Main Body

8 Promissory Estoppel

4. Promissory Estoppel

 

Courts have been unwilling to confine contractual liability within the narrow limits of consideration doctrine. Although bargained-for exchanges remain central to contract enforcement, an important line of cases embraces a competing principle of reliance-based enforcement. Even in the absence of an express bargain, a promise may be enforceable if the promisor should reasonably expect it to induce action or forbearance. Thus, promissory estoppel doctrine offers some hope of legal protection to a person who incurs costs or confers benefits in justifiable reliance on a promise.

 

As many jurists and commentators have observed, however, this reliance principle has the potential to obliterate the distinction between enforceable bargains and unenforceable donative promises that consideration doctrine strives so mightily to maintain.

 

It would cut up the doctrine of consideration by the roots, if a promisee could make a gratuitous promise binding by subsequently acting on it.

 

Commonwealth v. Scituate Savings Bank, 137 Mass. 301, 302 (1884) (Holmes, J.). The Restatement (Second) offers the following description of the circumstances warranting reliance-based enforcement:

 

§ 90. Promise Reasonably Inducing Action or Forbearance

 

(1) A promise which the promisor should reasonably expect to induce action or forbearance on the part of the promisee or a third person and which does induce such action or forbearance is binding if inj

 

ustice can be avoided only by enforcement of the promise. The remedy granted for breach may be limited as justice requires.

 

(2) A charitable subscription or a marriage settlement is binding under Subsection (1) without proof that the promise induced action or forbearance.

 

Comment b to § 90 elaborates:

 

The principle of this Section is flexible. The promisor is affected only by reliance which he does or should foresee, and enforcement must be necessary to avoid injustice. Satisfaction of the latter requirement may depend on the reasonableness of the promisee’s reliance, on its definite and substantial character in relation to the remedy sought, on the formality with which the promise is made, on the extent to which the evidentiary, cautionary, deterrent and channeling functions of form are met by the commercial setting or otherwise, and on the extent to which such other policies as the enforcement of bargains and the prevention of unjust enrichment are relevant.

 

The language of the Restatement (Second) incorporates a large number of factors and explicitly suggests that courts should apply promissory estoppel doctrine flexibly. It remains to be seen whether this flexibility produces a narrow or a broad exception to the bargain theory of consideration. Several prominent commentators have argued that courts still display a reluctance to enforce unbargained-for promises.

 

[D]etrimental reliance is likely to occur even if no visible evidence of it exists. Between the date of the [gratuitous] promise and that of the repudiation, [the promisee] will have modified his consumption habits in adjustment to his suddenly increased wealth. If this expectation is disappointed, [the promissee’s] excessive consumption will have produced a permanent net loss in welfare; this loss is his reliance injury. Courts rarely acknowledge the existence of such uncompensated reliance when they refuse to enforce gratuitous promises. The absence of bargained-for consideration triggers instead a presumption of nonenforcement.

 

Charles J. Goetz & Robert E. Scott, Enforcing Promises: An Examination of the Basis of Contract, 89 Yale L.J. 1261, 1302 (1980). After surveying case law to determine how courts were using promissory estoppel doctrine, Professor Stanley Henderson similarly concluded that the success of a § 90 claim depends:

 

on the ability of the court to reconcile the reliance factor implicit in promissory estoppel with a general theory of consideration which is dominated by notions of reciprocity…. Moreover, the disposition to treat action in reliance as proof of bargain … seriously impairs the reliance principle in the very cases [of gratuitous promises] in which reliance is likely to be the only available ground for relief…. [Thus] the risk that action in reliance will be found to be not sufficiently serious to justify application of § 90, or merely the condition of a gratuitous promise, is thereby increased.

 

Stanley Henderson, Promissory Estoppel and the Traditional Contract Doctrine, 78 Yale L.J. 343, 345-50 (1969). Another scholar explained why an aggressive promissory estoppel doctrine might impede business negotiations.

 

Certainly some freedom to change one’s mind is necessary for free intercourse between those who lack omniscience. For this reason we cannot accept Dean Pound’s theory that all promises in the course of business should be enforced…. [B]usiness men as a whole do not wish the law to enforce every promise. Many business transactions, such as those on a stock or produce exchange, could not be carried on unless we could rely on a mere [oral] agreement or hasty memorandum. But other transactions, like those of real estate, are more complicated and would become too risky if we were bound by every chance promise that escapes us. Negotiations would be checked by such fear. In such cases, men do not want to be bound until the final stage, when some formality like the signing of papers gives one the feeling of security, of having taken the proper precautions.

 

Felix Cohen, The Basis of Contract, 46 Harv. L. Rev. 553, 572-74 (1933).

 

Finally, we might wonder how § 90 came to be part of the Restatement (Second). Professor Grant Gilmore offers the following colorful narrative:

 

[Consider] the [first] Restatement’s definition of consideration [which was then] (§ 75) taken in connection with its most celebrated section, § 90, captioned “Promise Reasonably Inducing Definite and Substantial Action.” First § 75:

 

(1) Consideration for a promise is

 

(a) an act other than a promise, or

 

(b) a forbearance, or

 

(c) the creation, modification or destruction of a legal relation, or

 

(d) a return promise, bargained for and given in exchange for the promise.

 

(2) Consideration may be given to the promisor or to some other person. It may be given by the promisee or by some other person.

