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Get it in Writing

When an Internet executive held a meeting with the chairman of a telecommunications company, the agenda was a new business idea that the Internet executive had. The discussion was transformed into a recruitment when the telecommunications executive suggested that the idea should be pursued within the company he headed. For two men in the upper echelons of high-tech businesses, they then chose a decidedly low-tech way to memorialize their agreement. The end result, however, shows how substance can sometimes triumph over form in the law of contracts formation.

At the end of their meeting, the telecommunications executive simply wrote out the agreement by hand on two notebook pages, and both men signed it. The writing included specifics as to how the newly hired executive would be compensated, the terms on which he could quit if he became unhappy, and what would happen if intellectual property involved in the deal could not be transferred to the telecommunications firm. It also included the statement that “[t]he parties will complete formal contracts as soon as possible but this is binding.” This would turn out to be pivotal language in the litigation that followed.

Unfortunately, the new arrangement quickly went downhill, and after about six months the new employee was fired. The relationship ended with the “formal contracts” never having been drafted and executed. When the former employee sued for breach of contract and other wrongs, more than six years of litigation ensued, with two trials and two appeals.

Much of the case focused on whether the handwritten agreement that started everything was a valid, binding contract. The telecommunications company argued that it was merely an “agreement to agree.” However, a jury eventually ruled that the agreement was valid, and that the telecommunications firm had breached the terms of the contract represented by the two notebook pages.

Four factors are usually considered in determining whether a “preliminary agreement” is binding. In this case, the first two clearly favored the fired executive: There was no explicit reservation of a right not to be bound (in fact, the handwritten agreement said the opposite) and the executive had partially performed the contract. The third factor is whether all of the terms of the alleged contract were agreed upon. On that point, the agreement, although it may have lacked some details, addressed all of the essentials for a binding contract.

The final factor is whether the agreement was a type of contract that is usually committed to writing in a formal manner. When millions are at stake, as was the case here, it may be unusual to seal the deal with a handwritten document, in outline form, and drafted on the spot by one of the principals without benefit of legal counsel. The agreement was not much to look at, barely surpassing in formality the proverbial agreement scribbled on a cocktail napkin. Still, that it was unorthodox did not mean that the method was unprecedented. In the end, this factor, balanced against the other three, was not enough to discard the agreement and deprive the departed executive of the benefits of his bargain.

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