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Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Email “Signature” Satisfies Subscription Requirement of NY Settlement Agreement Statute

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After an ugly three-car accident, plaintiffs sued the other drivers, one driver’s employer (Xerox) and a corporation that owned one of the cars (Gelco).  Gelco moved for summary judgment dismissing the complaint.  That same day, the parties held a mediation that did not resolve the lawsuit.  Thereafter, Brenda Greene, the adjuster for Gelco’s insurer called plaintiffs’ counsel to revive settlement negotiations.  After a few days of negotiating, plaintiffs’ counsel orally agreed to settle the case.  Greene sent a confirmation email message to plaintiffs’ counsel, it read:

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 included [sic] the following names: Xerox Corporation, Gelco Corporation, Mitchell G. Maller and Sedgwick CMS. Please forward the release and dismissal for my review. Thanks Brenda Greene. 

Plaintiffs signed a release on May 4.  On May 10, plaintiffs’ counsel sent that release and a stipulation of discontinuance to Gelco.  That same day, Gelco’s attorney received an email alert that the court granted Gelco’s motion for summary judgment dismissing the complaint.  Gelco’s counsel faxed and mailed a letter to plaintiffs’ counsel "rejecting" the release and stipulation. Gelco’s attorney stated: "there was no settlement consummated under New York CPLR 2104 between the parties, we considered this matter dismissed by the court's decision…dated May 10..."

The issue before the appellate court was whether the email message satisfied the criteria of CPLR 2104 so as to constitute a binding and enforceable stipulation of settlement. Where a settlement is not made in open court, CPLR 2104 provides: "An agreement between parties or their attorneys relating to any matter in an action…is not binding upon a party unless it is in a writing subscribed by him or his attorney." 

The appellate court held that the email counted as a writing and a subscription by Gelco’s representative, binding the parties to the settlement.  After holding that Greene had apparent authority to bind Gelco to the settlement, the court reasoned:

It is, of course, axiomatic that a letter can be considered "subscribed," since letters are usually signed at the end by the author thereof. However, email messages cannot be signed in the traditional sense. Nevertheless, this lack of "subscription" in the form of a handwritten signature has not prevented other courts from concluding that an email message, which is otherwise valid as a stipulation between parties, can be enforced pursuant to CPLR 2104. * * *

Morever, 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 CPLR 2104 simply because they cannot be physically signed in a traditional fashion (see Newmark & Co. Real Estate Inc. v. 2615 E. 17th St. Realty LLC, 80 AD3d 476, 477-478 ["e-mail agreement set forth all relevant terms of the agreement…and thus, constituted a meeting of the minds"]). Indeed, such a conclusion is buttressed by reference to the New York State Technology Law, former article 1, "Electronic Signatures and Records Act," which was enacted by the Legislature in 2002. In the accompanying statement of legislative intent, the Legislature stated in part:

"[This act] is intended to support and encourage electronic commerce and electronic government by allowing people to use electronic signatures and electronic records in lieu of handwritten signatures and paper documents" (L 2002, ch 314, §1).

Section 302(3) of this statute states that an "'[e]lectronic signature' shall mean an electronic sound, symbol, or process, attached to or logically associated with an electronic record and executed or adopted by a person with the intent to sign the record." Section 304(2) of the statute states that "an electronic signature may be used by a person in lieu of a signature affixed by hand [and] [t]he use of an electronic signature shall have the same validity and effect as the use of a signature affixed by hand."

In the case at bar, Greene's email message contained her printed name at the end thereof, as opposed to an "electronic signature" as defined by the Electronic Signatures and Records Act. Nevertheless, the record supports the conclusion that Greene, in effect, signed the email message. In particular, we note that the subject email message ended with the simple expression, "Thanks Brenda Greene," which appears at the end of the email text. This indicates that the author purposefully added her name to this particular email message, rather than a situation where the sender's email software has been programmed to automatically generate the name of the email sender, along with other identifying information, every time an email message is sent (cf. DeVita v. Macy's E., Inc., 36 AD3d 751). In addition, the circumstances which preceded Greene's email message, and in particular, the face-to-face mediation at which settlement was attempted and the subsequent follow-up telephone calls between Greene and the plaintiff's counsel, support the conclusion that Greene intended to "subscribe" the email settlement for purposes of CPLR 2104 (see Newmark & Co. Real Estate Inc. v. 2615 E. 17th St. Realty LLC, 80 AD3d at 477 ["e-mail sent by a party, under which the sending party's name is typed, can constitute a writing for purposes of the statute of frauds"]; see also Naldi v. Grunberg, 80 AD3d 1, 6-13).

Accordingly, we hold that where, as here, an email message contains all material terms of a settlement and a manifestation of mutual accord, and the party to be charged, or his or her agent, types his or her name under circumstances manifesting an intent that the name be treated as a signature, such an email message may be deemed a subscribed writing within the meaning of CPLR 2104 so as to constitute an enforceable agreement.

Forcelli v. Gelco Corp., 27584/08, NYLJ 1202612381868, at *1 (App. Div., 2d, Decided July 24, 2013)

[Meredith R. Miller]

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