Is The Roommate Agreement In The Big Bang Theory Valid?

The Big Bang Theory gets a lot of hate and I have to confess I don’t really understand why. Sure it’s no Mad Men (what is?), and it relies too frequently on dumb blonde and fat jokes, but I just can’t imagine feeling strongly about it either way. My wife and I used to watch but I just couldn’t get enough of a foothold to stick with it. Despite my ambivalence, however, one thing* has nagged at me for several years, so in honor of TBBT’s return tonight for its ninth season, I’d like to discuss whether Sheldon and Leonard’s roommate agreement is legally valid.**

For those who don’t watch, the main characters, Sheldon Cooper (Jim Parsons) and Leonard Hofstadter (thanklessly played by Johnny Galecki) are roommates and best friends. Prior to becoming roommates, Sheldon forced Leonard to sign an agreement in exchange for permission to rent Sheldon's second bedroom. The agreement is by all accounts ridiculous. It contains numerous clauses that are designed solely to get a laugh and have little or no real world application. Here are some sample clauses, per the TBBT wiki:

  1. Leonard will help Sheldon destroy an artificial Intelligence that Sheldon has created that is taking over the Earth.
  2. If one of the roommates ever invents time travel, the first stop has to aim exactly five seconds after this clause of the Roommate Agreement was signed. 
  3. If Sheldon turns into a zombie, Leonard cannot kill him.
  4. Fridays are reserved for watching Firefly due to Sheldon's assumption that it would be on for years.
  5. Leonard will name Sheldon as his sidekick if Leonard obtains superpowers.

There are a lot of outlandish provisions like that. There are also a handful of “reasonable" provisions like:

  1. The thermostat must be kept at 72 degrees at all times.
  2. Leonard is obligated to drive Sheldon to his various appointments, such as to the dentist. Leonard must also provide a "confirmation sniff" to tell if questionable dairy products are edible. 
  3. When Sheldon showers second, any and all measures shall be taken to ensure an adequate supply of hot water. 
  4. Sheldon and Leonard both have the option of nullifying their roommate agreement, having no responsibilities or obligations toward each other, other than paying rent and sharing utilities.
  5. Any changes in furnishings have to be approved by the furnishing committee (who is Sheldon) which meets on alternate years on his spot. 

It goes on and on like this. Look, I’ll give them this: the roommate agreement is funny and has been a reliable source of comedy, but is it legally valid? The question was actually broached on the show; in season 4, Leonard dated Priya Koothrapali, a lawyer and the sister of his friend Raj. When Leonard’s relationship with Priya conflicted with Sheldon’s demands, Priya argued to Sheldon that the agreement was not enforceable. Why?

Well there are a couple reasons. 

Impossibility

Many of the clauses can’t be enforced because performance would be impossible (i.e. Sheldon will never become a zombie because zombies don’t exist, so Leonard will never be faced with the need to kill him). Impossibility of a material term can actually be a valid reason to not perform your side of a contract, so Leonard would have a pretty good argument that at least those provisions are voidable.

Conditions Precedent

Likewise, many of the provisions would never be triggered because of their high degree of unlikelihood. The failure of these preceding conditions (like Sheldon inventing a murderous A.I.) would prevent Leonard from ever performing them. This means that large swaths of the contract are unperformable by Leonard, rendering those provisions at least voidable. 

But maybe these clauses are immaterial, not affecting the agreement at large, or maybe the rest of the contract stands because Sheldon had the foresight to include a severability clause. There are still ways the contract might fail.

Unconscionability

For one thing, the text of the agreement is clearly designed to benefit Sheldon at Leonard’s expense. While the agreement does periodically throw Leonard a bone (i.e. Sheldon promising to take Leonard swimming at Bill Gates’ house if he ever gets invited, Sheldon promising to ask Leonard how he is once a day), it’s pretty one-sided. Sheldon actually admits as much on the show. Remember, he is the sole author of the agreement and he only presents it in situations where he can arm-twist Leonard into compliance. It is the Sword of Damocles hanging over Leonard’s life. 

Good news for Leonard then... courts tend to invalidate contracts this one-sided. In legal parlance, we say the contract is substantively unconscionable. That is, the terms of the agreement are so unfair they offend the conscience. Aside from unfair terms, a contract is unconscionable when:

  1. There is a lack of meaningful choice (i.e. sign this contract because there are no alternatives for you);
  2. The contract was signed because one party engaged in deceptive practices, or 
  3. One of the parties lacks the ability to understand or learn about the meaning of the terms.

These other scenarios don’t apply, but I think Leonard has a strong argument that the agreement is so unfavorable to him as to be a genuine burden. Most of the clauses require Leonard to do something or refrain from doing something, and there is little onus on Sheldon to meet any kind of demand on Leonard's part. 

Economic Duress

A quick check of available apartment rentals on Zillow tells me that in all of Pasadena, CA, there are only four two-bedroom units for under $2,000 per month. That's a pretty tight market (and an expensive one), and if Sheldon knew this, he may have been able to use the reality of the rental market to coerce Leonard into renting with him because Leonard's other rental options were slim. Leonard would then have no choice to sign the roommate agreement, even if he didn’t want to.

This is called economic duress, and a contract entered into under such conditions may be unenforceable. Leonard would, of course, have to prove that Sheldon had him over a barrel, financially speaking, and that aside from this particular apartment, there was nowhere else for him to live. But with only four apartments in the entire city, I think he could make that argument.*** How much do CalTech physicists earn anyway?

Duty to Read and Understand

While I think Leonard has a good shot at getting the roommate agreement thrown out, there are some who might disagree. Courts generally don't accept ignorance or failure to read as plausible defenses. It’s generally presumed that, absent fraud, if you sign a contract that means you’ve read it, understood it, and accepted any inherent risks involved. Leonard is a highly educated and intelligent scientist working for a prestigious university. A judge can easily look at the agreement and, ludicrous as it is, uphold its validity. “Hey, you’re a smart guy and you signed it. Deal with it."

So, at the end of the day, I’m inclined to think that the roommate agreement is unenforceable and invalid, but lawyers will always disagree. In fact, we’re often paid to. So what do you guys think? Does it pass muster? Does Leonard have legal recourse to get out from under his overbearing roommate? I’m interested in the debate.

* Can I just ask… what is up with the elevator being broken for eight years? If I was a disabled resident of the building, I would have a classic discrimination case against the property owner under the Fair Housing Act. 

** The roommate agreement may be rendered moot anyway since Leonard and Penny are getting married in the season opener, which means Leonard is probably moving out. Way to be timely, Greg. 

*** For the record, I think this would be the hardest argument to succeed on. To show economic duress, he would have to show that he had no other reasonable rental options. That would be exceedingly difficult to do, although not impossible.

Greg Kanaan

The [Legal] Artist, Boston, MA, USA