December 9, 2013
By Oliver Herzfeld
Many people consider email to be an informal form of communication. As a result, offers, counter-offers and terms of proposed agreements are frequently exchanged via email with the hope and expectation that they are for negotiation purposes only. The question is, could such email messages be deemed to be legal, valid and binding agreements that are enforceable against senders in accordance with their terms? The New York Appellate Division in the recent case of Forcelli v. Gelco provides some important guidance regarding the answer to this question.
In November 2008, Steven Kuhn drove through a red light and struck a vehicle owned by Gelco Corporation. As a result of the impact, Gelco’s vehicle was thrust forward into a vehicle driven by John Forcelli. A month later, to recover damages for his injuries, Forcelli commenced litigation against Kuhn, Gelco and other related parties.
In May 2011, while the civil procedure of the litigation progressed, Brenda Greene, a representative of Gelco’s insurer, offered Forcelli’s counsel $230,000 to settle the case. Forcelli’s counsel orally accepted the offer on behalf of Forcelli. That same day, Greene sent an email message to Forcelli’s counsel stating the following:
Per our phone conversation today, May 3, 2011, you accepted my offer of $230,000 to settle this case. Please have your client executed [sic] the attached Medicare form as no settlement check can be issued without this form. You also agreed to prepare the release. . .Please forward the release and dismissal for my review. Thanks Brenda Greene.
The next day, Forcelli signed a release, notarized by his counsel, stating that he was releasing Gelco from all actions involving the accident in exchange for $230,000. However, just a few days later, on May 10, 2011, the New York Supreme Court (i.e., the trial-level court) issued an order granting a motion for summary judgment in favor of Gelco and dismissing all of Forcelli’s claims asserted against Gelco. Gelco tried to reject the settlement claiming the email message did not constitute a binding written settlement agreement, but the Supreme Court ruled against Gelco and entered a judgment ordering Gelco to pay Forcelli $230,000. In response, Gelco appealed to the New York Appellate Division.
The Appellate Division unanimously upheld the decision of the lower court noting that, in accordance with general contract law, Greene had apparent authority to settle the case on behalf of Gelco, and her email message set forth the material terms of the agreement, contained an expression of mutual assent and was not subject to any conditions such as the outcome of the summary judgment motion. As to whether the email was a subscribed writing sufficient to establish an enforceable settlement agreement, the Appellate Division stated: “given the now widespread use of email as a form of written communication in both personal and business affairs, it would be unreasonable to conclude that email messages are incapable of conforming to the criteria of [New York law] simply because they cannot be physically signed in a traditional fashion.” The Appellate Division focused on the sign-off “Thanks Brenda Greene” at the end of the email concluding it evidenced a “purposeful” signature of the message that is consistent with the reasoning and intent of New York’s Electronic Signatures and Records Act (i.e., the New York version of the Uniform Electronic Transactions Act which governs the validity of electronic contracts and signatures).
The Lesson For Contracting Parties
This case is a wake-up call to contracting parties to avoid casually negotiating the terms of proposed agreements via email without taking appropriate precautions to avoid having messages unintentionally deemed enforceable and becoming bound by unwanted agreements. In particular, offers, counter-offers and terms of proposed agreements communicated via email should explicitly state that they are subject to any relevant conditions, as well as to the further review and comment of the sender’s clients and/or colleagues. Further, such communications should include appropriate disclaimers such as that the email is not an offer capable of acceptance, does not evidence an intention to enter into an agreement, has no operative effect until a definitive agreement is signed in writing by both parties, and that no party should act in reliance on the email or any representations of the sender until a definitive agreement is signed in writing by both parties. Doing so would help avoid having messages sent for negotiation purposes only unexpectedly become enforceable agreements.