 

This is, of course, pure Holmes. The venerable Justice took no part in the Restatement project. It is unlikely that he ever looked at the Restatement of Contracts. If, however, § 75 was ever drawn to his attention, it is not hard to imagine him chuckling at the thought of how his revolutionary teaching of the 1880s had become the orthodoxy of a half-century later. Now § 90:

 

A promise which the promisor should reasonably expect to induce action or forbearance of a definite and substantial character on the part of the promisee and which does induce such action or forbearance is binding if injustice can be avoided only by enforcement of the promise.

 

And what is that all about? We have become accustomed to the idea, without in the least understanding it, that the universe includes both matter and anti-matter. Perhaps what we have here is Restatement and anti-Restatement or Contract and anti-Contract. We can be sure that Holmes, who relished a good paradox, would have laughed aloud at the sequence of § 75 and § 90. The one thing that is clear is that these two contradictory propositions cannot live comfortably together: in the end one must swallow the other up.

 

A good many years ago Professor Corbin gave me his version of how this unlikely combination came about. When the Restaters and their advisors came to the definition of consideration, Williston proposed in substance what became § 75. Corbin submitted a quite different proposal. To understand what the Corbin proposal was about, it is necessary to backtrack somewhat. Even after the Holmesian or bargain theory of consideration had won all but universal acceptance, the New York Court of Appeals had, during the Cardozo period, pursued a line of its own. There is a long series of Cardozo contract opinions, scattered over his long tenure on that court. Taken all in all, they express what might be called an expansive theory of contract. Courts should make contracts wherever possible, rather than the other wayaround. Missing terms can be supplied. If an express promise is lacking, an implied promise can easily be found. In particular Cardozo delighted in weaving gossamer spider webs of consideration. There was consideration for a father’s promise to pay his engaged daughter an annuity after marriage in the fact that the engaged couple, instead of breaking off the engagement, had in fact married. There was consideration for a pledge to a college endowment campaign (which the donor had later sought to revoke) in the fact that the college, by accepting the pledge, had come under an implied duty to memorialize the donor’s name: “The longing for posthumous remembrance is an emotion not so weak as to justify us in saying that its gratification is a negligible good.” Evidently a judge who could find “consideration” in DeCicco v. Schweizer or in the Allegheny College case could, when he was so inclined, find consideration anywhere: the term had been so broadened as to have become meaningless. We may now return to the Restatement debate on the consideration definition. Corbin, who had been deeply influenced by Cardozo, proposed to the Restaters what might be called a Cardozoean definition of consideration—broad, vague and, essentially, meaningless—a common law equivalent of causa, or cause. In the debate Corbin and the Cardozoeans lost out to Williston and the Holmesians. In Williston’s view, that should have been the end of the matter.

 

Instead, Corbin returned to the attack. At the next meeting of the Restatement group, he addressed them more or less in the following manner: Gentlemen, you are engaged in restating the common law of contracts. You have recently adopted a definition of consideration. I now submit to you a list of cases—hundreds, perhaps or thousands?—in which courts have imposed contractual liability under circumstances in which, according to your definition, there would be no consideration and therefore no liability. Gentlemen, what do you intend to do about these cases?

 

To understand Corbin’s point we must backtrack and digress again. I have made the point that Holmesian consideration theory had, as Holmes perfectly well knew, not so much as a leg to stand on if the matter is taken historically. Going back into the past, there was an indefinite number of cases which had imposed liability, in the name of consideration, where nothing like Holmes’s “reciprocal conventional inducement” was anywhere in sight. Holmes’s point was that these were bad cases and that the range of contractual liability should be confined within narrower limits. By the turn of the century, except in New York, the strict bargain theory of consideration had won general acceptance. But, unlike Holmes, many judges, it appeared, were not prepared to look with stony-eyed indifference on the plight of a plaintiff who had, to his detriment, relied on a defendant’s assurances without the protection of a formal contract. However, the new doctrine precluded the judges of the 1900 crop from saying, as their predecessors would have said a half-century earlier, that the “detriment” itself was “consideration.” They had to find a new solution, or, at least, a new terminology. In such a situation the word that comes instinctively to the mind of any judge is, of course, “estoppel”—which is simply a way of saying that, for reasons which the court does not care to discuss, there must be judgment for plaintiff. And in the contract cases after 1900 the word “estoppel,” modulating into such phrases as “equitable estoppel” and “promissory estoppel,” began to appear with increasing frequency. Thus Corbin, in his submission to the Restaters, was plentifully supplied with new, as well as with old, case material.

 

The Restaters, honorable men, evidently found Corbin’s argument unanswerable. However, instead of reopening the debate on the consideration definition, they elected to stand by § 75 but to add a new section—§ 90—incorporating the estoppel idea although without using the word “estoppel.” The extent to which the new section § 90 was to be allowed to undercut the underlying principle of § 75 was left entirely unresolved. The format of the Restatement included analytical, discursive, often lengthy comments, interspersed with illustrations—that is, hypothetical cases, the facts of which were frequently drawn from real cases. Section 90 is almost the only section of the Restatement of Contracts which has no Comment at all. Four hypothetical cases, none of them, so far as I know, based on a real case, are offered as “illustrations,” presumably to indicate the range which the section was meant to have. An attentive study of the four illustrations will lead any analyst to the despairing conclusion, which is of course reinforced by the mysterious text of § 90 itself, that no one had any idea what the damn thing meant.

 

Grant Gilmore, The Death of Contract 60-65 (1974).

 

 

 

 

4.1 Principal Case – Feinberg v. Pfeiffer Co.

 

In this first of two employment cases, the court uses promissory estoppel doctrine to enforce a company’s promise of retirement benefits to a longtime and highly valued employee.

