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Really the only explanation for the differences between law and equity is to be found in the history and politics of England dating to the twelfth century, but in practical terms, the distinctions are notable. First, juries are not used in equitable cases. Second, equity relies less on precedent and more on the sense that justice should be served. Third, and of most significance, where what is sought by the nonbreaching party is not money—that is, where there is no adequate legal remedy—equity may afford relief. In equity a person may get a judge to order the breaching party to deliver some actual property, or to stop doing something that he should not do, or to return the consideration the nonbreaching party gave so as to return the parties to the precontract status (specific performance, injunction, and restitution, respectively).
There are three types of equitable remedies: specific performance, injunction, and restitution.
Specific performance is a judicial order to the promisor that he undertake the performance to which he obligated himself in a contract. Specific performance is an alternative remedy to damages and may be issued at the discretion of the court, subject to a number of exceptions. Emily signs a contract to sell Charlotte a gold samovar, a Russian antique of great sentimental value because it once belonged to Charlotte’s mother. Emily then repudiates the contract while still executory. A court may properly grant Charlotte an order of specific performance against Emily.
Once students understand the basic idea of specific performance, they often want to pounce upon it as the solution to almost any breach of contract. It seems reasonable that the nonbreaching party could ask a court to simply require the promisor to do what she promised she would. But specific performance is a very limited remedy: it is only available for breach of contract to sell a unique item, that is, a unique item of personal property (the samovar), or a parcel of real estate (all real estate is unique). But if the item is not unique, so that the nonbreaching party can go out and buy another one, then the legal remedy of money damages will solve the problem. And specific performance will never be used to force a person to perform services against his will, which would be involuntary servitude. A person may be forced to stop doing that which he should not do (injunction), but not forced to do what he will not do.
An injunction is the second type of equitable remedy available in contract (it is also available in tort). It is a court order directing a person to stop doing that which she should not do. For example, if an employer has a valid noncompete contract with an employee, and the employee, in breach of that contract, nevertheless undertakes to compete with his former employer, a court may enjoin (issue an order of injunction), directing the former employee to stop such competition. A promise by a person not to do something—in this example, not to compete—is called a negative covenant (a covenant is a promise in a contract, itself a contract). Or if Seller promises to give Buyer the right of first refusal on a parcel of real estate or a unique work of art, but Seller, in breach of a written promise, offers the thing to a third party, a court may enjoin Seller from selling it to the third party. If a person violates an injunction, he may be held in contempt of court and put in jail for a while. Madison Square Garden v. Carnera Corporation, Section 16.6.3 "Injunctions and Negative Covenants", is a classic case involving injunctions for breach of contract.
The third type of equitable relief is restitution. Restitution is a remedy applicable to several different types of cases: those in which the contract was avoided because of incapacity or misrepresentation, those in which the other party breached, and those in which the party seeking restitution breached. As the word implies, restitution is a restoring to one party of what he gave to the other. Therefore, only to the extent that the injured party conferred a benefit on the other party may the injured party be awarded restitution. The point is, a person who breaches a contract should not suffer a punishment, and the nonbreaching party should not be unjustly enriched.
The nonbreaching party is always entitled to restitution in the event of total breach by nonperformance or repudiation, unless both parties have performed all duties except for payment by the other party of a definite sum of money for the injured party’s performance.Restatement (Second) of Contracts, Section 373. Calhoun, a contractor, agrees to build $3,000 worth of fences for only $2,000 and completes the construction. Arlene, the landowner, refuses to pay. Calhoun’s only right is to get the $2,000; he does not have a restitution right to $2,500, the market price of his services (or $3,000, the amount by which her property increased in value); he is entitled, instead, only to $2,000, his contract price. Had Arlene repudiated prior to completion, however, Calhoun would then have been entitled to restitution based either on the market price of the work or on the amount by which he enhanced her property. If the one party breaches, the nonbreaching party is generally entitled to restitution of property that can be returned. Arlene gives Calhoun a valuable Ming vase in return for his promise to construct the fences. Upon Calhoun’s breach, Arlene is entitled to specific restitution of the vase.
Measuring restitution interest can be problematic. The courts have considerable discretion to award either what it would have cost to hire someone else to do the work that the nonbreaching party performed (generally, the market price of the service) or the value that was added to the property of the party in breach by virtue of the claimant’s performance. Calhoun, the contractor, agrees to construct ten fences around Arlene’s acreage at the market price of $25,000. After erecting three, Calhoun has performed services that would cost $7,500, market value. Assume that he has increased the value of Arlene’s grounds by $8,000. If Arlene repudiated, there are two measures of Calhoun’s restitution interest: $8,000, the value by which the property was enhanced, or $7,500, the amount it would have cost Arlene to hire someone else to do the work. Which measure to use depends on who repudiated the contract and for what reason. In some cases, the enhancement of property or wealth measurement could lead to an award vastly exceeding the market price for the service. In such cases, the smaller measure is used. For a doctor performing lifesaving operations on a patient, restitution would recover only the market value of the doctor’s services—not the monetary value of the patient’s life.
A party who has substantially performed and then breached is entitled to restitution of a benefit conferred on the injured party, if the injured party has refused (even though justifiably) to complete his own performance owing to the other’s breach. Since the party in breach is liable to the injured party for damages for loss, this rule comes into play only when the benefit conferred is greater than the amount the nonbreaching party has lost. Arlene agrees to sell her property to Calhoun for $120,000, and Calhoun makes a partial payment of $30,000. He then repudiates. Arlene turns around and sells the property to a third party for $110,000. Calhoun—the breaching party—can get his money back, less the damages Arlene suffered as a result of his breach. He gets $30,000 minus the $10,000 loss Arlene incurred. He gets $20,000 in restitution. Otherwise Arlene would be enriched by Calhoun’s breach: she’d get $140,000 in total for real estate worth $120,000. But if he gets $20,000 of his $30,000 back, she receives $110,000 from the third party and $10,000 from Calhoun, so she gets $120,000 total (plus, we hope, incidental damages, at least).
Upon repudiation of an oral contract governed by the Statute of Frauds, the nonbreaching party is not entitled to her expectation interest, but she may recover in restitution unless the purpose of the statute would be frustrated. When one party avoids a contract owing to lack of capacity, mistake, misrepresentation, duress, or the like, she is entitled to restitution for benefit conferred on the other party. Restitution is also available if a contract duty is discharged or never arises because (1) performance was impracticable, (2) the purpose of the contract was frustrated, (3) a condition did not occur, or (4) a beneficiary disclaimed his benefit.
Equitable remedies for breach of contract are available when legal remedies won’t make the nonbreaching party whole. The equitable remedies are specific performance (an order directing a person to deliver to the buyer the unique thing the seller contracted to sell), injunction (an order directing a person to stop doing that which he should not do), and restitution (the return by one party of the benefit conferred on him when the contract is not performed, to the extent necessary to avoid imposing a penalty on the breaching party).