Main Body

12 Acceptance

2. Acceptance

 

To accept an offer is to exercise the power that an offer creates. The Restatement (Second) includes sections defining acceptance and discussing the offeror’s control over the manner of acceptance:

 

§ 30. Form of Acceptance Invited

 

(1) An offer may invite or require acceptance to be made by an affirmative answer in words, or by performing or refraining from performing a specified act, or may empower the offeree to make a selection of terms in his acceptance.

 

(2) Unless otherwise indicated by the language or the circumstances, an offer invites acceptance in any manner and by any medium reasonable in the circumstances.

 

§ 50. Acceptance of Offer Defined; Acceptance by Performance; Acceptance by Promise

 

(1) Acceptance of an offer is a manifestation of assent to the terms thereof made by the offeree in a manner invited or required by the offer.

 

(2) Acceptance by performance requires that at least part of what the offer requests be performed or tendered and includes acceptance by a performance which operates as a return promise.

 

(3) Acceptance by a promise requires that the offeree complete every act essential to the making of the promise.

 

Professor Corbin elaborates on these doctrinal principles in the following terms:

 

An acceptance is a voluntary act of the offeree whereby he exercises the power conferred on him by the offer, and thereby creates the set of legal relations called a contract. What acts are sufficient to secure this purpose? We must look first to the terms in which the offer was expressed, either by words or by other conduct. The offeror is the creator of the power and at the time of its creation he has full control over both the fact of its existence and its terms. The offeror has, in the beginning, full power to determine the acts that are to constitute acceptance. After he has once created the power, he may lose his control over it, and may become disabled to change or revoke it; but the fact that, in the beginning, the offeror has full control … is the characteristic that distinguishes contractual relations from noncontractual ones. After the offeror has created the power [of acceptance], the legal consequences are out of his hands, and he may be brought into numerous consequential relations of which he did not dream, and to which he might not have consented. These later relations are nevertheless called contractual.

 

Arthur Corbin, Offer and Acceptance, and Some of the Resulting Legal Relations, 26 Yale L.J. 169, 199-200 (1917),

 

 

 

 

2.1 Principal Case – Ever-Tite Roofing Corp. v. Green

 

Ever-Tite Roofing Corp. v. Green

 

Court of Appeals of Louisiana

 

83 So. 2d 449 (1955)

 

Ayres, Judge.

 

[1]  This is an action for damages allegedly sustained by plaintiff as the result of the breach by the defendants of a written contract for the re-roofing of defendants’ residence. Defendants denied that their written proposal or offer was ever accepted by plaintiff in the manner stipulated therein for its acceptance, and hence contended no contract was ever entered into. The trial court sustained defendants’ defense and rejected plaintiff’s demands and dismissed its suit at its costs. From the judgment thus rendered and signed, plaintiff appealed.

 

[2]  Defendants executed and signed an instrument June 10, 1953, for the purpose of obtaining the services of plaintiff in re-roofing their residence situated in Webster Parish, Louisiana. The document set out in detail the work to be done and the price therefor to be paid in monthly installments. This instrument was likewise signed by plaintiff’s sales representative, who, however, was without authority to accept the contract for and on behalf of the plaintiff. This alleged contract contained these provisions:

 

This agreement shall become binding only upon written acceptance hereof, by the principal or authorized officer of the Contractor, or upon commencing performance of the work. This contract is Not Subject to Cancellation. It is understood and agreed that this contract is payable at office of Ever-Tite Roofing Corporation, 5203 Telephone, Houston, Texas. It is understood and agreed that this Contract provides for attorney’s fees and in no case less than ten per cent attorney’s fees in the event same is placed in the hands of an attorney for collecting or collected through any court, and further provides for accelerated maturity for failure to pay any installment of principal or interest thereon when due.

 

This written agreement is the only and entire contract covering the subject matter hereof and no other representations have been made unto Owner except these herein contained. No guarantee on repair work, partial roof jobs, or paint jobs. (Emphasis supplied.)