 

Feinberg v. Pfeiffer Co.

 

St. Louis Court of Appeals, Missouri

 

322 S.W.2d 163 (1959)

 

Doerner, Commissioner.

 

[1]  This is a suit brought in the Circuit Court of the City of St. Louis by plaintiff, a former employee of the defendant corporation, on an alleged contract whereby defendant agreed to pay plaintiff the sum of $200 per month for life upon her retirement. A jury being waived, the case was tried by the court alone. Judgment below was for plaintiff for $5,100, the amount of the pension claimed to be due as of the date of the trial, together with interest thereon, and defendant duly appealed.

 

[2]  The parties are in substantial agreement on the essential facts. Plaintiff began working for the defendant, a manufacturer of pharmaceuticals, in 1910, when she was but 17 years of age. By 1947 she had attained the position of bookkeeper, office manager, and assistant treasurer of the defendant, and owned 70 shares of its stock out of a total of 6,503 shares issued and outstanding. Twenty shares had been given to her by the defendant or its then president, she had purchased 20, and the remaining 30 she had acquired by a stock split or stock dividend. Over the years she received substantial dividends on the stock she owned, as did all of the other stockholders. Also, in addition to her salary, plaintiff from 1937 to 1949, inclusive, received each year a bonus varying in amount from $300 in the beginning to $2,000 in the later years.

 

[3]  On December 27, 1947, the annual meeting of the defendant’s Board of Directors was held at the Company’s offices in St. Louis, presided over by Max Lippman, its then president and largest individual stockholder. The other directors present were George L. Marcus, Sidney Harris, Sol Flammer, and Walter Weinstock, who, with Max Lippman, owned 5,007 of the 6,503 shares then issued and outstanding. At that meeting the Board of Directors adopted the following resolution, which, because it is the crux of the case, we quote in full:

 

The Chairman thereupon pointed out that the Assistant Treasurer, Mrs. Anna Sacks Feinberg, has given the corporation many years of long and faithful service. Not only has she served the corporation devotedly, but with exceptional ability and skill. The President pointed out that although all of the officers and directors sincerely hoped and desired that Mrs. Feinberg would continue in her present position for as long as she felt able, nevertheless, in view of the length of service which she has contributed provision should be made to afford her retirement privileges and benefits which should become a firm obligation of the corporation to be available to her whenever she should see fit to retire from active duty, however many years in the future such retirement may become effective. It was, accordingly, proposed that Mrs. Feinberg’s salary which is presently $350.00 per month, be increased to $400.00 per month, and that Mrs. Feinberg would be given the privilege of retiring from active duty at any time she may elect to see fit so to do upon a retirement pay of $200.00 per month for life, with the distinct understanding that the retirement plan is merely being adopted at the present time in order to afford Mrs. Feinberg security for the future and in the hope that her active services will continue with the corporation for many years to come. After due discussion and consideration, and upon motion duly made and seconded, it was—

 

Resolved, that the salary of Anna Sacks Feinberg be increased from $350.00 to $400.00 per month and that she be afforded the privilege of retiring from active duty in the corporation at any time she may elect to see fit so to do upon retirement pay of $200.00 per month, for the remainder of her life.

 

[4]  At the request of Mr. Lippman his sons-in-law, Messrs. Harris and Flammer, called upon the plaintiff at her apartment on the same day to advise her of the passage of the resolution. Plaintiff testified on cross-examination that she had no prior information that such a pension plan was contemplated, that it came as a surprise to her, and that she would have continued in her employment whether or not such a resolution had been adopted. It is clear from the evidence that there was no contract, oral or written, as to plaintiff’s length of employment, and that she was free to quit, and the defendant to discharge her, at any time.

 

[5]  Plaintiff did continue to work for the defendant through June 30, 1949, on which date she retired. In accordance with the foregoing resolution, the defendant began paying her the sum of $200 on the first of each month. Mr. Lippman died on November 18, 1949, and was succeeded as president of the company by his widow. Because of an illness, she retired from that office and was succeeded in October, 1953, by her son-in-law, Sidney M. Harris. Mr. Harris testified that while Mrs. Lippman had been president she signed the monthly pension check paid plaintiff, but fussed about doing so, and considered the payments as gifts. After his election, he stated, a new accounting firm employed by the defendant questioned the validity of the payments to plaintiff on several occasions, and in the Spring of 1956, upon its recommendation, he consulted the Company’s then attorney, Mr. Ralph Kalish. Harris testified that both Ernst and Ernst, the accounting firm, and Kalish told him there was no need of giving plaintiff the money. He also stated that he had concurred in the view that the payments to plaintiff were mere gratuities rather than amounts due under a contractual obligation, and that following his discussion with the Company’s attorney plaintiff was sent a check for $100 on April 1, 1956. Plaintiff declined to accept the reduced amount, and this action followed. Additional facts will be referred to later in this opinion.

 

[6]  Appellant’s first assignment of error relates to the admission in evidence of plaintiff’s testimony over its objection, that at the time of trial she was sixty-five and a half years old, and that she was no longer able to engage in gainful employment because of the removal of a cancer and the performance of a colocholecystostomy operation on November 25, 1957. Its complaint is not so much that such evidence was irrelevant and immaterial, as it is that the trial court erroneously made it one basis for its decision in favor of plaintiff. As defendant concedes, the error (if it was error) in the admission of such evidence would not be a ground for reversal, since, this being a jury-waived case, we are constrained by the statutes to review it upon both the law and the evidence, Sec. 510.310 R.S. Mo. 1949, V.A.M.S., and to render such judgment as the court below ought to have given. Section 512.160, Minor v. Lillard, Mo., 289 S.W.2d 1; Thumm v. Lohr, Mo. App., 306 S.W.2d 604. We consider only such evidence as is admissible, and need not pass upon questions of error in the admission and exclusion of evidence. Hussey v. Robinson, Mo., 285 S.W.2d 603. However, in fairness to the trial court it should be stated that while he briefly referred to the state of plaintiff’s health as of the time of the trial in his amended findings of fact, it is obvious from his amended grounds for decision and judgment that it was not, as will be seen, the basis for his decision.

