Williams v. Walker-Thomas Furniture Co.

Ora Lee Williams, Appellant, v. Walker-thomas Furniture Company, Appellee. William Thorne et al., Appellants, v. Walker-thomas Furniture Company, Appellee.
350 F.2d 445 (D.C. Cir. 1965) |
DC Circuit decided 1965-08-11
Jurisdiction level:

Where the element of unconscionability is present at the time a contract is made, the contract should not be enforced. The case is remanded to the lower court to determine whether the contract was unconscionable.

Result: Win
Importance:

Anne Fleming, “Remaking the ‘Law of the Poor’: Williams v. Walker-­Thomas Furniture Co.”, in “The Poverty Law Canon: Exploring the Major Cases”, edited by Failinger & Rosser, University of Michigan Press, 2016: “From Watts to Washington, debt collection lawsuits were commonplace for poor families buying on credit in America’s cities. They often ended in the loss of the household’s furniture or the garnishment of the breadwinner’s wages. …. With the aid of a volunteer lawyer, Williams contested the store’s right to seize all her purchases. Both the trial judge and the intermediate appellate court ruled in favor of the store…. In 1965… [at] the Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit… the case took an unexpected turn. Judge Skelly Wright of the D.C. Circuit handed down his soon-to-be-famous opinion in the case…. Wright declared that courts in the District would not enforce a contract if the bargain was ‘unconscionable,’ meaning that there was ‘an absence of meaningful choice’ for one party along with ‘terms which are unreasonably favorable to the other party.’ Wright found that the store’s contract with Williams was potentially ‘unconscionable’ and therefore unenforceable. He remanded the case to the trial court for further proceedings. The decision was among of the first in the country to apply the doctrine of unconscionability. Judge Wright later predicted that the doctrine would be part of ‘a growing area of the law —­ the law of the poor.'”

Wikipedia: “As a staple of first-year law school contract law courses, it has been briefed extensively. It is also used as a case study in some modern economics classes.”


Law type: Civil
Topic(s): Consumer, Debt collection, and Unconscionable contract
State of origin: DC
Attorneys:

Mr. Pierre E. Dostert, Washington, D. C., counsel for appellants in No. 18,605, argued for all appellants. Mr. R. R. Curry, Washington, D. C., for appellant in No. 18,604.


Others involved: Mr. Gerhard P. Van Arkel (appointed by this court), Washington, D. C., as amicus curiae.
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Last modified: 2020-04-02 11:27
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CASE DETAILS

(The syllabus is not part of the opinion, but is a summary prepared by the court reporter as a convenience.)

From the opinion

Appellee, Walker-Thomas Furniture Company, operates a retail furniture store in the District of Columbia. During the period from 1957 to 1962 each appellant in these cases purchased a number of household items from Walker-Thomas, for which payment was to be made in installments. The terms of each purchase were contained in a printed form contract which set forth the value of the purchased item and purported to lease the item to appellant for a stipulated monthly rent payment. The contract then provided, in substance, that title would remain in Walker-Thomas until the total of all the monthly payments made equaled the stated value of the item, at which time appellants could take title. In the event of a default in the payment of any monthly installment, Walker-Thomas could repossess the item.

The contract further provided that “the amount of each periodical installment payment to be made by [purchaser] to the Company under this present lease shall be inclusive of and not in addition to the amount of each installment payment to be made by [purchaser] under such prior leases, bills or accounts; and all payments now and hereafter made by [purchaser] shall be credited pro rata on all outstanding leases, bills and accounts due the Company by [purchaser] at the time each such payment is made.” Emphasis added.) The effect of this rather obscure provision was to keep a balance due on every item purchased until the balance due on all items, whenever purchased, was liquidated. As a result, the debt incurred at the time of purchase of each item was secured by the right to repossess all the items previously purchased by the same purchaser, and each new item purchased automatically became subject to a security interest arising out of the previous dealings.

On May 12, 1962, appellant Thorne purchased an item described as a Daveno, three tables, and two lamps, having total stated value of $391.10. Shortly thereafter, he defaulted on his monthly payments and appellee sought to replevy all the items purchased since the first transaction in 1958. Similarly, on April 17, 1962, appellant Williams bought a stereo set of stated value of $514.95.1 She too defaulted shortly thereafter, and appellee sought to replevy all the items purchased since December, 1957. The Court of General Sessions granted judgment for appellee. The District of Columbia Court of Appeals affirmed, and we granted appellants’ motion for leave to appeal to this court.