 

[3]  Inasmuch as this work was to be performed entirely on credit, it was necessary for plaintiff to obtain credit reports and approval from the lending institution which was to finance said contract. With this procedure defendants were more or less familiar and knew their credit rating would have to be checked and a report made. On receipt of the proposed contract in plaintiff’s office on the day following its execution, plaintiff requested a credit report, which was made after investigation and which was received in due course and submitted by plaintiff to the lending agency. Additional information was requested by this institution, which was likewise in due course transmitted to the institution, which then gave its approval.

 

[4]  The day immediately following this approval, which was either June 18 or 19, 1953, plaintiff engaged its workmen and two trucks, loaded the trucks with the necessary roofing materials and proceeded from Shreveport to defendants’ residence for the purpose of doing the work and performing the services allegedly contracted for the defendants. Upon their arrival at defendants’ residence, the workmen found others in the performance of the work which plaintiff had contracted to do. Defendants notified plaintiff’s workmen that the work had been contracted to other parties two days before and forbade them to do the work.

 

[5]  Formal acceptance of the contract was not made under the signature and approval of an agent of plaintiff. It was, however, the intention of plaintiff to accept the contract by commencing the work, which was one of the ways provided for in the instrument for its acceptance, as will be shown by reference to the extract from the contract quoted hereinabove. Prior to this time, however, defendants had determined on a course of abrogating the agreement and engaged other workmen without notice thereof to plaintiff.

 

[6]  The basis of the judgment appealed was that defendants had timely notified plaintiff before “commencing performance of work.” The trial court held that notice to plaintiff’s workmen upon their arrival with the materials that defendants did not desire them to commence the actual work was sufficient and timely to signify their intention to withdraw from the contract. With this conclusion we find ourselves unable to agree.

 

[7]  Defendants’ attempt to justify their delay in thus notifying plaintiff for the reason they did not know where or how to contact plaintiff is without merit. The contract itself, a copy of which was left with them, conspicuously displayed plaintiff’s name, address and telephone number. Be that as it may, defendants at no time, from June 10, 1953, until plaintiff’s workmen arrived for the purpose of commencing the work, notified or attempted to notify plaintiff of their intention to abrogate, terminate or cancel the contract.

 

[8]  Defendants evidently knew this work was to be processed through plaintiff’s Shreveport office. The record discloses no unreasonable delay on plaintiff’s part in receiving, processing or accepting the contract or in commencing the work contracted to be done. No time limit was specified in the contract within which it was to be accepted or within which the work was to be begun. It was nevertheless understood between the parties that some delay would ensue before the acceptance of the contract and the commencement of the work, due to the necessity of compliance with the requirements relative to financing the job through a lending agency. The evidence as referred to hereinabove shows that plaintiff proceeded with due diligence.

 

[9]  The general rule of law is that an offer proposed may be withdrawn before its acceptance and that no obligation is incurred thereby. This is, however, not without exceptions. For instance, Restatement of the Law of Contracts stated:

 

(1) The power to create a contract by acceptance of an offer terminates at the time specified in the offer, or, if no time is specified, at the end of a reasonable time. What is a reasonable time is a question of fact depending on the nature of the contract proposed, the usages of business and other circumstances of the case which the offeree at the time of his acceptance either knows or has reason to know.

 

[10] These principles are recognized in the Civil Code. LSA-C.C. Art. 1800 provides that an offer is incomplete as a contract until its acceptance and that before its acceptance the offer may be withdrawn. However, this general rule is modified by the provisions of LSA-C.C. Arts. 1801, 1802, 1804 and 1809, which read as follows:

 

Art. 1801. The party proposing shall be presumed to continue in the intention, which his proposal expressed, if, on receiving the unqualified assent of him to whom the proposition is made, he do not signify the change of his intention.

 

Art. 1802. He is bound by his proposition, and the signification of his dissent will be of no avail, if the proposition be made in terms, which evince a design to give the other party the right of concluding the contract by his assent; and if that assent be given within such time as the situation of the parties and the nature of the contract shall prove that it was the intention of the proposer to allow….

 

Art. 1804. The acceptance needs (need) not be made by the same act, or in point of time, immediately after the proposition; if made at any time before the person who offers or promises has changed his mind, or may reasonably be presumed to have done so, it is sufficient….