 

[7]  Appellant’s next complaint is that there was insufficient evidence to support the court’s findings that plaintiff would not have quit defendant’s employ had she not known and relied upon the promise of defendant to pay her $200 a month for life, and the finding that, from her voluntary retirement until April 1, 1956, plaintiff relied upon the continued receipt of the pension installments. The trial court so found, and, in our opinion, justifiably so. Plaintiff testified, and was corroborated by Harris, defendant’s witness, that knowledge of the passage of the resolution was communicated to her on December 27, 1947, the very day it was adopted. She was told at that time by Harris and Flammer, she stated, that she could take the pension as of that day, if she wished. She testified further that she continued to work for another year and a half, through June 30, 1949; that at that time her health was good and she could have continued to work, but that after working for almost forty years she thought she would take a rest. Her testimony continued:

 

Q. Now, what was the reason-I’m sorry. Did you then quit the employment of the company after you-after this year and a half?

 

Yes.

 

Q. What was the reason that you left?

 

Well, I thought almost forty years, it was a long time and I thought I would take a little rest.

 

Q. Yes.

 

And with the pension and what earnings my husband had, we figured we could get along.

 

Q. Did you rely upon this pension?

 

We certainly did.

 

Q. Being paid?

 

Very much so. We relied upon it because I was positive that I was going to get it as long as I lived.

 

Q. Would you have left the employment of the company at that time had it not been for this pension?

 

No.

 

Mr. Allen: Just a minute, I object to that as calling for a conclusion and conjecture on the part of this witness.

 

The Court: It will be overruled.

 

Q. (Mr. Agatstein continuing): Go ahead, now. The question is whether you would have quit the employment of the company at that time had you not relied upon this pension plan?

 

No, I wouldn’t.

 

Q. You would not have. Did you ever seek employment while this pension was being paid to you-

 

(interrupting): No.

 

Q. Wait a minute, at any time prior-at any other place?

 

No, sir.

 

Q. Were you able to hold any other employment during that time?

 

Yes, I think so.

 

Q. Was your health good?

 

My health was good.

 

[8]  It is obvious from the foregoing that there was ample evidence to support the findings of fact made by the court below.

 

[9]  We come, then, to the basic issue in the case. While otherwise defined in defendant’s third and fourth assignments of error, it is thus succinctly stated in the argument in its brief: “…whether plaintiff has proved that she has a right to recover from defendant based upon a legally binding contractual obligation to pay her $200 per month for life.”

 

[10] It is defendant’s contention, in essence, that the resolution adopted by its Board of Directors was a mere promise to make a gift, and that no contract resulted either thereby, or when plaintiff retired, because there was no consideration given or paid by the plaintiff. It urges that a promise to make a gift is not binding unless supported by a legal consideration; that the only apparent consideration for the adoption of the foregoing resolution was the “many years of long and faithful service” expressed therein; and that past services are not a valid consideration for a promise. Defendant argues further that there is nothing in the resolution which made its effectiveness conditional upon plaintiff’s continued employment, that she was not under contract to work for any length of time but was free to quit whenever she wished, and that she had no contractual right to her position and could have been discharged at any time.

 

[11] Plaintiff concedes that a promise based upon past services would be without consideration, but contends that there were two other elements which supplied the required element: First, the continuation by plaintiff in the employ of the defendant for the period from December 27, 1947, the date when the resolution was adopted, until the date of her retirement on June 30, 1949. And, second, her change of position, i. e., her retirement, and the abandonment by her of her opportunity to continue in gainful employment, made in reliance on defendant’s promise to pay her $200 per month for life.

 

[12] We must agree with the defendant that the evidence does not support the first of these contentions. There is no language in the resolution predicating plaintiff’s right to a pension upon her continued employment. She was not required to work for the defendant for any period of time as a condition to gaining such retirement benefits. She was told that she could quit the day upon which the resolution was adopted, as she herself testified, and it is clear from her own testimony that she made no promise or agreement to continue in the employ of the defendant in return for its promise to pay her a pension. Hence there was lacking that mutuality of obligation which is essential to the validity of a contract. Middleton v. Holecraft, Mo. App., 270 S.W.2d 90; Solace v. T. J. Moss Tie Co., Mo. App., 142 S.W.2d 1079; Aslin v. Stoddard County, 341 Mo. 138, 106 S.W.2d 472; Fuqua v. Lumbermen’s Supply Co., 229 Mo. App. 210, 76 S.W.2d 715; Hudson v. Browning, 264 Mo. 58, 174 S.W. 393; Campbell v. American Handle Co., 117 Mo. App. 19, 94 S.W. 815.

 

[13] But as to the second of these contentions we must agree with plaintiff. By the terms of the resolution defendant promised to pay plaintiff the sum of $200 a month upon her retirement. Consideration for a promise has been defined in the Restatement of the Law of Contracts, Section 75, as:

 

(1) Consideration for a promise is

 

(a) an act other than a promise, or

 

(b) a forbearance, or

 

(c) the creation, modification or destruction of a legal relation, or

 

(d) a return promise,

 

bargained for and given in exchange for the promise.

