As I’ve argued in pedantic detail, Prof. Salaita’s hypothetical promissory estoppel claim against the University of Illinois is weak. In the Illinois Court of Claims, even if one can assert estoppel against a state instrumentality, the claim should fail unless the undiscovered facts are radically different from those publicly known. But what about an ordinary contract claim? On its face, most observers have discounted the possibility because the offer letter explicitly stated there was no contract before board approval. Prof. Nancy Kim argues to the contrary, in a thoughtful post here. The nub of her argument is one of contract interpretation:
“I think both parties intended a contract and a “reasonable person” standing in the shoes of Salaita would have believed there was an offer. The offer was clearly accepted. What about the issue regarding final Board approval? Does that make his belief there was an offer – which he accepted – unreasonable? I don’t think so given the norms surrounding this which essentially act as gap fillers and the way the parties acted both before and after the offer was accepted . . . There was, however, an implied term in the contract that Salaita would not do anything or that no information would come out that would change the nature of the bargain for the university.”
I read this to be making an argument about conditions – that is, Prof. Kim thinks that we shouldn’t interpret the language “This recommendation or appointment is subject to approval by the Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois” as an express condition, given the anti-forfeiture preference that many courts practice. Rather, Kim argues that we should see the term a promise which is subject to a brake – the implied duty of good faith and fair dealing: the Board of Trustees could only withhold approval for good cause. Whether the tweets in question constitute good cause then becomes the real issue. She admits the problem “caused me some angst,” but ends up coming out against a finding of a condition.
I’m not unsympathetic to Prof. Kim’s position. But to evaluate it, I would prefer to talk about Illinois decisional law, rather than contract doctrine in general terms. Just for those few readers of this post who don’t already think about contract law all day long, well, I’ll tell you a secret: there is no contract law. Notwithstanding the Restatement’s certitude, the states diverge sharply on many matters, including those as seemingly trivial as the preference against forfeiture, and as general as the liability of principals for agents’ actions. I’ve done some research into this. I original wrote a post that catalogued the absence of evidence in Illinois for contract recovery under circumstances anything like these. But rather than subject myself to a tl;dr comment, I’ll just post the following challenges to Prof. Kim and others who care to take them on.