 

Art. 1809. The obligation of a contract not being complete, until the acceptance, or in cases where it is implied by law, until the circumstances, which raise such implication, are known to the party proposing; he may therefore revoke his offer or proposition before such acceptance, but not without allowing such reasonable time as from the terms of his offer he has given, or from the circumstances of the case he may be supposed to have intended to give to the party, to communicate his determination. (Emphasis supplied.)

 

[11] Therefore, since the contract did not specify the time within which it was to be accepted or within which the work was to have been commenced, a reasonable time must be allowed therefor in accordance with the facts and circumstances and the evident intention of the parties. A reasonable time is contemplated where no time is expressed. What is a reasonable time depends more or less upon the circumstances surrounding each particular case. The delays to process defendants’ application were not unusual. The contract was accepted by plaintiff by the commencement of the performance of the work contracted to be done. This commencement began with the loading of the trucks with the necessary materials in Shreveport and transporting such materials and the workmen to defendants’ residence. Actual commencement or performance of the work therefore began before any notice of dissent by defendants was given plaintiff. The proposition and its acceptance thus became a completed contract.

 

[12] By their aforesaid acts defendants breached the contract. They employed others to do the work contracted to be done by plaintiff and forbade plaintiff’s workmen to engage upon that undertaking. By this breach defendants are legally bound to respond to plaintiff in damages. LSA-C.C. Art. 1930 provides:

 

The obligations of contract (contracts) extending to whatsoever is incident to such contracts, the party who violates them, is liable, as one of the incidents of his obligations, to the payment of the damages, which the other party has sustained by his default.

 

[13] The same authority in Art. 1934 provides the measure of damages for the breach of a contract. This article, in part, states:

 

Where the object of the contract is anything but the payment of money, the damages due to the creditor for its breach are the amount of the loss he has sustained, and the profit of which he has been deprived,….

 

Plaintiff expended the sum of $85.37 in loading the trucks in Shreveport with materials and in transporting them to the site of defendants’ residence in Webster Parish and in unloading them on their return, and for wages for the workmen for the time consumed. Plaintiff’s Shreveport manager testified that the expected profit on this job was $226. None of this evidence is controverted or contradicted in any manner.

 

[14] True, as plaintiff alleges, the contract provides for attorney’s fees where an attorney is employed to collect under the contract, but this is not an action on the contract or to collect under the contract but is an action for damages for a breach of the contract. The contract in that respect is silent with reference to attorney’s fees. In the absence of an agreement for the payment of attorney’s fees or of some law authorizing the same, such fees are not allowed.

 

[15] For the reasons assigned, the judgment appealed is annulled, avoided, reversed and set aside and there is now judgment in favor of plaintiff, Ever-Tite Roofing Corporation, against the defendants, G. T. Green and Mrs. Jessie Fay Green, for the full sum of $311.37, with 5 per cent per annum interest thereon from judicial demand until paid, and for all costs.

 

Reversed and rendered.

 

 

 

 

2.1.1 Selecting the Permissible Mode of Acceptance

 

Both the Restatement (Second) of Contracts (1981) and the Uniform Commercial Code include rules to govern the permissible mode of acceptance. Here is how the Restatement (Second) addresses the issue:

 

§ 32. Invitation of Promise or Performance

 

In case of doubt an offer is interpreted as inviting the offeree to accept either by promising to perform what the offer requests or by rendering the performance, as the offeree chooses.

 

§ 60. Acceptance of Offer Which States Place, Time or Manner of Acceptance

 

If an offer prescribes the place, time or manner of acceptance its terms in this respect must be complied with in order to create a contract. If an offer merely suggests a permitted place, time or manner of acceptance, another method of acceptance is not precluded.

 

The UCC specifies similarly permissive rules for situations in which the offer leaves open the means of acceptance but makes the offeror “master of the offer” when she chooses to specify how it should be accepted.

