“Unpopular” Contracts and Why They Matter
posted by Jennifer Taub
Professor Lawrence Cunningham knows the law and his audience. With Contracts in the Real World: Stories of Popular Contracts and Why They Matter, he brings contract doctrine to life. Cunningham concisely, yet colorfully, covers how courts resolve a variety of deals gone wrong. This book is ideal to help students develop an understanding of how the law is used to sort between those bargains that will be enforced and those that will not, as well as what remedies are available when things do not go as the parties to the agreement initially planned.
Contracts in the Real World has considerable range. It starts with a wrecked wedding party, an event few experience though many may fear. A dispute between a couple and a banquet hall venue results from a regional power outage during the reception. This fact pattern echoes the type of phone call a recent law graduate might receive from an exasperated family member punctuated with the dreaded question — you’re a lawyer, can we get our money back? The book provides a sensible explanation of how the wedding dilemma would resolve, and weaves together this type of personal situation with more public, celebrities’ disputes and classic contract decisions. These classic decisions are better appreciated in this fashion, when they are used to explain the outcomes of more modern disputes. For example, Sherwood v. Walker (the fertile cow – mutual mistake case) dating back to 1887 resonates when it is used to analyze a divorce settlement dispute concerning millions of dollars invested with Bernard Madoff’s Ponzi scheme.
What makes the book particularly compelling, is that mixed in with relatable fact patterns and entertaining battles are significant matters of policy. Contracts in the Real World accomplishes this, for example, when it covers some very unpopular contracts. These include the infamous agreements under which American International Group (AIG) paid out $165 million in cash bonuses to roughly 400 employees. According to the New York Times, among those who received more than $1 million a piece were 73 employees of the AIGFP business unit. This was the same business unit that helped enable the housing bubble and related Financial Crisis of 2008 by providing credit protection (selling credit default swaps) on high-risk mortgage-linked securities. The AIG bonuses were announced in 2009, just months after the US government paid $85 billion for a nearly 80% ownership stake in AIG. This was a part of the $182 billion government commitment to rescue the giant insurance firm when it approached insolvency due, in large part, to its inability to make payments to counterparties on its credit default swaps.
The public outrage over the AIG bonuses is included in Chapter 3 which covers the concepts of “excuses and termination.” These bonus contracts were entered into in early 2008, well before the bailout. The agreements which promised bonus payments in 2009 and 2010 were designed to encourage employees to stay with AIGFP. In response to an irate public, in 2009, AIG which was by then a ward of the state, insisted that the contracts with these employees were ironclad. Yet, the company did not publicly reveal the actual language of the agreements nor were legal theories that would have excused performance discussed. Those opposed to paying the bonuses, including certain members of Congress suggested imposing up to a 100% tax on them. In this manner even the opposition seemed to treat as true the faulty premise that contract law requires all agreements to be performed without any exceptions. Cunningham attempted to correct this misperception. In a contemporary op-ed in the NYT and in Contracts in the Real World he suggested that contract doctrine might have been a moderating measure, an alternative to either unexamined payments on the one hand or demands for government confiscation, on the other. It also would have been a teachable moment. Though that moment passed, through this book, the lesson is not lost.
Finally, beyond these thoughtful presentations of popular and unpopular contracts, this book includes in the final chapter twenty statements the reader is invited to determine are true or false, to test comprehension of contract law. This useful list serves as a proxy for the book’s (and a course’s) intended learning outcomes. Given the comprehensive scope and easy style of Cunningham’s book, this is a natural choice to assign as a supplement to a casebook. Or, one might be tempted to use it as the primary textbook, and supplement it with the UCC, a number of the referenced cases and other favorites, highlighting where jurisdictions vary. Students may learn faster when they are so guided and engaged. Should this leave extra time in the semester, it might be used for contract negotiation and drafting, skills that nearly all attorneys need but few learn in law school.