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8.5 Cases

Extension of Statutory Illegality Based on Public Policy

Bovard v. American Horse Enterprises

247 Cal. Rptr. 340 (Calif. 1988)

[Bovard sued Ralph and American Horse Enterprises (a corporation) to recover on promissory notes that were signed when Ralph purchased the corporation, ostensibly a jewelry-making business. The trial court dismissed Bovard’s complaint.]

Puglia, J.

The court found that the corporation predominantly produced paraphernalia used to smoke marijuana [roach clips and bongs] and was not engaged significantly in jewelry production, and that Bovard had recovered the corporate machinery through self-help [i.e., he had repossessed it]. The parties do not challenge these findings. The court acknowledged that the manufacture of drug paraphernalia was not itself illegal in 1978 when Bovard and Ralph contracted for the sale of American Horse Enterprises, Inc. However, the court concluded a public policy against the manufacture of drug paraphernalia was implicit in the statute making the possession, use and transfer of marijuana unlawful. The trial court held the consideration for the contract was contrary to the policy of express law, and the contract was therefore illegal and void. Finally, the court found the parties were in pari delicto [equally at fault] and thus with respect to their contractual dispute should be left as the court found them.

The trial court concluded the consideration for the contract was contrary to the policy of the law as expressed in the statute prohibiting the possession, use and transfer of marijuana. Whether a contract is contrary to public policy is a question of law to be determined from the circumstances of the particular case. Here, the critical facts are not in dispute. Whenever a court becomes aware that a contract is illegal, it has a duty to refrain from entertaining an action to enforce the contract. Furthermore the court will not permit the parties to maintain an action to settle or compromise a claim based on an illegal contract.…

[There are several] factors to consider in analyzing whether a contract violates public policy: “Before labeling a contract as being contrary to public policy, courts must carefully inquire into the nature of the conduct, the extent of public harm which may be involved, and the moral quality of the conduct of the parties in light of the prevailing standards of the community [Citations]”

These factors are more comprehensively set out in the Restatement Second of Contracts section 178:

(1) A promise or other term of an agreement is unenforceable on grounds of public policy if legislation provides that it is unenforceable or the interest in its enforcement is clearly outweighed in the circumstances by a public policy against the enforcement of such terms.

(2) In weighing the interest in the enforcement of a term, account is taken of

(a) the parties’ justified expectations,

(b) any forfeiture that would result if enforcement were denied, and

(c) any special public interest in the enforcement of the particular term.

(3) In weighing a public policy against enforcement of a term, account is taken of

(a) the strength of that policy as manifested by legislation or judicial decisions,

(b) the likelihood that a refusal to enforce the term will further that policy,

(c) the seriousness of any misconduct involved and the extent to which it was deliberate, and

(d) the directness of the connection between that misconduct and the term.

Applying the Restatement test to the present circumstances, we conclude the interest in enforcing this contract is very tenuous. Neither party was reasonably justified in expecting the government would not eventually act to geld American Horse Enterprises, a business harnessed to the production of paraphernalia used to facilitate the use of an illegal drug. Moreover, although voidance of the contract imposed a forfeiture on Bovard, he did recover the corporate machinery, the only assets of the business which could be used for lawful purposes, i.e., to manufacture jewelry. Thus, the forfeiture was significantly mitigated if not negligible. Finally, there is no special public interest in the enforcement of this contract, only the general interest in preventing a party to a contract from avoiding a debt.

On the other hand, the Restatement factors favoring a public policy against enforcement of this contract are very strong. As we have explained, the public policy against manufacturing paraphernalia to facilitate the use of marijuana is strongly implied in the statutory prohibition against the possession, use, etc., of marijuana, a prohibition which dates back at least to 1929.…Obviously, refusal to enforce the instant contract will further that public policy not only in the present circumstances but by serving notice on manufacturers of drug paraphernalia that they may not resort to the judicial system to protect or advance their business interests. Moreover, it is immaterial that the business conducted by American Horse Enterprises was not expressly prohibited by law when Bovard and Ralph made their agreement since both parties knew that the corporation’s products would be used primarily for purposes which were expressly illegal. We conclude the trial court correctly declared the contract contrary to the policy of express law and therefore illegal and void.

