Nearly every aspect of the modern world is regulated, in one manner or another, by the use of contractual agreements. As a result of their ubiquity, it is unrealistic to expect the average person to read every word of every contract they sign. To be clear, under no circumstance do we advise signing a contract without reading it, but one must discard reality to believe that such advice will be received, much less heeded. That said, the purpose of this article is to provide guidance for the average person to use when faced with a contract, particularly in light of the general propensity to sign contracts without reviewing them.
Ordinary contracts and adhesion contracts
Insofar as this article is concerned, the most prominent aspect of contract law is the distinction between ordinary contracts and adhesion contracts. Consider ordinary contracts to be agreements between two or more parties that are reached by negotiation. For example: (i) a real estate purchase contract where one party must sell his or her property in exchange for a negotiated purchase price or (ii) an employment contract where one party must perform work in exchange for negotiated income and benefits. As these contracts are bargained for, the parties need to be absolutely sure that the terms agreed upon are, in fact, the terms contained in the written agreement. This concern is exacerbated by the endless spectrum of legal clauses that can be drafted into a contract. As a result, the only way to achieve certainty is to read the contract, and consult with legal counsel regarding any provisions that: (i) you do not understand, (ii) you are not comfortable with agreeing to, and/or (iii) are contrary to your understanding of the agreement of the parties.
On the other hand, adhesion contracts are best defined as agreements between two or more parties wherein the terms are set by one party without negotiation. Examples of adhesion contracts include: insurance contracts, cell phone provider agreements, loan agreements, etc.
Less risk in Adhesion Contracts
Again, this is not advice to sign contracts without reading, but, for those persons who are going to do so anyway, it is worth noting that between the two types of contracts, adhesion contracts pose less concern for a variety of reasons including, but not limited to, the following:
1. If you want the product being offered, then you have to agree to the terms being offered. Why? Because you have no bargaining power to negotiate them. For example, if you walk into Verizon and ask them to change a provision in their cell phone provider agreement, then you will, in all likelihood, leave the store without a cell phone plan.
2. Countless people before you have signed an agreement with identical or nearly identical terms. This does not in and of itself mean that a contract is risk free; however, continuing with Verizon as an example, it is reasonable to equate the number of long term Verizon customers with the acceptability of Verizon’s contractual terms.
3. Other than notice provisions (i.e., requirements to notify other parties upon the occurrence of a triggering event) and negative covenants (i.e., promises to refrain from doing something), consumer obligations under adhesion contracts typically revolve around money to be paid in exchange for a service or product. In other words, the consumer side of an adhesion contract is less likely to have obligations beyond the payment of money.
4. Analyzing a dozen or more pages of legalese can be a burden for the most brilliant of legal minds, so the idea that the average person can read through the same while standing at a check-out counter is nothing short of absurd. While every contractual provision is important, the average consumer is mainly concerned about the cost of the product or service. Thus, the decision to execute a contract is more often based on the consumers’ desire to obtain the service or product rather than their agreeability to convoluted contractual provisions.
5. Unconscionable contract provisions are not enforceable. A provision is unconscionable if it is substantively unfair or oppressive to one party, or otherwise represents a degree of unreasonableness. If there are unconscionable terms in a contract, then a court will either strike the provision from the contract or declare the contract void in its entirety.
Ohio Consumer Sales Practices Act
In addition to those reasons stated above, Ohio consumers are protected under the Consumer Sales Practices Act (the “CSPA”), which states among other things that suppliers cannot commit unconscionable acts or practices in connection with a consumer transaction. A supplier is defined as “a seller, lessor, assignor, franchisor, or other person engaged in the business of effecting or soliciting consumer transactions, whether or not the person deals directly with the consumer.” To determine if a transaction or contract is unconscionable, CSPA asks if the supplier: (i) knowingly took advantage of a consumer because of the consumer’s physical or mental infirmities; (ii) charged a price that substantially exceeded the price of similar property or services that are readily obtainable; (iii) knew the consumer could not receive a benefit from the property or services; (iv) knew the consumer was unable to pay; (v) required consumer to enter a transaction where supplier knew the terms were substantially one sided; (vi) knowingly made a misleading statement that the consumer was likely to rely on, or (vii) refused to make a refund for a return unless there is a sign posted at the establishment stating such refund policy.
The CSPA also regulates suppliers by proscribing unfair and/or deceptive acts in connection with consumer transactions. Moreover, CSPA lists a series of acts and practices that are per se deceptive. That list includes, but is not limited to, a supplier’s false representation to a consumer of any of the following: (i) a product or service contains benefits that it does not have; (ii) a product or service is of a particular grade or quality, when it is not; (iii) a product is new or unused, when it is not; (iv) the product or service is available for a reason that does not exist; (v) a replacement or repair is needed, when it is not; and (vi) that a price advantage exists, when it does not. If a supplier runs afoul of this statute—or any CSPA provision—the consumer may bring a cause of action for the actual damages he or she incurred plus an amount not to exceed five thousand dollars ($5,000.00).
Ultimately, you should read every contract that you sign, regardless of any representations or verbal agreements. It does not matter what you agreed to verbally if you signed a document that states otherwise. This article is not intended and shall not be construed as providing advice to sign documents without reading them. Rather, this article merely offers a pragmatic view of the all-too-common practice of signing contracts without reading them.