Center for Contract and Economic Organization
Program in the Law and Economics of Capital Markets
Despite recent advances in our understanding of contracting behavior, economic contract theory has yet to identify the principal causes and effects of contract breach. In this Essay, I argue that opportunism is a primary explanation for why commercial parties deliberately breach their contracts. I develop a novel variation on opportunism that I identify as “shading;” a behavior that more accurately describes the vexing problems courts face in rooting out strategic behavior in contract litigation. I provide some empirical support for the claim that shading behavior is both pervasive in litigation over contract breach and extremely difficult for generalist courts to detect, and I offer an explanation for why this is so. In contrast to courts of equity in pre-industrial England, generalist courts today are tasked with the challenge of interpreting contracts in a heterogeneous global economy. This has left generalist courts incapable of identifying with any degree of accuracy which of the litigants is behaving strategically. I advance the claim that ex ante design by commercial parties is more effective in deterring opportunism in litigation than ex post evaluation of the contractual context by generalist courts. I illustrate this claim by focusing on the critical roles of uncertainty and scale in determining how legally sophisticated parties, both individually and collectively, design their contracts. By deploying sophisticated design strategies tailored to particular environments, parties are able both to reduce the risk of shading and to cabin the role of the decision maker tasked with policing this difficult to verify behavior. I conclude that judges and contract theorists must attend to the unique characteristics of the contracts currently being designed by sophisticated parties because it is the parties, and not the courts, that reduce the risks of opportunistic shading in contract adjudication.
Robert E. Scott,
Contract Design and the Shading Problem,
Marquette Law Review, Vol. 99, p. 1, 2015; Columbia Public Law Research Paper No. 14-472
Available at: https://scholarship.law.columbia.edu/faculty_scholarship/1918