 

[14] As the parties agree, the consideration sufficient to support a contract may be either a benefit to the promisor or a loss or detriment to the promisee. Industrial Bank & Trust Co. v. Hesselberg, Mo., 195 S.W.2d 470; State ex rel. Kansas City v. State Highway Commission, 349 Mo. 865, 163 S.W.2d 948; Duvall v. Duncan, 341 Mo. 1129, 111 S.W.2d 89; Thompson v. McCune, 333 Mo. 758, 63 S.W.2d 41.

 

[15] Section 90 of the Restatement of the Law of Contracts states that: “A promise which the promisor should reasonably expect to induce action or forbearance of a definite and substantial character on the part of the promisee and which does induce such action or forbearance is binding if injustice can be avoided only by enforcement of the promise.” This doctrine has been described as that of “promissory estoppel,” as distinguished from that of equitable estoppel or estoppel in pais, the reason for the differentiation being stated as follows:

 

It is generally true that one who has led another to act in reasonable reliance on his representations of fact cannot afterwards in litigation between the two deny the truth of the representations, and some courts have sought to apply this principle to the formation of contracts, where, relying on a gratuitous promise, the promisee has suffered detriment. It is to be noticed, however, that such a case does not come within the ordinary definition of estoppel. If there is any representation of an existing fact, it is only that the promisor at the time of making the promise intends to fulfill it. As to such intention there is usually no misrepresentation and if there is, it is not that which has injured the promisee. In other words, he relies on a promise and not on a misstatement of fact; and the term “promissory” estoppel or something equivalent should be used to make the distinction.

 

Williston on Contracts, Rev. Ed., Sec. 139, Vol. 1.

 

[16] In speaking of this doctrine, Judge Learned Hand said in Porter v. Commissioner of Internal Revenue, 2 Cir., 60 F.2d 673, 675, that “…‘promissory estoppel’ is now a recognized species of consideration.”

 

[17] As pointed out by our Supreme Court in In re Jamison’s Estate, Mo., 202 S.W.2d 879, 887, it is stated in the Missouri Annotations to the Restatement under Section 90 that: “There is a variance between the doctrine underlying this section and the theoretical justifications that have been advanced for the Missouri decisions.”

 

[18] That variance, as the authors of the Annotations point out, is that:

 

This § 90, when applied with § 85, means that the promise described is a contract without any consideration. In Missouri the same practical result is reached without in theory abandoning the doctrine of consideration. In Missouri three theories have been advanced as ground for the decisions (1) Theory of act for promise. The induced “action or forbearance” is the consideration for the promise. Underwood Typewriter Co. v. Century Realty Co. (1909) 220 Mo. 522, 119 S.W. 400, 25 L.R.A., N.S., 1173. See § 76. (2) Theory of promissory estoppel. The induced “action or forbearance” works an estoppel against the promisor. (Citing School District of Kansas City v. Sheidley (1897) 138 Mo. 672, 40 S. W. 656 [37 L.R.A. 406]…(3) Theory of bilateral contract. When the induced ‘action or forbearance’ is begun, a promise to complete is implied, and we have an enforceable bilateral contract, the implied promise to complete being the consideration for the original promise.

 

[19] Was there such an act on the part of plaintiff, in reliance upon the promise contained in the resolution, as will estop the defendant, and therefore create an enforceable contract under the doctrine of promissory estoppel? We think there was. One of the illustrations cited under Section 90 of the Restatement is: “2. A promises B to pay him an annuity during B’s life. B thereupon resigns a profitable employment, as A expected that he might. B receives the annuity for some years, in the meantime becoming disqualified from again obtaining good employment. A’s promise is binding.” This illustration is objected to by defendant as not being applicable to the case at hand. The reason advanced by it is that in the illustration B became “disqualified” from obtaining other employment before A discontinued the payments, whereas in this case the plaintiff did not discover that she had cancer and thereby became unemployable until after the defendant had discontinued the payments of $200 per month. We think the distinction is immaterial. The only reason for the reference in the illustration to the disqualification of A is in connection with that part of Section 90 regarding the prevention of injustice. The injustice would occur regardless of when the disability occurred. Would defendant contend that the contract would be enforceable if the plaintiff’s illness had been discovered on March 31, 1956, the day before it discontinued the payment of the $200 a month, but not if it occurred on April 2nd, the day after? Furthermore, there are more ways to become disqualified for work, or unemployable, than as the result of illness. At the time she retired plaintiff was 57 years of age. At the time the payments were discontinued she was over 63 years of age. It is a matter of common knowledge that it is virtually impossible for a woman of that age to find satisfactory employment, much less a position comparable to that which plaintiff enjoyed at the time of her retirement.

 

[20] The fact of the matter is that plaintiff’s subsequent illness was not the “action or forbearance” which was induced by the promise contained in the resolution. As the trial court correctly decided, such action on plaintiff’s part was her retirement from a lucrative position in reliance upon defendant’s promise to pay her an annuity or pension. In a very similar case, Ricketts v. Scothorn, 57 Neb. 51, 77 N.W. 365, 367, 42 L.R.A. 794, the Supreme Court of Nebraska said:

 

According to the undisputed proof, as shown by the record before us, the plaintiff was a working girl, holding a position in which she earned a salary of $10 per week. Her grandfather, desiring to put her in a position of independence, gave her the note accompanying it with the remark that his other grandchildren did not work, and that she would not be obliged to work any longer. In effect, he suggested that she might abandon her employment, and rely in the future upon the bounty which he promised. He doubtless desired that she should give up her occupation, but, whether he did or not, it is entirely certain that he contemplated such action on her part as a reasonable and probable consequence of his gift. Having intentionally influenced the plaintiff to alter her position for the worse on the faith of the note being paid when due, it would be grossly inequitable to permit the maker, or his executor, to resist payment on the ground that the promise was given without consideration.

