Link's Estate v. Wirtz

Decision Date14 January 1982
Docket NumberNo. 52610,52610
Citation638 P.2d 985,7 Kan.App.2d 186
Parties, 33 UCC Rep.Serv. 833 ESTATE OF Marie Deutsch LINK, Deceased, Appellee, v. Jerome A. WIRTZ, Appellant.
CourtKansas Court of Appeals

Syllabus by the Court

1. The general rule is that competent parties may make contracts on their own terms, provided such contracts are neither illegal nor contrary to public policy, and in the absence of fraud, mistake or duress, a party who has entered into such a contract is bound thereby. (Following Squires v. Woodbury, 5 Kan.App.2d 596, 621 P.2d 443, rev. denied 229 Kan. 671 (1981) ).

2. The general rule is that a trial court should look to the circumstances as they existed at the inception of the contract rather than in the light of subsequent events to determine whether an agreement is unconscionable.

3. A trial court may, with the use of its equitable powers, reform the provisions of a contract when it appears that the enforcement thereof would create an undue hardship or injustice not contemplated by the parties.

4. Under the facts of this case where in 1958 the parties provided for a twenty year lease for an admittedly reasonable and conscionable $200 per year rental rate with an option to extend the lease for an additional twenty years at the same rental rate, and where the present rental has been appraised at $720 per year, it is held : The evidence merely reveals a bad bargain which does not rise to the level of unconscionability, the enforcement of which would not result in an uncontemplated hardship or injustice necessitating equitable reformation.

Kent Roth, of Hagen, Bates & Suelter, Great Bend, for appellant.

Larry E. Keenan, of Keenan, Mauch & Keenan, P.A., Great Bend, for appellee.

Before HERD, Justice Presiding, SWINEHART, J., and LEWIS L. McLAUGHLIN, District Judge Retired, Assigned.

SWINEHART, Judge:

This is an appeal by defendant Jerome A. Wirtz from the judgment of the District Court of Barton County which reformed the rental rate provision of a lease.

On January 3, 1958, defendant Wirtz entered into a real estate lease with D. F. Deutsch. At that time Deutsch was eighty-four years old and had, because of a previous stroke, given a granddaughter, Mary Sue Gillen, his power of attorney. Deutsch did not consult with Gillen prior to making the lease with defendant. The terms of the lease provided for a tract of land to be leased to defendant for a period of twenty years, commencing March 1, 1958, at an annual rental of $200 per year with an option to renew at the expiration of the twenty years for an additional twenty years under the same terms and conditions.

Deutsch died in 1966 and had conducted his own business until six months before his death. Upon his death the land went to Marie Deutsch Link, Deutsch's daughter. In 1967 defendant Wirtz filed a copy of the lease in the public records.

Prior to March 1, 1978, defendant gave notice to Link that he was exercising his option to extend the term of his lease for an additional twenty years. Link did not agree to this extension and the rental for the first renewal period of the twenty-year extension was rejected. Link died on October 17, 1978, and this action to void or reform the lease was filed by executrixes of her estate. Plaintiff sought in equity to void the lease because it was made when M. F. Deutsch was old and allegedly unable to conduct his own business. Plaintiff also alleged undue influence and unconscionability.

At pretrial the parties made the following stipulation:

"That on the date this lease was entered into for the property intended to be conveyed the agreed rental rate of $200.00 a year was a reasonable and conscionable rental rate."

Defendant moved for a directed verdict at the conclusion of plaintiff's evidence. The trial court granted the motion and made the following findings:

"1. That from the evidence introduced and from the answers to interrogatories in the file, the Court finds that the evidence does not support a claim that at the time the lease was made in 1958, D. F. Deutsch was unable to know and understand the general type of business involved in the lease, and that the evidence also is lacking to support a finding that there was improper influence brought to bear on Mr. Deutsch relative to the making of the lease.

....

"3. The Court finds that the twenty (20) year extension period of the lease is valid and that it does not violate the rule against perpetuities. However, the Court finds that as a matter of equity the lease should be reformed as to rental. That during the base twenty (20) year lease period no reformation is to be made, but that for the second twenty (20) year period, the rental called for in the lease is unconscionable."

