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American Software, Inc. v. Ali, 46 Cal.App.4th 1386, 54 Cal.Rptr.2d 477 (1st Dist. 1996) (full-text).
Factual Background Edit
Plaintiff was hired to sell and market licensing agreements for software products to large companies. In exchange for her services, defendant agreed to pay plaintiff a base monthly salary plus a draw. The terms and conditions of employment were set out in a written contract prepared by the defendant. The contract included specific circumstances under which the plaintiff was to receive commissions after termination. The agreement stated that "commissions are considered earned when the payment is received by the Company" and "in the event of termination, the right of all commissions which would normally be due and payable are forfeited 30 days following the date of termination in the case of voluntary termination."
Plaintiff sued her former employer to recover unpaid sales commissions that she generated while employed but which were remitted by customers after she voluntarily terminated her employment. The trial court entered a judgment for the plaintiff on the grounds that the provision in her employment contract, which terminated her right to receive commissions on payments received on her accounts 30 days after the termination of employment was unconscionable, and thus, unenforceable. Defendant appealed.
Appellate Court Proceedings Edit
The Court of Appeals held that the provision was not unconscionable. California Civil Code §1670.5 codified the established doctrine that a court can refuse to enforce an unconscionable provision in a contract. The basic test of unconscionability is whether, in the light of the general background and the needs of the particular, the clause involved are so one-sided as to be unconscionable under the circumstances existing at the time of the making of the contract. The principle is one of the prevention of oppression and unfair surprise and not of disturbance of allocation of risk because of superior bargaining power.
Unconscionability of contract is ultimately a question of law for the court. Most California courts analyze unconscionability as having two separate elements — procedural and substantive. A showing of both procedural and substantive unconscionability at the time the contract was made is generally required.
Substantive unconscionability focuses on the actual terms of the agreement, while procedural unconscionability focuses on the manner in which the contract was negotiated and the circumstances of the parties. Substantive unconscionability is indicated by contract terms so one-sided as to "shock the conscience."
Indicia of procedural unconscionability include oppression, arising from inequality of bargaining power, the absence of real negotiations or meaningful choice, and surprise, resulting from hiding the disputed term in a prolix document.
The question is whether, at the instant contract was executed, the contract provision with respect to compensation after termination was so unfair or oppressive in its mutual obligations as to “shock the conscience.” The plaintiff was aware of her obligations under the contract and she voluntarily agreed to assume them. The provisions of the employment contract are straightforward and the terms used are easily comprehensible to the layman.
There were no unclear or hidden terms in the employment agreement and no unusual terms that would shock the conscience, all leading to the conclusion that the contract accurately reflected the reasonable expectations of the parties.
Overall, the evidence established that the employment contract was the result of an arm's-length negotiation between two sophisticated and experienced parties of comparable bargaining power, and was fairly reflective of prevailing practices in employing commissioned sales representatives with ongoing responsibilities to service the account once the sale was made. Therefore, the contract failed to qualify as unconscionable.