Supreme Court of Lincoln Land

Supreme Court of Lincoln Land

Jill Ingram, Plaintiff

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v.

Ralph Sullivan, Defendant

Allen, Chief Justice, delivered the opinion of the court.

Plaintiff, Jill Ingram, owns and operates a “bed-and-breakfast.” On February 1, 2015, she entered into an agreement with the defendant, Ralph Sullivan, doing business under the name “Ralphie’s Window Washing Service.” The terms of the agreement provided that the defendant agreed to wash the windows of the plaintiff’s building on a weekly basis during the period April 1 to December 31, 2015, for a total price of $10,000, payable in weekly installments. At the time the agreement was entered into by the parties, the defendant was 17 years old and just two weeks shy of his 18th birthday. Plaintiff did not know or even think about the defendant’s age. He was of mature appearance, operated his own business, and approached plaintiff to solicit the work. Although plaintiff was unaware of the defendant’s domestic circumstances, he had in fact been living on his own for some time and was financially independent of his parents. Two days after entering into the agreement with plaintiff, defendant accepted a more lucrative business opportunity that precluded him from performing the window washing services for plaintiff. He therefore called plaintiff and told her that he was no longer able to wash her windows. At this stage the contract was fully executory – that is, no services had been performed under the contract, and no payments had been made.

After trying in vain to persuade defendant to honor his undertaking, plaintiff made inquiries and found another person to perform the same services for a fee of $15,000. This was the cheapest substitute available. Plaintiff then sued defendant for $5,000, the difference between what the services would have cost her under the contract with defendant and what they cost under the substitute transaction. This is the correct measure of damages because it compensates plaintiff for her disappointed expectation and places her in the same position she would have been in had the contract been performed. However, these damages are only recoverable if defendant’s refusal to perform was an actionable breach of contract.

None of the above facts were disputed at trial. Defendant admitted entering into and subsequently refusing to perform the contract. The sole defense that he raised was that he was a minor at the time of contracting and therefore had the right to avoid the contract, which he did a couple of days later. The trial court found in favor of the defendant on this issue of law and granted judgment in his favor.

On appeal to this court, plaintiff concedes that defendant was a minor both when entering into and terminating the contract. However, plaintiff urges us to hold defendant bound to the contract under the circumstances of this case: Defendant was almost 18, operated his own business, looked mature, lived independently of his parents and fully understood the nature of the transaction. Plaintiff dealt fairly with defendant and had no knowledge of his age. In effect, while plaintiff acknowledges that a minor’s contract is normally avoidable, she contends that the application of that rule in the present case would be highly technical and unfair. While this argument has some appeal, it is contrary to the law and policy of this state and must fail.

At common law, a person attained the age of majority at 21. However, in 1960 the legislature of this state changed the age of majority to 18. The statute expressly states that “until midnight on the day preceding a person’s 18th birthday, that person shall be a minor for all purpose in law.” Clearly, then, defendant was a minor both when he contracted and disaffirmed his contract.

The law of this state on minors’ contracts was first pronounced on by this court in Williams v. Underhill, 50 LL Reports 100 (1958), in which we held that a contract entered into by a minor may be avoided by the minor, either expressly or by implication, at any time before attaining majority age or within a reasonable time thereafter. As we explained in the Williams opinion, this rule is intended to protect minors from improvidence and bad judgment and to prevent advantage-taking by adults. The rationale is as applicable today as it was when first advanced, and the rule has been followed ever since. Plaintiff refers us to Tannenbaum v. Gump, 52 LL Reports 142 (1959), in which we recognized an exception to the rule where a minor had become fully emancipated from her parents as a result of marrying and setting up her own home. However, the marital status of the minor was a material element of that case and distinguishes it from the situation before use today. Given the law’s purpose of affording protection to minors, we are not inclined to broaden the rule in Tannenbaum.