Case Questions

  1. Why did the court think it was significant that Bovard had repossessed the jewelry-making equipment?
  2. What did Bovard want in this case?
  3. If it was not illegal to make bongs and roach clips, why did the court determine that this contract should not be enforced?

Unlicensed Practitioner Cannot Collect Fee

Venturi & Company v. Pacific Malibu Development Corp.

172 Cal.App.4th 1417 (Calif. Ct. App. 2009)

Rubin, J.

In June 2003, plaintiff Venturi & Company LLC and defendant Pacific Malibu Development Corp. entered into a contract involving development of a high-end resort on undeveloped property on the Bahamian island of Little Exuma. Under the contract, plaintiff agreed to serve as a financial advisor and find financing for the Little Exuma project.…[P]laintiff was entitled to some payment under the contract even if plaintiff did not secure financing for the project [called a success fee].

After signing the contract, plaintiff contacted more than 60 potential sources of financing for the project.…[I]n the end, defendants did not receive financing from any source that plaintiff had identified.

Defendants terminated the contract in January 2005. Two months earlier, however, defendants had signed a [financing agreement] with the Talisker Group. Plaintiff was not involved in defendants’ negotiations with the Talisker Group.…Nevertheless, plaintiff claimed the contract’s provision for a success fee entitled plaintiff to compensation following the [agreement]. When defendants refused to pay plaintiff’s fee, plaintiff sued defendants for the fee and for the reasonable value of plaintiff’s services.

Defendants moved for summary judgment. They argued plaintiff had provided the services of a real estate broker by soliciting financing for the Little Exuma project yet did not have a broker’s license. Thus, defendants asserted…the Business and Professions Code barred plaintiff from receiving any compensation as an unlicensed broker.…Plaintiff opposed summary judgment. It argued that one of its managing principals, Jane Venturi, had a real estate sales license and was employed by a real estate broker (whom plaintiff did not identify) when defendants had signed their term sheet with the Talisker Group, the document that triggered plaintiff’s right to a fee.

The court entered summary judgment for defendants. The court found plaintiff had acted as a real estate broker when working on the Little Exuma project. The court pointed, however, to plaintiff’s lack of evidence that Jane Venturi’s unnamed broker had employed or authorized her to work on the project.…[Summary judgment was issued in favor of defendants, denying plaintiff any recovery.] This appeal followed.

The court correctly ruled plaintiff could not receive compensation for providing real estate broker services to defendants because plaintiff was not a licensed broker. (Section 11136 [broker’s license required to collect compensation for broker services].) But decisions such as Lindenstadt [Citation] establish that the court erred in denying plaintiff compensation to the extent plaintiff’s services were not those of a real estate broker. In Lindenstadt, the parties entered into 25 to 30 written agreements in which the plaintiff promised to help the defendant find businesses for possible acquisition. After the plaintiff found a number of such businesses, the defendant refused to compensate the plaintiff. The defendant cited the plaintiff’s performance of broker’s services without a license as justifying its refusal to pay. On appeal, the appellate court rejected the defendant’s sweeping contention that the plaintiff’s unlicensed services for some business opportunities meant the plaintiff could not receive compensation for any business opportunity. Rather, the appellate court directed the trial court to examine individually each business opportunity to determine whether the plaintiff acted as an unlicensed broker for that transaction or instead provided only services for which it did not need a broker’s license.

Likewise here, the contract called for plaintiff to provide a range of services, some apparently requiring a broker’s license, others seemingly not. Moreover, and more to the point, plaintiff denied having been involved in arranging, let alone negotiating, defendants’ placement of Securities with the Talisker Group for which plaintiff claimed a “success fee” under the contract’s provision awarding it a fee even if it had no role in procuring the financing. Thus, triable issues existed involving the extent to which plaintiff provided either unlicensed broker services or, alternatively, non-broker services for which it did not need a license. (Accord: [Citation] [severability allowed partial enforcement of personal manager employment contract when license required for some, but not all, services rendered under the contract].)

