R.I.P.D. is the Dark Horse comic about divine law enforcement officers which is being made into a movie starring Jeff Bridges and Ryan Reynolds and scheduled for release on June 19. The trailer was just released today, in fact. The basic premise is that Nick Cruz (Reynolds’ character) is a cop who is killed at the beginning of the story. But upon awaking in the afterlife, he finds himself confronted by a figure claiming to be. . . well God’s lawyer, basically. Turns out the Almighty has a bit of a special program for law enforcement officers killed in the line of duty: in exchange for the opportunity to bring their killers to justice, and a shot at heaven, deceased cops spend a century of service working for the R.I.P.D., the Rest In Peace Department, which has the divine mandate to seek out and deal with ne’er-do-wells from the netherworld who don’t stay where they’re supposed to.
So what can we say about this? If we’re to take the story at face value, not questioning its theological assumptions (which are basically a version of Christianity with your standard artistic license), it’s not as if the US legal system–or any mortal legal system–has anything to say to God. Or Satan for that matter. Indeed, the Western District of Pennsylvania basically dismissed a suit against Satan because he could not be served with process. U.S. ex rel Gerald Mayo v. Satan and His Staff, 54 F.R.D. 282 (W.D. Pa. 1971).
I. Reading the Fine Print
First, there’s the issue of the fine print, i.e., the ubiquitous contractual provisions, boilerplate in many instances, that most people never bother to read. In many deals, some of the most important language in the contract appears in the fine print. It usually doesn’t go to the main substance of the contract—might have a problem with meeting of the minds if it did—but it frequently goes to implementation or dispute resolution. Arbitration clauses are often in fine print. In this instance, the “fine print” includes such things as a badge brand which flares when there’s a new assignment, and involuntary, receive-only telepathic communication. It also includes such clauses as a prohibition against contacting living friends and relatives. Cruz doesn’t seem to have read the fine print. Is this sort of thing okay?
Again, leaving aside the question of whether it’s even possible to quibble with God about these things, it probably is. The main question here is whether there has been a failure of the meeting of the minds about a material term. Whether Cruz knew he was signing up for a hundred year gig is not entirely clear. The story can be read either way. He does seem to have known he was signing up for some kind of service, but it’s not clear whether he knew all the details. So that might be a problem. We’ll see why it isn’t in a bit, but that’s at least an issue to be flagged.
But the rest of it isn’t. Courts almost uniformly enforce written contracts as written unless the provisions violate a statute, are contradictory, ambiguous, nonsensical, etc. It is possible to get clauses struck for unconscionability, but it’s really hard, and nothing here seems to come close to what you’d need, even in a mortal court. The badge and no-contact provisions make sense given the nature of the job, and Cruz is dead after all. Even the hundred-year service period wouldn’t be a problem. Cruz has all eternity on his hands. The lawyer does say “Rest of it we can take care of later,” seeming to solicit a signature before adequately explaining the contract (which would probably be a violation of Model Rule 4.3). But Cruz seems so downright eager to get on with his revenge that he would probably have a hard time arguing that he was taken advantage of. He was given ample opportunity to investigate the contract—he’s got eternity to do it and wasn’t going anywhere until he made a decision—but the substance of his communication was “I’ll sign anything you want, just let me at ’em.” That kind of recklessness isn’t something courts look on favorably.
The deal probably wouldn’t even fail under the unfavorable adhesion contract analysis. The idea here is that in modern society, consumers very often sign contracts with large, powerful entities, where there is no opportunity for meaningful negotiation and manifestly unequal bargaining power. In such instances, terms which the reasonable person would not expect to be in the contract are unenforceable. This analysis is more rigorous in Europe, as American courts favor an objective rather than a subjective analysis, i.e., the term in question must be such that no reasonable person would consent to it if they knew about it, and no reasonable person would suspect it to be present in the contract. Courts also disfavor terms which are out of proportion to the value of the subject of the contract.
Here, the analysis seems to run pretty strongly in favor of the Lord. True, there is no opportunity to negotiate, and to call the parties’ bargaining power “unequal” doesn’t really begin to describe it. But there doesn’t seem to be anything in the contract which isn’t logically related to the main deal. And the balance of values favors Cruz, not God: God is demanding a century of service under fairly onerous terms. In exchange, he’s offering eternal salvation. Doesn’t seem so bad when you put it that way. . .
But what about duress? Might Cruz argue that he was subjected to unfair duress, because the choice seems to be “Sign the contract or go to hell.” Might that work?
Actually. . . probably not. Reaching that conclusion requires accepting the story’s basic theological premises, but if we do that, duress doesn’t seem to be a viable defense. Here’s the deal. It’s not made clear in the story, but the impression I get from reading it is that the R.I.P.D. is mostly made up of law enforcement officers killed in the line of duty who were already destined for hell. The impression I got from reading the story—and it’s an impression, there’s no explicit textual support here—is that an officer who was already destined for heaven might “volunteer” as it were, in exchange for the opportunity to bring his killer to justice, but that most of the R.I.P.D. force is primarily in the gig as a way of earning their place in heaven.
So it’s not really “Sign this or go to hell,” as if failure to sign is the reason one might be damned. It’s “You’re already going to hell, for reasons you know quite well. If you want a second chance, here’s the deal.” In essence, it’s a plea bargain. Or maybe turning state’s evidence. The prosecutor has you dead to rights. But for reasons of his own, he’s willing to offer you a deal. You can take that deal or not, but no court is ever going to invalidate that deal on the basis of duress, because any arguable “threat” is lawful. For duress to work as a defense to a contract, the threat needs to be improper or unlawful. Indeed, if it were otherwise, duress would work as a defense to a huge number of contracts, as most of them include one party refraining from enforcing some legal right as part of the consideration.
Now duress does involve a “no reasonable alternative” element, but we have to be careful here. Clearly, Cruz doesn’t seem to have any reasonable alternatives. But that’s okay. The element has to do with whether not an improper/unlawful threat is serious enough to ground a claim of duress. Even an improper/unlawful threat will not ground the defense if there are appropriate, legal alternatives to assenting to the proposed terms. But where the “threat” is proper/lawful, whether or not there is an appropriate legal alternative is irrelevant. As the story seems to assume that God has every right to send people to hell, the “threat” in this instance is proper/lawful, so the fact that Cruz doesn’t have any meaningful alternatives doesn’t enter into it.
So the contract here is probably enforceable. True, there are some irregularities with the way it’s signed, but the totality of the circumstances is such that Cruz would have a hard time avoiding the contract, or any of its terms, even if both of the parties were mortal and before a mortal court. True, the lawyer should probably have explained the terms better—and he might be exposed to a disciplinary action if he were on the mortal plane—but Cruz’s single-minded determination to do whatever it took to bring his killer to justice will severely impair any defenses he might raise. And because the “threat” of hell is assumed by the story to be proper, he doesn’t even have a claim of duress. So the short conclusion is that in comic book stories, making a deal with God is generally better for your long-term prospects than making a deal with the devil, but you still probably want to read the fine print. Like you should be doing in real life anyway.
R.I.P.D. is a fun little story, with amusing art and a clever premise. A prequel story, R.I.P.D.: City of the Damned is slated for release on June 4, two weeks before the movie is due out. It’s nice to have read the stories upon which comic book movies are based, so if you’re planning to see the movie—and it’s got Jeff Bridges in it, so you should be—I’d consider pick up copies of both.