Morales v. Sun Constructors, Inc., 2008 U.S. App. LEXIS 18513 (3d Cir., August 28, 2008) reiterated an important point for non-lawyers to know:
The Supreme Court has observed: “It will not do for a man to enter into a contract, and, when called upon to respond to its obligations, to say that he did not read it when he signed it, or did not know what it contained.” Upton v. Tribilcock, 91 U.S. 45, 50, 23 L. Ed. 203 (1875). The “integrity of contracts demands” that this principle “be rigidly enforced by the courts.” 1 Richard A. Lord, Williston on Contracts § 4:19 (4th ed. 2008). As one noted treatise explains:
According to the objective theory of contract formation, what is essential is not assent, but rather what the person to whom a manifestation is made is justified as regarding as assent. Thus, if an offeree, in ignorance of the terms of an offer, so acts or expresses itself as to justify the other party in inferring assent, and this action or expression was of such a character that a reasonable person in the position of the offeree should have known it was calculated to lead the offeror to believe that the offer had been accepted, a contract will be formed in spite of the offeree’s ignorance of the terms of the offer. The most common illustration of this principle is the situation when one who is ignorant of the language in which a document is written, or who is illiterate, executes a writing proposed as a contract under a mistake as to its contents. Such a person is bound, in the absence of fraud, if the person does not require the document to be read to him … .
Id. See New York Life Ins. Co. v. Kwetkauskas, 63 F.2d 890, 891 (3d Cir. 1933) (recognizing that “[i]t is true that an illiterate man may bind himself by contract by negligently failing to learn the contents of an instrument which he has executed”); Hoshaw v. Cosgriff, 247 F. 22, 26 (8th Cir. 1917) (holding that every contracting party has the duty “to learn and know the contents of a contract before he signs and delivers it”). Arbitration agreements in the employment context are not exempt from this principle. …
Morales, in essence, requests that this Court create an exception to the objective theory of contract formation where a party is ignorant of the language in which a contract is written. We decline to do so. In the absence of fraud, the fact that an offeree cannot read, write, speak, or understand the English language is immaterial to whether an English-language agreement the offeree executes is enforceable. …
Morales is not claiming fraud, see App. 78, 95, and he is not alleging that Sun misrepresented the contents of the Agreement to him. Cf. Am. Heritage Life Ins. Co. v. Lang, 321 F.3d 533, 538 (5th Cir. 2003) (recognizing that “[i]t is a widely accepted principle of contracts that one who signs or accepts a written instrument will normally be bound in accordance with its written terms,” and that a defendant, “illiterate or not, would be bound by the terms of the arbitration agreements,” but remanding for adjudication of a claim of fraud in the inducement); Pimpinello v. Swift & Co., 253 N.Y. 159, 163, 170 N.E. 530 (1930) (stating that “[i]f the signer is illiterate, or blind, or ignorant of the alien language of the writing, and the contents thereof are misread or misrepresented to him by the other party … unless the signer be negligent, the writing is void”) (emphasis added). Fn1 Further, there is no evidence that Sun tried to hide the arbitration clause; indeed, it comprised about one-half of the Agreement.
Here’s Footnote 1:
The dissent analogizes this case to American Heritage Life Insurance Company v. Lang. Unlike Morales, however, the illiterate plaintiff in Lang asked the defendant’s agent to explain each of the documents Lang signed, and he submitted evidence that the agent deliberately mislead him as to what he was signing by claiming that the papers were loan or insurance documents rather than an arbitration agreement.
It bears repeating: by and large, only explicit fraud will relieve someone from a material contract condition. If you’re going to take someone’s word for something, make sure you actually get their word. Silence usually won’t work for fraud.