According to attorney Robert J. Ross, at the Law Offices of Robert J. Ross, located at 1622 W Colonial Parkway, Suite 201 in Inverness, Illinois, here’s another very good reason for taking a moment to think before hitting the “Reply” or “Send” button on that e-mail message…
There’s an ad on the TV talking about hitting the “reply all” button – “Who hasn’t done that?” Well, here’s something else to think about…
We send e-mails so casually and with such informality, even in the business environment, that it is easy to forget that they may carry significant legal consequences. It is only prudent to bear in mind that even e-mails written in the most conversational style may create legal obligations no less binding than a more conventional written agreement laden with legalese and signed with all formalities.
If a business wants to entirely avoid the possibility of having e-mails treated as binding amendments to existing contracts, the best approach is to be as clear and direct as possible on the subject by including language in contracts to the effect that e-mails do not count as signed writings for purposes of any contract amendments.
A recent cautionary case on point involved an individual who sold his public relations firm to a global communications company. The deal included an employment contract under which the seller was to continue as chairman and CEO of the new company for three years. Soon, the new company was losing money and the seller was presented with the option of either leaving or taking on new responsibilities.
E-mail then entered the picture when an employee of the communications company sent yet another option to the seller in an e-mail that spelled out how the seller would allocate his time. The seller replied by e-mail that he enthusiastically accepted that proposal. For his part, the representative of the communications company replied by e-mail that he was thrilled with the seller’s decision to accept the new offer. In both e-mails the sender had typed his name after the message.
The seller later had a change of heart and sued to enforce the terms of the original employment agreement. An appellate court ruled against him on the ground that the exchange of e-mails on the new employment proposal constituted a binding amendment to the employment agreement. This was so even though the original agreement required that any changes had to be in the form of signed writings.
The court reasoned that the e-mails effectively were signed writings because the parties’ names appeared at the end of the e-mails, signifying an intent to authenticate the preceding contents of the messages. Likewise, the e-mails also were signed writings for purposes of the Statute of Frauds, which requires certain contracts to be in writing in order to be enforceable. In short, when the seller and his e-mail correspondent clicked “send” and “reply,” they were sealing a new deal that the seller could not avoid even though it was in an electronic form.
Since the resolution of legal issues depend on many factors, including variations of fact and state laws, you should always consult with legal counsel, before taking action. Neither Mr. Ross, nor 3Planets are giving you advice, just providing you with some interesting information. To contact Robert J. Ross, visit www.robertjross.com or call his office at 847-358-5757.