[T]he contract here…envisioned plaintiff directing its efforts toward many potential sources of financing. As to some of those sources, plaintiff may have crossed the line into performing broker services. But for other sources, plaintiff may have provided only financial and marketing advice for which it did not need a broker’s license. (See, e.g. [Citation] [statute barring unlicensed contractor from receiving fees for some services did not prohibit recovery for work not within scope of licensing statute].) And finally, as to the Talisker Group, plaintiff may have provided even less assistance than financial and marketing advice, given that plaintiff denied involvement with the group. Whether plaintiff crossed the line into providing broker services is thus a triable issue of fact that we cannot resolve on summary judgment.

…Plaintiff…did not have a broker’s license, and therefore was not entitled to compensation for broker’s services. Plaintiff contends it was properly licensed because one of its managers, Jane Venturi, obtained a real estate sales license in February 2004. Thus, she, and plaintiff claims by extension itself, were licensed when defendants purportedly breached the contract by refusing to pay plaintiff months later for the Talisker Group placement. Jane Venturi’s sales license was not, however, sufficient; only a licensed broker may provide broker services. A sales license does not permit its holder to represent another unless the salesperson acts under a broker’s authority.

The judgment for defendants is vacated, and the trial court is directed to enter a new order denying defendants’ motion for summary judgment.…

Case Questions

  1. Why did the plaintiff think it should be entitled to full recovery under the contract, including for services rendered as a real estate broker? Why did the court deny that?
  2. Even if the plaintiff were not a real estate broker, why would that mean it could not recover for real estate services provided to the defendant?
  3. The appeals court remanded the case; what did it suggest the plaintiff should recover on retrial?

Unconscionability

Williams v. Walker-Thomas Furniture Co.

350 F.2d 445 (D.C. Ct. App. 1965)

Wright, J.

Appellee, Walker-Thomas Furniture Company, operates a retail furniture store in the District of Columbia. During the period from 1957 to 1962 each appellant in these cases purchased a number of household items from Walker-Thomas, for which payment was to be made in installments. The terms of each purchase were contained in a printed form contract which set forth the value of the purchased item and purported to lease the item to appellant for a stipulated monthly rent payment. The contract then provided, in substance, that title would remain in Walker-Thomas until the total of all the monthly payments made equaled the stated value of the item, at which time appellants could take title. In the event of a default in the payment of any monthly installment, Walker-Thomas could repossess the item.

The contract further provided that ‘the amount of each periodical installment payment to be made by (purchaser) to the Company under this present lease shall be inclusive of and not in addition to the amount of each installment payment to be made by (purchaser) under such prior leases, bills or accounts; and all payments now and hereafter made by (purchaser) shall be credited pro rata on all outstanding leases, bills and accounts due the Company by (purchaser) at the time each such payment is made.’ The effect of this rather obscure provision was to keep a balance due on every item purchased until the balance due on all items, whenever purchased, was liquidated. As a result, the debt incurred at the time of purchase of each item was secured by the right to repossess all the items previously purchased by the same purchaser, and each new item purchased automatically became subject to a security interest arising out of the previous dealings.

On May 12, 1962, appellant Thorne purchased an item described as a daveno, three tables, and two lamps, having total stated value of $391.11 [about $2,800 in 2011 dollars]. Shortly thereafter, he defaulted on his monthly payments and appellee sought to replevy [repossess] all the items purchased since the first transaction in 1958. Similarly, on April 17, 1962, appellant Williams bought a stereo set of stated value of $514.95 [about $3,600 in 2011 dollars]. She too defaulted shortly thereafter, and appellee sought to replevy all the items purchased since December, 1957. The Court of General Sessions granted judgment for appellee. The District of Columbia Court of Appeals affirmed, and we granted appellants’ motion for leave to appeal to this court.

Appellants’ principal contention, rejected by both the trial and the appellate courts below, is that these contracts, or at least some of them, are unconscionable and, hence, not enforceable. [In its opinion the lower court said:]

The record reveals that prior to the last purchase appellant had reduced the balance in her account to $164. The last purchase, a stereo set, raised the balance due to $678. Significantly, at the time of this and the preceding purchases, appellee was aware of appellant’s financial position. The reverse side of the stereo contract listed the name of appellant’s social worker and her $218 monthly stipend from the government. Nevertheless, with full knowledge that appellant had to feed, clothe and support both herself and seven children on this amount, appellee sold her a $514 stereo set.

