agreements bound under threat

For starters, the proper legal jargon- how do you say “an agreement consented to due to threats” in legalese? For example, “Agree to these ridiculous/illegal terms or you’re fired.”

Can it be a crime to force some kinds of agreements this way? What are the rules?

When are agreements forced due to threats are binding anyway?


The word you’re looking for is duress.

Although there are plenty of companies whose terms of employment basically amount to a series of agreements to waive your rights under various employee rights statutes. The only “duress” is that if you don’t like the onerous terms, you’re free to decide not to complete the hiring process.

I’ve always wondewred how enforceable those kinds of agreements are and whether it’d do any good for an employee rights law to explicitly prohibit (or nullify de jure) any employer/employer agreements to the contrary.

I prefer to use ‘coerce’ because it can be inflected to be used as a verb, adjective, or noun.

*You’re coercing him into a coerced agreement… that’s coercion! *

Is there a concept of relative bargaining power by which a person being offered a job by the only employer within applicant’s range of travel even can alienate right to redress? The only job in town, there are 20 applicants just like you in the waiting room; the job is yours if you just sign here. I’d argue any such “agreement” is void on its face.

The ultimate is the “Company Town” - the town, every building, road are all built by the company on land owned by the company - if you didn’t get along with the boss, your ass was evicted from the company housing, and vagrancy laws were enforced (pretty much what happens with migrant farm laborers today).
Crockett CA was originally a real company town (or so the locals say) C&H Sugar. (California and Hawaii, btw)

Similar questions also come up in landlord/tenant law. I don’t know specifics, but I’ve often read that tenants have a variety of statutory rights that can’t be signed away, and I think this must be true for employment law too. But I assume that any rights that can’t be signed away are so, because some explicit statute explicitly says so.

btw: Rights that cannot be signed away are known as “inalienable rights”. Now you know.

This will vary by state except under certain circumstances like issues of due process, federal (as opposed to state) constitutional rights and statutory guarantees, etc., since the starting point for non-contract workers (read ‘white collar’) is the principle of ‘termination-at-will.’ Historically that has meant that an employer can terminate your employment for any reason, no reason, all of the above or none of the above. So it was a pretty flexible rule. Contract workers generally had their terms of employement set out by a union or other contract and had a couple of layers of protection - in theory anyway.

I’m not really familiar with the history, but at some point, companies began to develop internal standards which were codified in personnel manuals. These laid out a whole host of protocols for everything imaginable including criteria for termination for cause. As of the late 90’s I still don’t think that companies had any strict legal obligation to comply with their own procedures in this regard, but the practice seemed to be that the larger companies would virtually bust their ass to do so.

And in terms of the compliance part, the drafting of those rules was done partly to take account of changes in the legal landscape - things like the Americans with Disabilities Act for example. If your firm had any kind of decent law firm, that would also include any changes in the law that were perceived as likely certainly and many that were just possible without being totally wacky.

So while compliance with the companies regs per se may not have been directly required, there were still often very good reasons for following them nonetheless. Someone in HR wasn’t really going to be able to make such fine distinctions so I think the mentality was becoming to simply “do it by the book.”

The point here is that “duress” will be determined relative to whatever it was you were perceived to have lost or suffered. For example, NJ was a pioneer in giving tenants the right to sue landlords for failing to maintain property and giving them the right to withhold rent if an “implied warranty of habitablity” was breached as a result. However that didn’t mean any failure by the landlord to repair ANY problem qualified. Your faucet could leak for years and that was just too fucking bad since it didn’t affect habitability (I’m making that up , I suppose in some cases it might). But if your ceiling leaked and they didn’t get on that pronto, THEN you had them by the short curlies.

Years later a line of cases started to develop in the employment sector relating to requests by an employer for an employee to do things that were either blatantly illegal, in a gray area or probably only highly unethical, as a condition of employment. Unfortunately I mostly heard about these only in passing, but as I recall, the courts generally sided with employees especially if they were whistleblowers. But again this was NJ which has a very progressive judiciary and constitution (the state police though, eh, not so much). This may not be the sort of trend you would see in other states short of statutory fixes.

So although this is far from being any area I’ve ever studied closely, I’d feel fairly comfortable in saying that if the right threaten by the duress is one that is considered basic such as the ability to work and provide for oneself or ones family, find adequate food and shelter, associate and worship as you choose, etc. and if there are reasonable alternatives to your being requested to forgo said right or privilege (such a landlord opening up his wallet and/or getting off his lazy fucking ass), then there may be a good chance that you can contest the consent you gave as having been invalidated by virtue of duress.

There is also a latin term I came across in Dumas’ The Black Tulip - vi coactus. Some documents have been signed with “V.C” preceding the person’s name.

I’m not sure how this is viewed in a modern legal situation.