Attorney Richard D. Vetstein describes changes in what is legal documentation of a deal, in the electronic age.
Massachusetts courts have been grappling with the question of “when is a deal a deal” for a long time. With the vast majority of communication in real estate now done via email and other electronic means, it was just a matter of time before a court was faced with the question of whether and to what extent e-mails can constitute a binding and enforceable agreement to purchase and sell real estate. The real estate community has been waiting a few years for a case like this to come down, and now it’s here. In Feldberg v. Coxall (May 22, 2012), Superior Court Justice Douglas Wilkins ruled that a series of e-mail exchanges between the buyer’s and seller’s attorney, the last one attaching a revised, but unsigned, offer to purchase, arguably created a binding agreement entitling the buyer to a lis pendens (notice of claim). This is also one of the first cases that I am aware of which applies the new Massachusetts Uniform Electronic Transactions Act law to preliminary negotiations in real estate deals.
This is a very interesting and important decision for anyone dealing in residential real estate in Massachusetts. The immediate take-away is that now anything sent in an e-mail can potentially create a binding deal, even if no offer or purchase and sale agreement is ultimately signed.
Vacant lots in Sudbury
Feldberg, the buyer, was interested in purchasing 2 undeveloped lots in Sudbury owned by Coxall, the seller. The parties’ attorneys, via email, began negotiating the terms of the deal. (Apparently, brokers were not involved in the offer stage). On April 19 at around 9 PM, the buyer’s attorney e-mailed the seller’s attorney and attached a “revised offer with changes to reflect the conversations we have had today.” The revised offer appeared to be comprehensive inasmuch as it contained an agreed upon purchase price of $475,000 and a firm closing date. The email ended with the suggestion that both attorneys work “to have the final offer form finalized in time for my client to sign it and get deposits checks to you before the end of the day tomorrow.”
The seller’s attorney emailed back the next day, stating that “we must have a written approval letter from the bank today by 5pm and I think we are ready to go (I assume they will provide a closing date with the approval). We are almost there.” That same afternoon, the buyer’s attorney provided a commitment letter from Village Bank with standard conditions.
Apparently, before the seller signed the offer, he backed off and refused to proceed with the transaction. The buyer sued, and sought a lis pendens, which is a notice of claim filed with the registry of deeds. In most cases, a lis pendens will prevent a seller from conveying litigated property to another buyer.
Statute of Frauds intersects with e-mail
As Judge Wilkins eloquently noted, this case involves the “intersection between the seventeenth century Statute of Frauds and twenty-first century electronic mail.” The Statute of Frauds is the genesis of the saying “always get it in writing” and similar refrains. The ancient law originating in England provides that all real estate contracts must be in writing signed by the party (or agent) to be charged. In the “old” days, application of the Statute was quite simple. If there wasn’t a written agreement signed in wet, ink signatures, there was no binding deal. Now with e-mail it’s much more complicated, as this case shows.
As the judge noted, this is uncharted territory for the courts as there has been a dearth of precedent on point. The Massachusetts Uniform Electronic Transactions Act (UETA) provides that parties to a real estate transaction may consent to conduct the transaction electronically via email or electronic signature technology if they use such technology in their dealings (which everybody does these days). They even may even switch to a traditional hard copy agreement at the end of negotiations like Feldberg and Coxall did here. The UETA requires some form of “electronic signature.” The judge ruled that an email signature block or even the “from” portion of the email may constitute a valid electronic signature. Accordingly, the judge found that the buyer had made a sufficient case that a binding deal had been reached, despite the seller refusing to sign the hard copy offer.1
Take-away: emails may come back to bite you
I think that most Realtors and attorneys have assumed that negotiations by email leading up to an offer are preliminary and not binding until the offer is actually signed by both parties. This ruling throws that conventional wisdom out the window.
What can you do to prevent this situation from occurring? One thing you can do right now is to insert a disclaimer in your email signature. Here’s one that I just came up with:
Emails sent or received shall neither constitute acceptance of conducting transactions via electronic means nor shall create a binding contract in the absence of a fully signed written contract.
Feel free to use it. Other than that, you need to watch what you say in your emails, especially when you represent a seller who is considering multiple offers. Make it clear and in writing from the outset that there is no deal until an offer is signed by both buyer and seller.
The author is solely responsible for the content.