; district court judgment affirmed.

Case Questions

  1. What facts must be established by a plaintiff to show the existence of an implied contract?
  2. What argument did Nichols make as to why there was no implied contract here?
  3. How would the facts have to be changed to make an express contract?

Mutuality of Contract: Unilateral Contract

SouthTrust Bank v. Williams

775 So.2d 184 (Ala. 2000)

Cook, J.

SouthTrust Bank (“SouthTrust”) appeals from an order denying its motion to compel arbitration of an action against it by checking-account customers Mark Williams and Bessie Daniels. We reverse and remand.

Daniels and Williams began their relationship with SouthTrust in 1981 and 1995, respectively, by executing checking-account “signature cards.” The signature card each customer signed contained a “change-in-terms” clause. Specifically, when Daniels signed her signature card, she “agree[d] to be subject to the Rules and Regulations as may now or hereafter be adopted by the Bank.” (Emphasis added.)…[Later,] SouthTrust added paragraph 33 to the regulations:…

ARBITRATION OF DISPUTES. You and we agree that the transactions in your account involve ‘commerce’ under the Federal Arbitration Act (‘FAA’). ANY CONTROVERSY OR CLAIM BETWEEN YOU AND US…WILL BE SETTLED BY BINDING ARBITRATION UNDER THE FAA.…

This action…challenges SouthTrust’s procedures for paying overdrafts, and alleges that SouthTrust engages in a “uniform practice of paying the largest check(s) before paying multiple smaller checks…[in order] to generate increased service charges for [SouthTrust] at the expense of [its customers].”

SouthTrust filed a “motion to stay [the] lawsuit and to compel arbitration.” It based its motion on paragraph 33 of the regulations. [T]he trial court…entered an order denying SouthTrust’s motion to compel arbitration. SouthTrust appeals.…

Williams and Daniels contend that SouthTrust’s amendment to the regulations, adding paragraph 33, was ineffective because, they say, they did not expressly assent to the amendment. In other words, they object to submitting their claims to arbitration because, they say, when they opened their accounts, neither the regulations nor any other relevant document contained an arbitration provision. They argue that “mere failure to object to the addition of a material term cannot be construed as an acceptance of it.”…They contend that SouthTrust could not unilaterally insert an arbitration clause in the regulations and make it binding on depositors like them.

SouthTrust, however, referring to its change-of-terms clause insists that it “notified” Daniels and Williams of the amendment in January 1997 by enclosing in each customer’s “account statement” a complete copy of the regulations, as amended. Although it is undisputed that Daniels and Williams never affirmatively assented to these amended regulations, SouthTrust contends that their assent was evidenced by their failure to close their accounts after they received notice of the amendments.…Thus, the disposition of this case turns on the legal effect of Williams and Daniels’s continued use of the accounts after the regulations were amended.

Williams and Daniels argue that “[i]n the context of contracts between merchants [under the UCC], a written confirmation of an acceptance may modify the contract unless it adds a material term, and arbitration clauses are material terms.”…

Williams and Daniels concede—as they must—…that Article 2 governs “transactions in goods,” and, consequently, that it is not applicable to the transactions in this case. Nevertheless, they argue:

It would be astonishing if a Court were to consider the addition of an arbitration clause a material alteration to a contract between merchants, who by definition are sophisticated in the trade to which the contract applies, but not hold that the addition of an arbitration clause is a material alteration pursuant to a change-of-terms clause in a contract between one sophisticated party, a bank, and an entire class of less sophisticated parties, its depositors.…

In response, SouthTrust states that “because of the ‘at-will’ nature of the relationship, banks by necessity must contractually reserve the right to amend their deposit agreements from time to time.” In so stating, SouthTrust has precisely identified the fundamental difference between the transactions here and those transactions governed by [Article 2].

Contracts for the purchase and sale of goods are essentially bilateral and executory in nature. See [Citation] “An agreement whereby one party promises to sell and the other promises to buy a thing at a later time…is a bilateral promise of sale or contract to sell”.…“[A] unilateral contract results from an exchange of a promise for an act; a bilateral contract results from an exchange of promises.”…Thus, “in a unilateral contract, there is no bargaining process or exchange of promises by parties as in a bilateral contract.” [Citation] “[O]nly one party makes an offer (or promise) which invites performance by another, and performance constitutes both acceptance of that offer and consideration.” Because “a ‘unilateral contract’ is one in which no promisor receives promise as consideration for his promise,” only one party is bound.…The difference is not one of semantics but of substance; it determines the rights and responsibilities of the parties, including the time and the conditions under which a cause of action accrues for a breach of the contract.

This case involves at-will, commercial relationships, based upon a series of unilateral transactions. Thus, it is more analogous to cases involving insurance policies, such as [Citations]. The common thread running through those cases was the amendment by one of the parties to a business relationship of a document underlying that relationship—without the express assent of the other party—to require the arbitration of disputes arising after the amendment.…

The parties in [the cited cases], like Williams and Daniels in this case, took no action that could be considered inconsistent with an assent to the arbitration provision. In each case, they continued the business relationship after the interposition of the arbitration provision. In doing so, they implicitly assented to the addition of the arbitration provision.…

Reversed and remanded.

Case Questions

  1. Why did the plaintiffs think they should not be bound by the arbitration clause?
  2. The court said this case involved a unilateral contract. What makes it that, as opposed to a bilateral contract?
  3. What should the plaintiffs have done if they didn’t like the arbitration requirement?

Unilateral Contract and At-Will Employment

Woolley v. Hoffmann-La Roche, Inc.