It may be true, as plaintiff argues, that is technical and unfair to allow an independent and mature minor to avoid a contract entered into so close to majority. However, this argument invites the court to abandon a clear and definitive rule in favor of a case-by-case investigation into the minor’s circumstances. While it may be arbitrary to fix contractual capacity as arising at a precise hour on a person’s 18th birthday, this rule is at least predictable and easy to apply. A fact-based analysis of a minor’s actual ability to use mature judgment would create uncertainty in the law and would surely encourage litigation. The arbitrary rule does not really impose great hardship on the major party who has the opportunity to demand proof of age whenever dealing with a person of youthful appearance. In any event, even if plaintiff’s argument has merit, it is better addressed to the legislature than to the courts, because the legislature has spoken on this matter and we have no authority to disregard a clear statutory provision.

Finally, we note in passing that plaintiff has referred us to several decisions from other states in which it has been held that a minor loses the right to disaffirm a contract where he or she has misrepresented his or her age. The wisdom of such decisions may be called into question, given the policy of protecting minors from improvident and irresponsible behavior. Nonetheless, we need not pass on this question here, because there is no evidence that defendant affirmatively misrepresented his age. It is not enough to constitute a misrepresentation that a minor simply appears to be over 18 and says nothing to counter that impression.

We therefore find that the trial court did not err in giving judgment to the defendant and we affirm.

Tice, Justice, concurring.

I agree with the conclusion reached by the court on the facts of this case. However, I write separately to emphasize that I take the majority’s opinion to be confined to a wholly executory contract. Had the contract been performed in whole or in part, it would have been appropriate for the court to take this into account in deciding whether to enforce this contract. In this respect, I take a more expansive view of the court’s discretion in these matters than the majority seems to assert.

Wiggins, Justice, dissenting.

In allowing defendant to avoid this contract, the majority adopts an absurdly rigid approach. While it is true that minors need protection from improvident action and exploitation by adults, there is no evidence in this case to suggest that any such factors were present. Rather, defendant unscrupulously reneged on his contractual promise for the sake of exploiting more profitable economic opportunities. Given the age and independence of the defendant, he was in fact emancipated. His situation is really indistinguishable from that of the married minor in Tannenbaum, and the rule in that case should have been followed here. By refusing to extend that rule, and narrowly confining the Tannenbaum decision to fact of marriage, the majority allows the defendant to escape his undertaking with impunity and teaches young people a very poor lesson on business ethics. The advantage of legal certainty is greatly outweighed by the need to do justice between the parties in specific cases.

Furthermore, the majority’s claim that its hands are tied by statute is misconceived. The statute simply fixes the age of majority. It says nothing of the court’s power at common law to recognize appropriate exceptions to the general rule concerning the a voidability of minors’ contracts. Indeed, the rule in Tannenbaum was already in existence at the time that the statute was enacted, and no one has suggested that the statute was intended to overrule it.

For the above reason, I dissent from the majority opinion and would reverse the decision of the lower court.

Answer the following questions based on this opinion.

1) The ruling or holding of the case, simply stated, is that the defendant has a legal right to rescind (i.e. cancel) the contract. What material facts did the court rely on as the basis for its holding?

2) Is the dissenting opinion precedent?

3) Identify the rationale(s) used to support the majority opinion.

4) Why did Justice Tice write a concurring opinion?

5) Consider the treatment of the Tannenbaum decision in the majority and dissenting opinions. What does this tell you about the process of following precedent?

6) Assume that after this opinion was issued in Ingram v. Sullivan, a trial court in Lincoln Land has to resolve a case in which a minor deliberately and expressly misrepresented to the adult party that she was 20 years old and bolstered this misrepresentation by producing a fake driver’s license. Is our case, Ingram v. Sullivan, controlling precedent in this case? If not, does our case offer any guidance to the trial court in deciding how to resolve the latter case?

7) Assume that after Ingram v. Sullivan, the supreme court of a different state has to resolve a case with substantially the same facts. Is the Ingram case binding precedent in this other jurisdiction?

8) In another subsequent case before a trial court in Lincoln Land, the facts are almost identical to Ingram v. Sullivan. The only difference is that the minor terminated the contract one week after his 18th birthday and before the services had been delivered and paid for. How does Ingram affect the disposition of this case? Is it still binding precedent? For more information on Supreme Court of Lincoln Land see this: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Abraham_Lincoln

Supreme Court of Lincoln Land

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