A contract is defined as an agreement between two or more parties that is enforceable by law.
To be considered enforceable by law, a contract must contain several elements, including offer and acceptance, genuine agreement, consideration, capacity, and legality.
The key to a contract is that there must be an offer, and acceptance of the terms of that offer. An offer is a proposal made to demonstrate an intent to enter a contract. Acceptance is the agreement to be bound by the terms of the offer. Offers must be made with intent, must be definite and certain (i.e., the offer must be clearly expressed for it to be enforceable), and must be communicated to the offeree. An acceptance must demonstrate the willingness to consent to all of the terms of the offer.
Genuine agreement, i.e., “a meeting of the minds,” is also required. Agreement can be destroyed by fraud, misrepresentation, mistake, duress, or undue influence.
Consideration must be included in contracts. Consideration is a thing of value promised in exchange for something else of value. This mutual exchange binds the parties together.
Capacity to contract is the next element required for a valid agreement. The law presumes that anyone entering a contract has the legal capacity to do so. Minors are generally excused from contractual responsibility, as are mentally incompetent and drugged or drunk individuals.
Finally, legality is the last element considered. Parties entering into contracts that involve illegal conduct may not expect judicial relief to have that contract enforced. This theory has also been applied to conduct that would be considered in opposition to public policy.
Consideration and Promissory Estoppel
Contract law employs the principles of consideration and promissory estoppel.
In most cases, consideration need not be pecuniary (monetary). Most contracts are enforceable only if each party gets consideration from the agreement. Consideration can be money, property, a promise, or some right. For instance, when a music company sells studio equipment, the promised equipment is the consideration for the buyer. The seller’s consideration is the money the buyer promises to pay for the equipment.
The promissory estoppel doctrine is an exception to the requirement of consideration for contracts. Promissory estoppel is triggered when one party acts on the other party’s promise. In cases where it is triggered, there is harm or severe injustice to the party who acted because they relied on the other party’s broken promise.
The doctrine of promissory estoppel allows aggrieved parties to pursue justice or fairness for the performance of a contract in court, or other equitable remedies, even in the absence of any consideration. Its legal application may vary from state to state, but the basic elements include:
- A legal relationship existed between the parties.
- A promise was made.
- There was reliance on the promise that caused one party to act before any real consideration was exchanged.
- A substantial and measurable detriment occurred as a result of the failure to perform on the contract.
- An unconscionable result, or gross injustice, resulted from the broken promise.
If it is found that these elements are satisfied and that the doctrine of estoppel is applicable, then the court will issue the appropriate damages in the form of reliance damages to restore the aggrieved party to the position they were in prior to the broken promise. Expectation damages are not usually available if promissory estoppel is being claimed.
An example of how this principle would apply is:
After a bidding war for his services, Bob turns down a job offer with We are the Best, LLC in Miami, Florida (where he lives), and accepts a dream job offer from MegaCorp Co. in San Francisco, California. The offer contains a specific start date, compensation terms, benefits outline, and more. However, it does not include relocation expenses or provisions. The company is aware of his plans to move across the country for the sole purpose of taking this dream role. Bob breaks his Miami lease with penalty and spends approximately $13,000 in moving and travel costs. As the cost of living in San Francisco is much higher than in Miami, he puts down a much pricier first and last month’s rent and security deposit payment than he is used to. Within two days of his planned start date, he receives a call from management at MegaCorp Co. stating that the company has changed its mind and decided to go in a different direction. If Bob brings a promissory estoppel suit, he will likely be entitled to all of the costs that he incurred while anticipating the start of the promised role (i.e., penalty for the broken lease, moving costs, difference in the rental costs, cost of breaking the new lease, if necessary, etc.) Following reimbursement of his costs, Bob will be returned to the same position he was in prior to the broken promise. However, the company will not likely be required to reopen the role for him or give him the job, as originally anticipated. Also, he will not likely be awarded any damages for the job that he turned down with We are the Best, LLC, as expectation damages are not usually available.
The doctrines of consideration and promissory estoppel are essential to an understanding of how contracts are formed and enforced in the United States.