Duress as a Defense: An Offer You Can Refuse

We frequently hear defendants claim they were forced to enter into a contract under duress and should be excused from performing under the contract. However, few attorneys know that in Michigan [t]o succeed with respect to a claim of duress, [defendants] must establish that they were illegally compelled or coerced to act by fear of serious injury to their persons, reputations, or fortunes. “Fear of financial ruin alone is insufficient to establish economic duress; it must also be established that the person applying the coercion acted unlawfully.” [ Enzymes of America, Inc. v. Deloitte, Haskins & Sells, 207 Mich.App. 28, 35, 523 N.W.2d 810 (1994) (citations omitted), rev'd in part on other grounds, 450 Mich. 889, 539 N.W.2d 513 (1995) (citations omitted).]

I have never seen a true defense of duress except in movies. For example, recall in “The Godfather” at Connie's wedding, Michael Corleone explains to his then girlfriend Kay Adams the story of how Don Corleone helped his godson Johnny Fontane. Michael explains that his father went to convince bandleader Les Halley to release Johnny from a personal service contract that was holding back Johnny's singing career. After refusing an offer of $20,000 Don Corleone returned the next day with Luca Brasi and within an hour the bandleader signed a release for a second offer of only $10,000. Don Corleone did this by putting a pistol to the forehead of the bandleader and assuring him with the utmost seriousness that either his signature or his brains would rest on that document in exactly one minute.

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