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I recently was looking to switch plans from one major cell phone carrier to another, which included a promo for a free phone. This was done in the United States. At the point where I was to sign that I would agree to the terms of service for the plan and promo, I asked to see a full copy of the terms. I was told that I would not be allowed to obtain a full copy of the terms until after I signed.

This struck me as odd, but I did some research and it turns out this is standard practice for that carrier.

Are these sorts of contracts fully binding once I sign them, even though I am not allowed to see what I am signing? Is there any law that would allow me to break the contract if I see problematic or contrary terms once I am allowed to view it?

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    Regardless of whether it's legal or not, I would not sign such a contract.
    – PMF
    May 27, 2022 at 16:05
  • @PMF I would be stunned if you haven't done so many times every year.
    – ohwilleke
    May 27, 2022 at 20:08
  • @ohwilleke Rejecting to see full terms before signing does strike as odd. I'd be stunned if that's what most of the business offering those contracts do.
    – Greendrake
    May 28, 2022 at 5:39
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    @ohwilleke Yes, I enter a contract (particularly for small stuff, such as everyday items) without reading the full conditions permanently. But if I want to see the contract and the contractor denies showing it to me, that's a different story.
    – PMF
    May 28, 2022 at 6:58
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    @ohwilleke Even with shrinkwrap licenses vendors do not usually deny you seeing the fine print before you purchase the product — if you ask them to show it.
    – Greendrake
    May 28, 2022 at 8:44

2 Answers 2

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No

While you can be bound to terms you had the opportunity to read and didn’t, you cannot be bound to terms that you did not have the opportunity to read.

That doesn’t mean that you don’t have a contract but it will be on different conditions to those in the undisclosed terms. For a contract to be valid, the parties must agree on the essential terms, for a phone contract, what service the phone company is giving and how much the consumer pays. Incidental terms can be left undefined and they will, if needed, be filled in by a court with reasonable terms.

However, this only happens to the extent necessary to give effect to the primary purpose of the contract. For example, late fees or termination fees are not strictly necessary (common law principles of damages for breach of contract work just fine) so, if the undisclosed terms include them, they will be unenforceable.

Notwithstanding, it’s quite likely that refusing to disclose in the advance violates state or Federal consumer protection laws against misleading or deceptive conduct.

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    Sources? I'd expect it to make crucial difference whether the signing party knew of the existence of the terms they didn't have opportunity to read and, despite that, elected to commit to the contract, and when the existence of those terms was unknown.
    – Greendrake
    May 29, 2022 at 6:19
  • "quite likely that refusing to disclose in the advance violates state or Federal" There is no misleading or deceptive conduct here. The client knowingly treats his limited information as sufficient at the time of signing the contract. The provider is not liable for the client's conduct. Also the 2nd-to-last paragraph seems self-contradictory or at least unclear. May 29, 2022 at 9:44
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Are these sorts of contracts fully binding once I sign them, even though I am not allowed to see what I am signing?

Yes. To some extent, this is akin to signing a blank check.

In terms of the Restatement (Second) of Contracts at §154(b), signing a contract without first reading its terms indicates that you treated your limited knowledge about the contract as sufficient for binding yourself to it. This would prevent you from voiding the contract once you realize that it contravenes a basic assumption on which you entered the legal relation. See Restatement at §153.

Furthermore, obtaining a benefit (here, getting a free phone) for signing the contract reinforces the argument that for the sake of this incentive you waived your right to timely know what the contract entails.

The fact others' recklessness has allowed this to become "standard practice" makes no difference on your legal obligations pursuant to this contract.

Is there any law that would allow me to break the contract if I see problematic or contrary terms once I am allowed to view it?

That is unlikely. Consumer protection laws and other legislation against unfair and misleading practices might help if understanding the clauses clearly exceeds the expertise that can reasonably be expected from an average consumer. But that is under the premise that the client read the terms. Other than that, these types of law are not devised for reverting a consumer's deliberate decision not to timely ascertain the terms of the contract.

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  • In regards to consumer protection, contract law would benefit from some new consumer protections in U.S. contract law. May 28, 2022 at 1:19

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