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Varney v. Ditmars

Citation. 22 Ill.1217 N.Y. 223, 111 N.E. 822 (1916)
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Brief Fact Summary.

Plaintiff, an architect, worked for Defendant at a starting wage of $35 per week. After beginning work, Plaintiff told Defendant he had procured work elsewhere, but Defendant enticed him to stay, with promises of a better future. Later the Defendant raised the Plaintiff’s pay by an additional $5 per week and told him he would give him a “fair share” of profits at the end of the year, provided Plaintiff performed additional tasks as needed. On election day, toward the end of the year, Plaintiff fell ill and was unable to work, even after Defendant had requested his presence. Defendant fired Plaintiff, who later filed suit for wrongful termination.

Synopsis of Rule of Law.

The main idea to be taken from this case is that one cannot claim promissory estoppel, if he cannot show to what extent he was prejudiced.


After leaving the Defendant’s employ, Plaintiff filed suit, seeking his lost wages and a percentage of profits, based on the fact that he had worked nights, weekends, and had undergone additional labor based on the Defendant’s promises. The trial court denied recovery of a “fair profit”, based on the fact that “fair” is an ambiguous term, which cannot be established in monetary terms. Plaintiff appealed.


The issue of this case is the question of whether a promise of a “fair” reimbursement, without further negotiation, can be claimed as a loss in reliance.


The Court opined that Plaintiff could not recover as extra work, but could possibly prove that his worth more than he was compensated. The court also focused on the ambiguity of the agreement between Plaintiff and Defendant, noting that the Plaintiff could not prove reliance on an indeterminate sum.


J. Cardozo Dissented.
In his dissent, Judge Cardozo, disagreed that a promise is necessarily too vague to be enforced, just because it is based on “fairness.” He felt that Plaintiff should be allowed to recover, to the extent that he could prove a pecuniary loss.


When dealing with cases of promissory estoppel, it is important to focus on the intention of the parties. In this case, it could have been proven that Defendant intended to compensate Plaintiff, but because no negotiation as to amount was ever entered into, Plaintiff could not prove that there was ever a “meeting of the minds” and therefore, a valid agreement.

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