We cannot condemn too strongly appellee’s conduct. It raises serious questions of sharp practice and irresponsible business dealings. A review of the legislation in the District of Columbia affecting retail sales and the pertinent decisions of the highest court in this jurisdiction disclose, however, no ground upon which this court can declare the contracts in question contrary to public policy. We note that were the Maryland Retail Installment Sales Act…or its equivalent, in force in the District of Columbia, we could grant appellant appropriate relief. We think Congress should consider corrective legislation to protect the public from such exploitive contracts as were utilized in the case at bar.

We do not agree that the court lacked the power to refuse enforcement to contracts found to be unconscionable. In other jurisdictions, it has been held as a matter of common law that unconscionable contracts are not enforceable. While no decision of this court so holding has been found, the notion that an unconscionable bargain should not be given full enforcement is by no means novel.…

Since we have never adopted or rejected such a rule, the question here presented is actually one of first impression.…[W]e hold that where the element of unconscionability is present at the time a contract is made, the contract should not be enforced.

Unconscionability has generally been recognized to include an absence of meaningful choice on the part of one of the parties together with contract terms which are unreasonably favorable to the other party. Whether a meaningful choice is present in a particular case can only be determined by consideration of all the circumstances surrounding the transaction. In many cases the meaningfulness of the choice is negated by a gross inequality of bargaining power. The manner in which the contract was entered is also relevant to this consideration. Did each party to the contract, considering his obvious education or lack of it, have a reasonable opportunity to understand the terms of the contract, or were the important terms hidden in a maze of fine print and minimized by deceptive sales practices? Ordinarily, one who signs an agreement without full knowledge of its terms might be held to assume the risk that he has entered a one-sided bargain. But when a party of little bargaining power, and hence little real choice, signs a commercially unreasonable contract with little or no knowledge of its terms, it is hardly likely that his consent, or even an objective manifestation of his consent, was ever given to all the terms. In such a case the usual rule that the terms of the agreement are not to be questioned should be abandoned and the court should consider whether the terms of the contract are so unfair that enforcement should be withheld.…

In determining reasonableness or fairness, the primary concern must be with the terms of the contract considered in light of the circumstances existing when the contract was made. The test is not simple, nor can it be mechanically applied. The terms are to be considered ‘in the light of the general commercial background and the commercial needs of the particular trade or case.’ Corbin suggests the test as being whether the terms are ‘so extreme as to appear unconscionable according to the mores and business practices of the time and place.’ We think this formulation correctly states the test to be applied in those cases where no meaningful choice was exercised upon entering the contract. So ordered.

Danaher, J. (dissenting):

[The lower] court…made no finding that there had actually been sharp practice. Rather the appellant seems to have known precisely where she stood.

There are many aspects of public policy here involved. What is a luxury to some may seem an outright necessity to others. Is public oversight to be required of the expenditures of relief funds? A washing machine, e.g., in the hands of a relief client might become a fruitful source of income. Many relief clients may well need credit, and certain business establishments will take long chances on the sale of items, expecting their pricing policies will afford a degree of protection commensurate with the risk. Perhaps a remedy when necessary will be found within the provisions of the D.C. “Loan Shark” law, [Citation].

I mention such matters only to emphasize the desirability of a cautious approach to any such problem, particularly since the law for so long has allowed parties such great latitude in making their own contracts. I dare say there must annually be thousands upon thousands of installment credit transactions in this jurisdiction, and one can only speculate as to the effect the decision in these cases will have.

Case Questions

  1. Did the court here say that cross-collateral contracts are necessarily unconscionable?
  2. Why is it relevant that the plaintiff had seven children and was on welfare?
  3. Why did the defendant have a cross-collateral clause in the contract? What would happen if no such clauses were allowed?
  4. What are the elements of unconscionability that the court articulates?