Invalidating a Contract under the Doctrine of Economic Duress

The doctrine of economic duress has significantly developed and expanded, in recognition of the ever-increasing complexity of the business world. Claims of economic duress in business litigation are becoming more frequent. Several courts, including the United States Supreme Court, have acknowledged that there are situations under which financial pressure may cancel an otherwise enforceable contract. See 13 S. Williston, Contracts, § 1603 at 664 (3d ed. 1970); United States v. Bethlehem Steel Corp., 315 U.S. 289, 62 S.Ct. 581, 86 L.Ed. 855 (1942); Hartsville Oil Mill v. United States, 271 U.S. 43, 46 S.Ct. 389, 70 L.Ed. 822 (1926).The definition of economic duress is set forth in Williston:1. The party alleging economic duress must show that he has been the victim of a wrongful or unlawful act or threat, and2. Such act or threat must be one which deprives the victim of his unfettered will. [13 Williston, supra, § 1617 at 704 (footnotes omitted)]

The courts in New Jersey have defined economic duress as in the Williston formulation. In Woodside Homes, Inc. v. Morristown, 26 N.J. 529, 544 (1958), define that economic duress requires “an assent by one party to an improper or wrongful demand by another under circumstances in which the former has little choice but to accede to the demand. Economic duress occurs when the party alleging it is the victim of a wrongful or unlawful act or threat which deprives the victim of his unfettered will. Quigley v. KPMG Peat Marwick, LLP, 330 N.J.Super. 252, 263 (App. Div. 2000) (citing 13 Williston on Contracts § 1617), certify. denied, 165 N.J. 527 (2000).

It is important to distinguish that “Merely taking advantage of another’s financial difficulty is not duress. Rather, the person alleging financial difficulty must allege that it was contributed to or caused by the one accused of coercion.” Continental Bank v. Barclay Riding Academy, Inc., 93 N.J. 153, 176, 459 A.2d 1163, cert. denied, 464 U.S. 994, 104 S.Ct. 488, 78 L.Ed.2d 684 (1983). Therefore, when there is adequacy of consideration, there is generally no duress…. Whenever a party to a contract seeks the best possible terms, there can be no rescission merely upon the grounds of driving a hard bargain. Merely taking advantage of another’s financial difficulty is not duress. Rather, the person alleging financial difficulty must allege that it was contributed to or caused by the one accused of coercion…. Under this rule, the party exerting pressure is scored only for that for which he alone is responsible. [Williston, supra, § 1617 at 708 (footnotes omitted)]

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