Alaska Packers Association v. Domenico (1902)

US Contract Law

Alaska Packers Association v Domenico
Image: ‘Fishing Boats’ by Dusan Djukaric

The legal enforcement of a binding contract requires consideration to both bargaining parties, and so on this occasion, the demands of an established labour force prove their undoing when overlooking the fundamental principles of any written agreement.

In 1900, a commercial fishing enterprise recruited the services of a number of seamen and deck hands for the purposes of catching salmon. Before departing San Francisco, the now appellants accepted and signed individual employment contracts, on grounds that they would be paid between $50-$60 per person, with two additional cents for every salmon caught.

After docking in Alaska a month later, the men ceased working and demanded that the ship’s superintendent pay them $100 each, or risk losing them entirely. With no means with which to replace them, and after failing to placate their objections, the superintendent agreed to pay the increased sums, after which duplicate contracts were printed and signed before the local Shipping Commissioner, despite the superintendent stressing that he was unauthorised to endorse the new contracts.

Upon return to San Francisco, the appellants demanded their increased payments, however the respondent employers refused to acknowledge anything other than the original contract, and so litigation was bought against them on grounds that the fishing nets supplied were defective, and therefore counter to their chances of earning extra money, as per the original agreement.

The Northern California District Court took issue with the principles of the appellants claims, as to provide defective nets would by effect, have reduced the employers profits and subsequent means of operation, therefore it was held that refusal to perform the contract was unlawful, however the court also held that:

Under such circumstances, it would be strange, indeed, if the law would not permit the defendant to waive the damages caused by the libelants’ breach, and enter into the contract sued upon, a contract mutually beneficial to all the parties thereto, in that it gave to the libelants reasonable compensation for their labor, and enabled the defendant to employ to advantage the large capital it had invested in its canning and fishing plant.”

At which point judgment was made in favour of the appellants, despite glaring disparities of fact.

Upon further challenge, the court of appeals drew reference to the statements made by the superintendent, and noted that any contract entered into under duress, and without due consideration was, without question, unenforceable, as had been outlined in King v. Railway Co. where the court ruled that:

“No astute reasoning can change the plain fact that the party who refuses to perform, and thereby coerces a promise from the other party to the contract to pay him an increased compensation for doing that which he is legally bound to do, takes an unjustifiable advantage of the necessities of the other party.”

And so therefore:

“There can be no consideration for the promise of the other party, and there is no warrant for inferring that the parties have voluntarily rescinded or modified their contract. The promise cannot be legally enforced, although the other party has completed his contract in reliance upon it.”

Thus it was for this simple and perhaps obvious reason, that the appeal was dismissed and judgment reversed back in favour of the respondents.

Aldinger v. Howard (1976)

US Civil Procedure

Aldinger v Howard
Image: ‘Spokane Skyline’ by Pablo Romero

Litigation for loss of earnings through discriminatory dismissal is a linear process within state jurisdiction, however when the employer is a federal representative, the rules according to civil suits are subject to close examination.

Having enjoyed work as a cleric within the Spokane County Treasury, the claimant was dismissed under s.36.16.070 of the Revised Code of Washington (RCW), which grants that:

“The officer appointing a deputy or other employee shall be responsible for the acts of his or her appointees upon his or her official bond and may revoke each appointment at pleasure.”

Under a claim in the district court, the now appellant argued that dismissal merely for living with her boyfriend was a violation of the First, Ninth and Fourteenth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, and that under the circumstances, the Treasury was equally liable under 42 USC § 1983 of the Civil Rights Act of 1871, which provides that:

“Every person who, under color of any statute, ordinance, regulation, custom, or usage, of any State or Territory or the District of Columbia, subjects, or causes to be subjected, any citizen of the United States or other person within the jurisdiction thereof to the deprivation of any rights, privileges, or immunities secured by the Constitution and laws, shall be liable to the party injured in an action at law, suit in equity, or other proper proceeding for redress…”

It was for these reasons that an injunction was requested against the appointing officer and his wife, while the county was deemed subject to vicarious liability through the misconduct of the two named employees, both of which claims were brought under the powers of 28 USC § 1343(3), which explains that the district courts are required:

“(3) To redress the deprivation, under color of any State law, statute, ordinance, regulation, custom or usage, of any right, privilege or immunity secured by the Constitution of the United States or by any Act of Congress providing for equal rights of citizens or of all persons within the jurisdiction of the United States…”

When first heard, the court held that Spokane County could not be held liable as a ‘person’ and therefore no suit could be brought against them, after which the appellant sought relief through the court of appeals, who with reference to 28 USC § 1343(3), upheld the previous decision, however when taken to the U.S. Supreme Court, greater detail was paid to the doctrine of both ‘pendent’ and ‘ancillary’ jurisdiction, upon which the ruling in United Mine Workers v. Gibbs determined how the former provided that:

“[S]tate and federal claims must derive from a common nucleus of operative fact. But if, considered without regard to their federal or state character, a plaintiff’s claims are such that he would ordinarily be expected to try them all in one judicial proceeding, then, assuming substantiality of the federal issues, there is Power in federal courts to hear the whole.”

While the latter was outlined in Fulton Bank v. Hozier, when it was held how:

“The general rule is that when a federal court has properly acquired jurisdiction over a cause, it may entertain, by intervention, dependent or ancillary controversies; but no controversy can be regarded as dependent or ancillary unless it has direct relation to property or assets actually or constructively drawn into the court’s possession or control by the principal suit.”

However, on this occasion both approaches ran counter to the principle held in the appeals court that:

“[F]ederal courts should be wary of extending court-created doctrines of jurisdiction to reach parties who are expressly excluded by Congress from liability, and hence federal jurisdiction…”

This translated that while art. III of the Federal Constitution allowed the Supreme Court to vest adjudicatory powers to the lower courts, the conflicting principles of both 42 USC § 1983 and that of the appeals court prevented the Court from allowing a mergence of the two claims, despite their obvious connectivity, and which resulted in dismissal of the appeal while holding that:

“[A]s against a plaintiff’s claim of additional power over a “pendent party,” the reach of the statute conferring jurisdiction should be construed in light of the scope of the cause of action as to which federal judicial power has been extended by Congress.”