 

[21] The Commissioner therefore recommends, for the reasons stated, that the judgment be affirmed.

 

 

 

 

4.1.1 Discussion of Feinberg v. Pfeiffer Co.

 

Despite the distinguished Justice Hand’s contrary assertion in ¶ 16, promissory estoppel is emphatically not a “recognized species of consideration.” Instead, the Restatement (Second) refers to the possibility of enforcing certain promises “without consideration,” and reserves consideration doctrine for situations involving a bargain. Compare Restatement (Second) §§ 71 and 90.

 

Under this understanding of the doctrine, was there consideration for Pfeiffer Company’s promise to Feinberg? What about her many years of loyal and faithful service?

 

Compare to Feinberg the following examples of different types of promises:

 

(a) “If you agree to continue working for me, I’ll give you a fair share of the profits at the end of the year.”

 

(b) “If you will voluntarily retire, I will give you a pension of $200 per month for life.”

 

Is there consideration in these cases?

 

Did Feinberg win because the promise was in writing? If not, then why?

 

 

 

 

4.2 Principal Case – Hayes v. Plantations Steel Co.

 

In this second employment case, the court rejects Hayes’s claim to enforce his former employer’s promise of pension benefits. As you read the court’s opinion, consider how Hayes’s circumstances differ from Feinberg’s.

 

Hayes v. Plantations Steel Co.

 

Supreme Court of Rhode Island

 

438 A.2d 1091 (1982)

 

Shea, Justice.

 

[1]  The defendant employer, Plantations Steel Company (Plantations), appeals from a Superior Court judgment for the plaintiff employee, Edward J. Hayes (Hayes). The trial justice, sitting without a jury, found that Plantations was obligated to Hayes on the basis of an implied-in-fact contract to pay him a yearly pension of $5,000. The award covered three years in which payment had not been made. The trial justice ruled, also, that Hayes had made a sufficient showing of detrimental reliance upon Plantations’s promise to pay to give rise to its obligation based on the theory of promissory estoppel. The trial justice, however, found in part for Plantations in ruling that the payments to Hayes were not governed by the Employee Retirement Income Security Act, 29 U.S.C.A. §§ 1001-1461 (West 1975), and consequently he was not entitled to attorney’s fees under § 1132(g) of that act. Both parties have appealed.

 

[2]  We reverse the findings of the trial justice regarding Plantations’s contractual obligation to pay Hayes a pension. Consequently we need not deal with the cross-appeal concerning the award of attorney’s fees under the federal statute.

 

[3]  Plantations is a closely held Rhode Island corporation engaged in the manufacture of steel reinforcing rods for use in concrete construction. The company was founded by Hugo R. Mainelli, Sr., and Alexander A. DiMartino. A dispute between their two families in 1976 and 1977 left the DiMartinos in full control of the corporation. Hayes was an employee of the corporation from 1947 until his retirement in 1972 at age of sixty-five. He began with Plantations as an “estimator and draftsman” and ended his career as general manager, a position of considerable responsibility. Starting in January 1973 and continuing until January 1976, Hayes received the annual sum of $5,000 from Plantations. Hayes instituted this action in December 1977, after the then company management refused to make any further payments.

 

[4]  Hayes testified that in January 1972 he announced his intention to retire the following July, after twenty-five years of continuous service. He decided to retire because he had worked continuously for fifty-one years. He stated, however, that he would not have retired had he not expected to receive a pension. After he stopped working for Plantations, he sought no other employment.

 

[5]  Approximately one week before his actual retirement Hayes spoke with Hugo R. Mainelli, Jr., who was then an officer and a stockholder of Plantations. This conversation was the first and only one concerning payments of a pension to Hayes during retirement. Mainelli said that the company “would take care” of him. There was no mention of a sum of money or a percentage of salary that Hayes would receive. There was no formal authorization for payments by Plantations’s shareholders and/or board of directors. Indeed, there was never any formal provision for a pension plan for any employee other than for unionized employees, who benefit from an arrangement through their union. The plaintiff was not a union member.

 

[6]  Mr. Mainelli, Jr., testified that his father, Hugo R. Mainelli, Sr., had authorized the first payment “as a token of appreciation for the many years of (Hayes’s) service.” Furthermore, “it was implied that that check would continue on an annual basis.” Mainelli also testified that it was his “personal intention” that the payments would continue for “as long as I was around.”

 

[7]  Mainelli testified that after Hayes’s retirement, he would visit the premises each year to say hello and renew old acquaintances. During the course of his visits, Hayes would thank Mainelli for the previous check and ask how long it would continue so that he could plan an orderly retirement.

 

[8]  The payments were discontinued after 1976. At that time a succession of several poor business years plus the stockholders’ dispute, resulting in the takeover by the DiMartino family, contributed to the decision to stop the payments.

 

[9]  The trial justice ruled that Plantations owed Hayes his annual sum of $5,000 for the years 1977 through 1979. The ruling implied that barring bankruptcy or the cessation of business for any other reason, Hayes had a right to expect continued annual payments.