Appellants’ principal contention, rejected by both the trial and the appellate courts below, is that these contracts, or at least some of them, are unconscionable and, hence, not enforceable. In its opinion in Williams v. Walker-Thomas Furniture Company, 198 A.2d 914, 916 (1964), the District of Columbia Court of Appeals explained its rejection of this contention as follows:

“Appellant’s second argument presents a more serious question. The record reveals that prior to the last purchase appellant had reduced the balance in her account to $164. The last purchase, a stereo set, raised the balance due to $678. Significantly, at the time of this and the preceding purchases, appellee was aware of appellant’s financial position. The reverse side of the stereo contract listed the name of appellant’s social worker and her $218 monthly stipend from the government. Nevertheless, with full knowledge that appellant had to feed, clothe and support both herself and seven children on this amount, appellee sold her a $514 stereo set.

“We cannot condemn too strongly appellee’s conduct. It raises serious questions of sharp practice and irresponsible business dealings. A review of the legislation in the District of Columbia affecting retail sales and the pertinent decisions of the highest court in this jurisdiction disclose, however, no ground upon which this court can declare the contracts in question contrary to public policy. We note that were the Maryland Retail Installment Sales Act, Art. 83 §§ 128-153, or its equivalent, in force in the District of Columbia, we could grant appellant appropriate relief. We think Congress should consider corrective legislation to protect the public from such exploitive contracts as were utilized in the case at bar.”

We do not agree that the court lacked the power to refuse enforcement to contracts found to be unconscionable. In other jurisdictions, it has been held as a matter of common law that unconscionable contracts are not enforceable.2 While no decision of this court so holding has been found, the notion that an unconscionable bargain should not be given full enforcement is by no means novel. In Scott v. United States, 79 U.S. (12 Wall.) 443, 445, 20 L. Ed. 438 (1870), the Supreme Court stated:

“* * * If a contract be unreasonable and unconscionable, but not void for fraud, a court of law will give to the party who sues for its breach damages, not according to its letter, but only such as he is equitably entitled to. * * *”3

Since we have never adopted or rejected such a rule,4 the question here presented is actually one of first impression.

Congress has recently enacted the Uniform Commercial Code, which specifically provides that the court may refuse to enforce a contract which it finds to be unconscionable at the time it was made. 28 D.C.CODE § 2-302 (Supp. IV 1965). The enactment of this section, which occurred subsequent to the contracts here in suit, does not mean that the common law of the District of Columbia was otherwise at the time of enactment, nor does it preclude the court from adopting a similar rule in the exercise of its powers to develop the common law for the District of Columbia. In fact, in view of the absence of prior authority on the point, we consider the congressional adoption of § 2-302 persuasive authority for following the rationale of the cases from which the section is explicitly derived.5 Accordingly, we hold that where the element of unconscionability is present at the time a contract is made, the contract should not be enforced.

Unconscionability has generally been recognized to include an absence of meaningful choice on the part of one of the parties together with contract terms which are unreasonably favorable to the other party.6 Whether a meaningful choice is present in a particular case can only be determined by consideration of all the circumstances surrounding the transaction. In many cases the meaningfulness of the choice is negated by a gross inequality of bargaining power.7 The manner in which the contract was entered is also relevant to this consideration. Did each party to the contract, considering his obvious education or lack of it, have a reasonable opportunity to understand the terms of the contract, or were the important terms hidden in a maze of fine print and minimized by deceptive sales practices? Ordinarily, one who signs an agreement without full knowledge of its terms might be held to assume the risk that he has entered a one-sided bargain.8 But when a party of little bargaining power, and hence little real choice, signs a commercially unreasonable contract with little or no knowledge of its terms, it is hardly likely that his consent, or even an objective manifestation of his consent, was ever given to all the terms. In such a case the usual rule that the terms of the agreement are not to be questioned9 should be abandoned and the court should consider whether the terms of the contract are so unfair that enforcement should be withheld.10

In determining reasonableness or fairness, the primary concern must be with the terms of the contract considered in light of the circumstances existing when the contract was made. The test is not simple, nor can it be mechanically applied. The terms are to be considered “in the light of the general commercial background and the commercial needs of the particular trade or case.”11 Corbin suggests the test as being whether the terms are “so extreme as to appear unconscionable according to the mores and business practices of the time and place.” 1 CORBIN, op. cit. supra Note 2.12 We think this formulation correctly states the test to be applied in those cases where no meaningful choice was exercised upon entering the contract.

Because the trial court and the appellate court did not feel that enforcement could be refused, no findings were made on the possible unconscionability of the contracts in these cases. Since the record is not sufficient for our deciding the issue as a matter of law, the cases must be remanded to the trial court for further proceedings.

So ordered.