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Valparaiso Univ. Law School

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Monday, January 30, 2012

Vassar's Early Decision Snafu as Contracts Hypo

Meryl_Streep_by_Jack_MitchellCould a computerized letter error made by Vassar College (the alma mater of the pictured Meryl Streep) potentially serve as an instructive hypo for students beginning their study of Contracts?  My tentative thought is "yes," at least for those who start with formation versus damages.  As the NYT reported over the weekend, Vassar College recently emailed decision letters to its "early decision" undergrad applicants.  For many of those applicants, euphoria ensued.  A few hours later, that euphoria was replaced by anger and grief.  Why the emotional switcheroo?  Well, it seems that some of the applicants mistakenly received a test-version of an acceptance letter (all of which said, "Congratulations...") instead of their actual decision letter (some of which said, "Congratulations..." but many more of which said, "We are sorry to inform you that...").  Because all of the posted test-version letters were acceptances, many applicants initially thought they had been accepted only to find out later that: (i) the letter they first saw was the wrong one, and (ii) the "right" letter was a denial.  What makes this difficult situation particularly interesting from a Contracts perspective is that the early decision applicants reportedly had to commit to attending Vassar if admitted.  Thus, one may be able to characterize their applications as binding "offers to attend," which Vassar then arguably accepted via the test-version letter, thereby forming a contract and making Vassar's later attempted revocation invalid.  Alternatively, one could view the application as an invitation to deal, with the test-version of the letter as the offer, which Vassar then promptly revoked prior to acceptance.  Although the applicants also could emphasize reliance, the short period of time between the posting of the test-version letter and the right letter likely mimimizes that possibility (that said, at least one applicant reportedly considered withdrawing her applications elsewhere upon receipt of the acceptance so perhaps there's more potential reliance here than the time lapse would indicate).  As with many stories like this one, the precise facts matter.  But that's what class time is for--considering the "what if..." questions using facts of our own creation.

[Heidi R. Anderson, h/t to Anonymous Contracts I student]

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