 

§ 2-206. Offer and Acceptance in Formation of Contract

 

(1) Unless otherwise unambiguously indicated by the language or circumstances

 

(a) an offer to make a contract shall be construed as inviting acceptance in any manner and by any medium reasonable in the circumstances;

 

(b) an order or other offer to buy goods for prompt or current shipment shall be construed as inviting acceptance either by a prompt promise to ship or by the prompt or current shipment of conforming or non-conforming goods, but such a shipment of non-conforming goods does not constitute acceptance if the seller seasonably notifies the buyer that the shipment is offered only as an accommodation to the buyer.

 

(2) Where the beginning of a requested performance is a reasonable mode of acceptance an offeror who is not notified of acceptance within a reasonable time may treat the offer as having lapsed before acceptance.

 

2.1.2 Antonucci v. Stevens Dodge

 

Leonard Antonucci ordered a new “Club Cab” pickup truck from Stevens Dodge. The salesman filled out a preprinted order form and Antonucci paid a $500 deposit. The court described the order:

 

In the bottom lefthand corner of the agreement there is printed in large underlined type: “… THIS ORDER SHALL NOT BECOME BINDING UNTIL ACCEPTED BY DEALER OR HIS AUTHORIZED REPRESENTATIVE.” At the bottom of the paragraph containing this sentence is a blank line under which is printed “purchaser’s signature.” Plaintiff signed on this line. Below this is a blank line which has printed before it “Accepted By.” Under this line is printed “Dealer or his Authorized Representative.” This line bears no signature.

 

On the back of the agreement are printed ten conditions. The heading on top of this page states: “It is further understood and agreed: The order on the reverse side hereof is subject to the following terms and conditions which have been mutually agreed upon.” Paragraph 10 states: “This order is subject to acceptance by the dealer, which acceptance shall be signified by the signature of Dealer, Dealer’s Manager or other authorized signature on the reverse side hereof.”

 

Antonucci v. Stevens Dodge, Inc., 73 Misc. 2d 173, 340 N.Y.S. 2d 979 (1973).

 

When the truck arrived, a controversy arose about whether the model delivered was the “Club Cab” that Antonucci had ordered. What result would you expect when Antonucci sues Stevens Dodge to recover his deposit?

 

2.1.3 Discussion of Ever-Tite Roofing v. Green

 

What would have happened in Ever-Tite if the form contract read like the agreement in Antonucci v. Stevens Dodge (e.g., “This agreement shall not become binding until signed by contractor or his authorized representative.”)?

 

Suppose as well that the Greens let Ever-Tite begin work on their roof. Could they later repudiate on the ground that the contractor didn’t sign the contract?

 

Now suppose that the contract said: “This agreement is not binding until accepted. Acceptance should be executed on the acknowledgement copy and returned to the client/owner.” How would you expect a court to resolve this variation on the facts of Ever-Tite?

 

Does the Restatement (Second) have anything to say about this situation?

 

As a general principle, who has the power to determine the manner in which an offer will be accepted?

 

 

 

 

2.2 Principal Case – Ciaramella v. Reader’s Digest Association

 

Ciaramella v. Reader’s Digest Association, Inc.

 

United States Court of Appeals, Second Circuit

 

131 F.3d 320 (1997)

 

Oakes, Senior Circuit Judge:

 

[1]  Plaintiff filed suit against Reader’s Digest Association (“RDA”) alleging employment discrimination under the Americans with Disabilities Act, 42 U.S.C. §§ 12101-12213 (1994) (“ADA”), and article 15 of the New York State Executive Law, N.Y. Exec. Law §§ 290-301 (McKinney 1993), and also violations of the Employee Retirement Income Security Act, 29 U.S.C. §§ 1001-1461 (1994) (“ERISA”). Shortly after the commencement of the action, the parties negotiated a settlement which Ciaramella later refused to sign. RDA moved for an order to enforce the settlement agreement. The United States District Court for the Southern District of New York (Charles L. Brieant, J.), granted the motion and dismissed the plaintiff’s complaint with prejudice. Ciaramella argues that enforcement of the settlement agreement was improper because he had never signed the written agreement and the parties had specifically agreed that the settlement would not become binding until signed by all the parties. We agree, and reverse.