 

[10] The trial justice found that Hugo Mainelli, Jr.‘s statement that Hayes would be taken care of after his retirement was a promise. Although no sum of money was mentioned in 1972, the four annual payments of $5,000 established that otherwise unspecified term of the contract. The trial justice also found that Hayes supplied consideration for the promise by voluntarily retiring, because he was under no obligation to do so. From the words and conduct of the parties and from the surrounding circumstances, the trial justice concluded that there existed an implied contract obligating the company to pay a pension to Hayes for life. The trial justice made a further finding that even if Hayes had not truly bargained for a pension by voluntarily retiring, he had nevertheless incurred the detriment of foregoing other employment in reliance upon the company’s promise. He specifically held that Hayes’s retirement was in response to the promise and held also that Hayes refrained from seeking other employment in further reliance thereon.

 

[11] The findings of fact of a trial justice sitting without a jury are entitled to great weight when reviewed by this court. His findings will not be disturbed unless it can be shown that they are clearly wrong or that the trial justice misconceived or overlooked material evidence. Lisi v. Marra, R.I., 424 A.2d 1052 (1981); Raheb v. Lemenski, 115 R.I. 576, 350 A.2d 397 (1976). After careful review of the record, however, we conclude that the trial justice’s findings and conclusions must be reversed.

 

[12] Assuming for the purpose of this discussion that Plantations in legal effect made a promise to Hayes, we must ask whether Hayes did supply the required consideration that would make the promise binding? And, if Hayes did not supply consideration, was his alleged reliance sufficiently induced by the promise to estop defendant from denying its obligation to him? We answer both questions in the negative.

 

[13] We turn first to the problem of consideration. The facts at bar do not present the case of an express contract. As the trial justice stated, the existence of a contract in this case must be determined from all the circumstances of the parties’ conduct and words. Although words were expressed initially in the remark that Hayes “would be taken care of,” any contract in this case would be more in the nature of an implied contract. Certainly the statement of Hugo Mainelli, Jr., standing alone is not an expression of a direct and definite promise to pay Hayes a pension. Though we are analyzing an implied contract, nevertheless we must address the question of consideration.

 

[14] Contracts implied in fact require the element of consideration to support them as is required in express contracts. The only difference between the two is the manner in which the parties manifest their assent. J. Koury Steel Erectors, Inc. v. San-Vel Concrete Corp., 387 A.2d 694 (R.I. 1978); Bailey v. West, 249 A.2d 414 (R.I. 1969). In this jurisdiction, consideration consists either in some right, interest, or benefit accruing to one party or some forbearance, detriment, or responsibility given, suffered, or undertaken by the other. See Dockery v. Greenfield, 136 A.2d 682 (R.I. 1957); Darcey v. Darcey, 71 A. 595 (R.I. 1909). Valid consideration furthermore must be bargained for. It must induce the return act or promise. To be valid, therefore, the purported consideration must not have been delivered before a promise is executed, that is, given without reference to the promise. Plowman v. Indian Refining Co., 20 F. Supp. 1 (E.D.Ill.1937). Consideration is therefore a test of the enforceability of executory promises, Angel v. Murray, 322 A.2d 630 (R.I. 1974), and has no legal effect when rendered in the past and apart from an alleged exchange in the present. Zanturjian v. Boornazian, 55 A. 199 (R.I. 1903).

 

[15] In the case before us, Plantations’s promise to pay Hayes a pension is quite clearly not supported by any consideration supplied by Hayes. Hayes had announced his intent to retire well in advance of any promise, and therefore the intention to retire was arrived at without regard to any promise by Plantations. Although Hayes may have had in mind the receipt of a pension when he first informed Plantations, his expectation was not based on any statement made to him or on any conduct of the company officer relative to him in January 1972. In deciding to retire, Hayes acted on his own initiative. Hayes’s long years of dedicated service also is legally insufficient because his service too was rendered without being induced by Plantations’s promise. See Plowman v. Indian Refining Co., supra.

 

[16] Clearly then this is not a case in which Plantations’s promise was meant to induce Hayes to refrain from retiring when he could have chosen to do so in return for further service. 1 Williston on Contracts § 130B (3d ed., Jaeger 1957). Nor was the promise made to encourage long service from the start of his employment. Weesner v. Electric Power Board of Chattanooga, 344 S.W.2d 766 (Tenn. App. 1961). Instead, the testimony establishes that Plantations’s promise was intended “as a token of appreciation for (Hayes’s) many years of service.” As such it was in the nature of a gratuity paid to Hayes for as long as the company chose. In Spickelmier Industries, Inc. v. Passander, 359 N.E.2d 563 (Ind. App. 1977), an employer’s promise to an employee to pay him a year-end bonus was unenforceable because it was made after the employee had performed his contractual responsibilities for that year.

 

[17] The plaintiff’s most relevant citations are still inapposite to the present case. Bredemann v. Vaughan Mfg. Co., 188 N.E.2d 746 (Ill. App. 1963), presents similar yet distinguishable facts. There, the appellate court reversed a summary judgment granted to the defendant employer, stating that a genuine issue of material fact existed regarding whether the plaintiff’s retirement was in consideration of her employer’s promise to pay her a lifetime pension. As in the present case, the employer made the promise one week prior to the employee’s retirement, and in almost the same words. However, Bredemann is distinguishable because the court characterized that promise as a concrete offer to pay if she would retire immediately. In fact, the defendant wanted her to retire. Id. 188 N.E.2d at 749. On the contrary, Plantations in this case did not actively seek Hayes’s retirement. DiMartino, one of Plantations’s founders, testified that he did not want Hayes to retire. Unlike Bredemann, here Hayes announced his unsolicited intent to retire.