491 A.2d 1257 (N.J. 1985)

Wilntz, C. J.

Plaintiff, Richard Woolley, was hired by defendant, Hoffmann-La Roche, Inc., in October 1969, as an Engineering Section Head in defendant’s Central Engineering Department at Nutley. There was no written employment contract between plaintiff and defendant. Plaintiff began work in mid-November 1969. Sometime in December, plaintiff received and read the personnel manual on which his claims are based.

[The company’s personnel manual had eight pages;] five of the eight pages are devoted to “termination.” In addition to setting forth the purpose and policy of the termination section, it defines “the types of termination” as “layoff,” “discharge due to performance,” “discharge, disciplinary,” “retirement” and “resignation.” As one might expect, layoff is a termination caused by lack of work, retirement a termination caused by age, resignation a termination on the initiative of the employee, and discharge due to performance and discharge, disciplinary, are both terminations for cause. There is no category set forth for discharge without cause. The termination section includes “Guidelines for discharge due to performance,” consisting of a fairly detailed procedure to be used before an employee may be fired for cause. Preceding these definitions of the five categories of termination is a section on “Policy,” the first sentence of which provides: “It is the policy of Hoffmann-La Roche to retain to the extent consistent with company requirements, the services of all employees who perform their duties efficiently and effectively.”

In 1976, plaintiff was promoted, and in January 1977 he was promoted again, this latter time to Group Leader for the Civil Engineering, the Piping Design, the Plant Layout, and the Standards and Systems Sections. In March 1978, plaintiff was directed to write a report to his supervisors about piping problems in one of defendant’s buildings in Nutley. This report was written and submitted to plaintiff’s immediate supervisor on April 5, 1978. On May 3, 1978, stating that the General Manager of defendant’s Corporate Engineering Department had lost confidence in him, plaintiff’s supervisors requested his resignation. Following this, by letter dated May 22, 1978, plaintiff was formally asked for his resignation, to be effective July 15, 1978.

Plaintiff refused to resign. Two weeks later defendant again requested plaintiff’s resignation, and told him he would be fired if he did not resign. Plaintiff again declined, and he was fired in July.

Plaintiff filed a complaint alleging breach of contract.…The gist of plaintiff’s breach of contract claim is that the express and implied promises in defendant’s employment manual created a contract under which he could not be fired at will, but rather only for cause, and then only after the procedures outlined in the manual were followed. Plaintiff contends that he was not dismissed for good cause, and that his firing was a breach of contract.

Defendant’s motion for summary judgment was granted by the trial court, which held that the employment manual was not contractually binding on defendant, thus allowing defendant to terminate plaintiff’s employment at will. The Appellate Division affirmed. We granted certification.

The employer’s contention here is that the distribution of the manual was simply an expression of the company’s “philosophy” and therefore free of any possible contractual consequences. The former employee claims it could reasonably be read as an explicit statement of company policies intended to be followed by the company in the same manner as if they were expressed in an agreement signed by both employer and employees.…

This Court has long recognized the capacity of the common law to develop and adapt to current needs.…The interests of employees, employers, and the public lead to the conclusion that the common law of New Jersey should limit the right of an employer to fire an employee at will.

In order for an offer in the form of a promise to become enforceable, it must be accepted. Acceptance will depend on what the promisor bargained for: he may have bargained for a return promise that, if given, would result in a bilateral contract, both promises becoming enforceable. Or he may have bargained for some action or nonaction that, if given or withheld, would render his promise enforceable as a unilateral contract. In most of the cases involving an employer’s personnel policy manual, the document is prepared without any negotiations and is voluntarily distributed to the workforce by the employer. It seeks no return promise from the employees. It is reasonable to interpret it as seeking continued work from the employees, who, in most cases, are free to quit since they are almost always employees at will, not simply in the sense that the employer can fire them without cause, but in the sense that they can quit without breaching any obligation. Thus analyzed, the manual is an offer that seeks the formation of a unilateral contract—the employees’ bargained-for action needed to make the offer binding being their continued work when they have no obligation to continue.

The unilateral contract analysis is perfectly adequate for that employee who was aware of the manual and who continued to work intending that continuation to be the action in exchange for the employer’s promise; it is even more helpful in support of that conclusion if, but for the employer’s policy manual, the employee would have quit. See generally M. Petit, “Modern Unilateral Contracts,” 63 Boston Univ. Law Rev. 551 (1983) (judicial use of unilateral contract analysis in employment cases is widespread).

…All that this opinion requires of an employer is that it be fair. It would be unfair to allow an employer to distribute a policy manual that makes the workforce believe that certain promises have been made and then to allow the employer to renege on those promises. What is sought here is basic honesty: if the employer, for whatever reason, does not want the manual to be capable of being construed by the court as a binding contract, there are simple ways to attain that goal. All that need be done is the inclusion in a very prominent position of an appropriate statement that there is no promise of any kind by the employer contained in the manual; that regardless of what the manual says or provides, the employer promises nothing and remains free to change wages and all other working conditions without having to consult anyone and without anyone’s agreement; and that the employer continues to have the absolute power to fire anyone with or without good cause.

Reversed and remanded for trial.

Case Questions

  1. What did Woolley do to show his acceptance of the terms of employment offered to him?
  2. In part of the case not included here, the court notes that Mr. Woolley died “before oral arguments on this case.” How can there be any damages if the plaintiff has died? Who now has any case to pursue?
  3. The court here is changing the law of employment in New Jersey. It is making case law, and the rule here articulated governs similar future cases in New Jersey. Why did the court make this change? Why is it relevant that the court says it would be easy for an employer to avoid this problem?