When Assent to a Contract is Obtained by Duress in Pennsylvania
The formation of a valid contract requires the mutual assent of the contracting parties.Essner v. Shoemaker, 393 Pa. 422, 425, 143 A.2d 364, 366 (1958) (citation omitted). Mutual assent to a contract does not exist, however, when one of the contracting parties elicits the assent of the other contracting party by means of duress. Carrier v. William Penn Broadcasting Co., 426 Pa. 427, 431, 233 A.2d at 521 (1967). A contract obtained under duress is voidable but continues in operative effect until the injured party acts in opposition to the contract. Loizos v. Mutual of Omaha Ins. Co., 229 Pa. Super. 552, 326 A.2d 515 (1974) (citing Restatement of Contracts, s 495:"Where the duress of one party induces another to enter into a transaction, The nature of which he knows or has reason to know, and which he was under no duty to enter into, the transaction is voidable against the former and all who stand in no better position…").
Duress has been defined as: [T]hat degree of restraint or danger, either actually inflicted or threatened and impending, which is sufficient in severity or apprehension to overcome the mind of a person of ordinary firmness.... The quality of firmness is assumed to exist in every person competent to contract, unless it appears that by reason of old age or other sufficient cause he is weak or infirm.... Where persons deal with each other on equal terms and at arm's length, there is a presumption that the person alleging duress possesses ordinary firmness.... Moreover, in the absence of threats of actual bodily harm there can be no duress where the contracting party is free to consult with counsel....Carrier,426 Pa. at 431 (citing Smith v. Lenchner, 204 Pa.Super. 500, 504, 205 A.2d 626, 628 (1964)). A party who has reasonable opportunity to consult with counsel before entering a contract cannot later invalidate it by claiming duress. Adamsv. Adams, 2004 PA Super 130, 848 A.2d 991 (2004).
A Note on Mental Capacity and Assent
A signed document will give rise to the presumption that it accurately expresses the state of mind of the signing party. Shafer v. State Employes' Retirement Bd., 548 Pa. 320, 696 A.2d 1186, 119 Ed. Law Rep. 1097 (1997); Estate of McGovern v. Com. State Employees' Retirement Board, 512 Pa. 377, 517 A.2d 523 (1986), citing O'Farrell v. Steel City Piping Co., 266 Pa. Super. 219, 403 A.2d 1319 (1978); Forman v. Public School Employes' Retirement Bd., 778 A.2d 778, 156 Ed. Law Rep. 650 (Pa. Commw. Ct. 2001). However, this presumption is rebutted where the challenger presents clear and convincing evidence of mental incompetence, and mental incompetence is established through evidence that the person was unable to understand the nature and consequences of the transaction at the very time he or she executed the instrument in question. Weir by Gasper v. Estate of Ciao, 521 Pa. 491, 556 A.2d 819 (1989); Estate of McGovern v. Com. State Employees' Retirement Board, 512 Pa. 377, 517 A.2d 523 (1986); Sobel v. Sobel, 435 Pa. 80, 254 A.2d 649 (1969).