 

[18] Hayes also argues that the work he performed during the week between the promise and the date of his retirement constituted sufficient consideration to support the promise. He relies on Ulmann v. Sunset-McKee Co., 221 F.2d 128 (9th Cir. 1955), in which the court ruled that work performed during the one-week period of the employee’s notice of impending retirement constituted consideration for the employer’s offer of a pension that the employee had solicited some months previously. But there the court stated that its prime reason for upholding the agreement was that sufficient consideration existed in the employee’s consent not to compete with his employer. These circumstances do not appear in our case. Hayes left his employment because he no longer desired to work. He was not contemplating other job offers or considering going into competition with Plantations. Although Plantations did not want Hayes to leave, it did not try to deter him, nor did it seek to prevent Hayes from engaging in other activity.

 

[19] Hayes argues in the alternative that even if Plantations’s promise was not the product of an exchange, its duty is grounded properly in the theory of promissory estoppel. This court adopted the theory of promissory estoppel in East Providence Credit Union v. Geremia, 239 A.2d 725, 727 (R.I. 1968) (quoting 1 Restatement Contracts § 90 at 110 (1932)) stating:

 

“A promise which the promisor should reasonably expect to induce action or forbearance of a definite and substantial character on the part of the promisee and which does induce such action or forbearance is binding if injustice can be avoided only by enforcement of its promise.”

 

[20] In East Providence Credit Union this court said that the doctrine of promissory estoppel is invoked “as a substitute for a consideration, rendering a gratuitous promise enforceable as a contract.” Id. To restate the matter differently, “the acts of reliance by the promisee to his detriment (provide) a substitute for consideration.” Id.

 

[21] Hayes urges that in the absence of a bargained-for promise the facts require application of the doctrine of promissory estoppel. He stresses that he retired voluntarily while expecting to receive a pension. He would not have otherwise retired. Nor did he seek other employment.

 

[22] We disagree with this contention largely for the reasons already stated. One of the essential elements of the doctrine of promissory estoppel is that the promise must induce the promisee’s action or forbearance. The particular act in this regard is plaintiff’s decision whether or not to retire. As we stated earlier, the record indicates that he made the decision on his own initiative. In other words, the conversation between Hayes and Mainelli which occurred a week before Hayes left his employment cannot be said to have induced his decision to leave. He had reached that decision long before.

 

[23] An example taken from the Restatement provides a meaningful contrast:

 

2. A promises B to pay him an annuity during B’s life. B thereupon resigns profitable employment, as A expected that he might. B receives the annuity for some years, in the meantime becoming disqualified from again obtaining good employment. A’s promise is binding.

 

1 Restatement of Contracts § 90 at 111 (1932).

 

[24] In Feinberg v. Pfeiffer Co., 322 S.W.2d 163 (Mo. App.1959), the plaintiff-employee had worked for her employer for nearly forty years. The defendant corporation’s board of directors resolved, in view of her long years of service, to obligate itself to pay “retirement privileges” to her. The resolution did not require the plaintiff to retire. Instead, the decision whether and when to retire remained entirely her own. The board then informed her of its resolution. The plaintiff worked for eighteen months more before retiring. She sued the corporation when it reduced her monthly checks seven years later. The court held that a pension contract existed between the parties. Although continued employment was not a consideration to her receipt of retirement benefits, the court found sufficient reliance on the part of the plaintiff to support her claim. The court based its decision upon the above restatement example, that is, the defendant informed the plaintiff of its plan, and the plaintiff in reliance thereon, retired. Feinberg presents factors that also appear in the case at bar. There, the plaintiff had worked many years and desired to retire; she would not have left had she not been able to rely on a pension; and once retired, she sought no other employment.

 

[25] However, the important distinction between Feinberg and the case before us is that in Feinberg the employer’s decision definitely shaped the thinking of the plaintiff. In this case the promise did not. It is not reasonable to infer from the facts that Hugo R. Mainelli, Jr., expected retirement to result from his conversation with Hayes. Hayes had given notice of his intention seven months previously. Here there was thus no inducement to retire which would satisfy the demands of § 90 of the Restatement. Nor can it be said that Hayes’s refraining from other employment was “action or forbearance of a definite and substantial character.” The underlying assumption of Hayes’s initial decision to retire was that upon leaving the defendant’s employ, he would no longer work. It is impossible to say that he changed his position any more so because of what Mainelli had told him in light of his own initial decision. These circumstances do not lead to a conclusion that injustice can be avoided only by enforcement of Plantations’s promise. Hayes received $20,000 over the course of four years. He inquired each year about whether he could expect a check for the following year. Obviously, there was no absolute certainty on his part that the pension would continue. Furthermore, in the face of his uncertainty, the mere fact that payment for several years did occur is insufficient by itself to meet the requirements of reliance under the doctrine of promissory estoppel.

 

[26] For the foregoing reasons, the defendant’s appeal is sustained and the judgment of the Superior Court is reversed. The papers of the case are remanded to the Superior Court.

 

 

 

 

4.2.1 Discussion of Hayes v. Plantation Steel Co.

 

Was there consideration for Plantations Steel’s promise to Hayes?

 

How does the court respond to Hayes’s effort to invoke promissory estoppel doctrine?

 

What facts distinguish Hayes’s situation from Feinberg’s?

 

Thinking more broadly about the enforcement decision in these cases, what circumstances appear to influence courts and make enforcement more or less likely?

 

 


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