The trial court then ordered an appraisal of the land to determine the fair market value of the lease. At trial, plaintiff had not offered any expert testimony concerning the fair market value of the lease. Defendant's motion for a new trial was denied and he was ordered to appoint an appraiser. The appraisal from a panel of three appraisers set the fair market rental per year for the property at $720.

Defendant appeals from the trial court's finding of unconscionability. He also maintains that the trial court's adverse ruling was made without affording defendant an opportunity to take the stand and present evidence as to the merits of the case.

Defendant's primary contention on the unconscionability issue is that the trial court used the wrong time frame when determining whether the rental provision in the lease was unconscionable. Defendant maintains that the common law doctrine of unconscionability looks to the time the contract was made to determine if the parties were in fact exercising their freedom to contract. The leading pronouncement on the doctrine of unconscionability in Kansas is Wille v. Southwestern Bell Tel. Co., 219 Kan. 755, 549 P.2d 903 (1976). Wille was an action to recover damages for negligence or breach of contract from a telephone company for an omission in the yellow pages of a telephone directory when the contract entered into by the parties limited the company's liability for errors or omissions. Plaintiff Wille contended that the exculpatory clause was unconscionable and therefore should not be enforced. The court in Wille noted that the doctrine of unconscionability in the area of private contract has come into Kansas law by four statutory enactments: K.S.A. 16a-5-108, Uniform Consumer Credit Code; K.S.A. 50-627, Consumer Protection Act; K.S.A. 58-2544, Residential Landlord and Tenant Act; and most importantly, K.S.A. 84-2-302, Uniform Commercial Code. The court stated at 757-758:

"Although the UCC's application is primarily limited to contracts for the present or future sale of goods (K.S.A 84-2-102; 84-2-105), many courts have extended the statute by analogy into other areas of the law or have used the doctrine as an alternative basis for their holdings."

The court then proceeded to use 84-2-302, the UCC unconscionability section, as a guide in a non-UCC case. We likewise use statutory unconscionability provisions as a guideline.

The basic issue on appeal here is to what point in the contractual relationship should a trial court look to determine whether a contract is unconscionable. A review of the statutes cited above reveals a clear answer: at the time the contract was made.

K.S.A. 84-2-302 reads in part:

"(1) If the court as a matter of law finds the contract or any clause of the contract to have been unconscionable at the time it was made the court may refuse to enforce the contract ...." (Emphasis supplied.)

K.S.A. 16a-5-108 reads in part:

"(1) With respect to a consumer credit transaction, if the trier of fact finds

"(a ) the agreement to have been unconscionable at the time it was made, or to have been induced by unconscionable conduct, the court may refuse to enforce the agreement, or

"(b ) any clause of the agreement to have been unconscionable at the time it was made, the court may refuse to enforce the agreement ...." (Emphasis supplied.)

The most analogous statute is K.S.A. 58-2544, the unconscionability provisions in the Residential Landlord and Tenant Act. It reads in part:

"(a ) If the court, as a matter of law, finds: (1) A rental agreement or any provision thereof was unconscionable when made, the court may refuse to enforce the agreement ...." (Emphasis supplied.)

The court, in Wille v. Southwestern Bell Tel. Co., 219 Kan. at 759-760, 549 P.2d 903, stated the purpose for the doctrine of unconscionability:

"(T)he doctrine of unconscionability is used by the courts to police the excesses of certain parties who abuse their right to contract freely. It is directed against one-sided, oppressive and unfairly surprising contracts, and not against the consequences per se of uneven bargaining power or even a simple old-fashioned bad bargain (1 Anderson on the UCC, § 2-302.11, p. 401)."

As was noted above, the trial court in this case found, as was stipulated, that the rental provision was conscionable when made. The mere passage of time made the rental term appear to be unfair. Apparently time had turned this lease into a bad bargain. Despite the general rule that the trial court will look to the circumstances as they existed at the inception of the contract rather than in the light of subsequent events to determine whether the agreement is conscionable, a court is not powerless in equity to remedy that which it perceives as present unconscionability.

Although this case deals with a party seeking to have the court reform a contract, the rules concerning specific performance of contracts are applicable. In its discussion concerning specific performance of contracts, C.J.S. states:

"Specific performance of a contract is never decreed when its enforcement would be inequitable or unconscionable, or produce injustice or hardship, or where the specific performance of the contract would operate...

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