Since its inception in 1993, e-mail has emerged as one of the fastest and most prolific forms of communication in the business world, surpassing the phone and the now almost-unheard-of written fax. With the evolution of business dealings through such a rapid means of communication, legal statutes have been passed to ensure that users understand that what is explicitly stated in an email can, in fact, be considered a binding agreement.
In a recent court case in Massachusetts, Feldberg, et al. v. Coxall, a buyer and seller in a real estate transaction are duking it out over claims that contract terms were agreed upon in an e-mail, and then broken. According to court documents, the buyer and seller exchanged e-mails regarding a deal, with the last correspondence including a revised offer to purchase. Leaving the offer unsigned, the seller backed out of the purchase thus drawing both parties into the lawsuit.
The buyer sued the seller on the grounds that the deal had been sealed in the last e-mail, prompting the seller to counter that argument with the point that nothing had been officially signed and urged for a dismissal of the suit altogether. In an interesting twist, the judge ruled against the dismissal, citing the Massachusetts Uniform Electronic Transactions Act. This state law dictates that an e-mail signature block or even a name or e-mail address entered in the “from” portion of the e-mail can constitute as a valid signature when business is being conducted primarily via e-mail.
In the end, the buyer and seller settled out of court and the issue was never formally brought before a judge. However, the judge that refused to throw the case out has certainly set a precedent for these types of cases. Despite this all playing out in a lower level of court, this judge’s actions could turn out to be a model for future court cases regarding e-mailed business agreements.
Real Estate Agents Need to Take Care In E-mail Communications
The act of negotiation is a delicate dance between parties. Terms are outlined, rejected, compromised and, eventually, agreed upon. In some cases this is done solely through the medium of e-mail, a factor that is changing not only how business is handled but terms of contracts and binding agreements. Any experienced agent is well-versed in this process, but as things change, a few precautions should be taken when communicating via e-mail.
The National Association of REALTORS® suggests two very important tips when communicating on behalf of a client through e-mail. The first is to use a disclaimer in the signature line of the e-mail that explicitly states that e-mails sent or received do not constitute acceptance of a transaction until a written contract is signed by participating parties.
The second is to simply take care in what is communicated through e-mails. Whether the agent is representing the buyer or seller, it is always important to push for confirmation on both sides through a written, signed agreement as a means to keep everyone involved and happy with the transaction.