 

I. BACKGROUND

 

[2]  In November 1995, Ciaramella filed suit against his former employer, RDA, alleging that RDA failed to give him reasonable accommodations for his disability of chronic depression and subsequently terminated his employment in violation of the ADA and article 15 of New York State Executive Law. Ciaramella also raised a claim under ERISA for failure to pay severance benefits.

 

[3]  Before the exchange of any discovery, the parties entered into settlement negotiations. The negotiations resulted in an agreement in principle to settle the case in May, 1996. RDA prepared a draft agreement and sent it to Ciaramella’s then attorney, Herbert Eisenberg, for review. This draft, as well as all subsequent copies, contained language indicating that the settlement would not be effective until executed by all the parties and their attorneys. Eisenberg explained the terms of the settlement to Ciaramella, who authorized Eisenberg to accept it. Eisenberg then made several suggestions for revision to RDA which were incorporated into a revised draft. After reviewing the revised draft, Eisenberg asked for a few final changes and then allegedly stated to RDA’s lawyer, “We have a deal.” RDA forwarded several execution copies of the settlement to Eisenberg. However, before signing the agreement, Ciaramella consulted a second attorney and ultimately decided that the proposed settlement agreement was not acceptable to him and that he would not sign it. Eisenberg then moved to withdraw as plaintiff’s counsel.

 

[4]  RDA, claiming that the parties had reached an enforceable oral settlement, filed a motion to enforce the settlement agreement on September 3, 1996. At a hearing on September 13, the district court granted Eisenberg’s motion to withdraw, and stayed proceedings on the motion to enforce the settlement for thirty days to give Ciaramella time to obtain another attorney. On October 25, the district court heard RDA’s motion to enforce the settlement agreement. Ciaramella had not yet obtained substitute counsel and appeared pro se at the hearing. The district court, after considering RDA’s unopposed motion papers and questioning Ciaramella about the formation of the settlement agreement, granted RDA’s motion to enforce the settlement by order dated October 28, 1996. The district court entered a judgment of dismissal on October 29, 1996. This Court has jurisdiction under 28 U.S.C. § 1291.

 

II. DISCUSSION

 

A. Choice of Law

 

[5]  An initial question presented is whether New York or federal common law determines whether the parties reached a settlement of claims brought under the ADA, ERISA, and state law. The district court analyzed the issue using federal common law and concluded that the parties had intended to enter into a binding oral agreement. We review the district court’s findings of law under a de novo standard, and its factual conclusions under a clearly erroneous standard of review. See Hirschfeld v. Spanakos, 104 F.3d 16, 19 (2d Cir.1997).

 

[6]  Because we find that there is no material difference between the applicable state law or federal common law standard, we need not decide this question here. See Bowden v. United States, 106 F.3d 433, 439 (D.C.Cir.1997) (declining to decide whether state or federal common law governs the interpretation of a settlement agreement under Title VII where both sources of law dictate the same result); Davidson Pipe Co. v. Laventhol & Horwath, Nos. 84 Civ. 5192(LBS), 84 Civ. 6334(LBS), 1986 WL 2201, at *2 (S.D.N.Y. Feb. 11, 1986) (finding no federal rule that would differ critically from New York’s rule governing the validity of oral settlement agreements). New York relies on settled common law contract principles to determine when parties to a litigation intended to form a binding agreement.[1] See Winston v. Mediafare Entertainment Corp., 777 F.2d 78, 80-81 (2d Cir.1985) (applying principles drawn from the Restatement (Second) of Contracts to determine whether a binding settlement agreement existed under New York law); see also Jim Bouton Corp. v. William Wrigley Jr. Co., 902 F.2d 1074, 1081 (2d Cir.1990) (describing the New York rule of contract formation as “generally accepted”). Under New York law, parties are free to bind themselves orally, and the fact that they contemplate later memorializing their agreement in an executed document will not prevent them from being bound by the oral agreement. However, if the parties intend not to be bound until the agreement is set forth in writing and signed, they will not be bound until then. See Winston, 777 F.2d at 80; V’Soske v. Barwick, 404 F.2d 495, 499 (2d Cir.1968). The intention of the parties on this issue is a question of fact, to be determined by examination of the totality of the circumstances. See International Telemeter Corp. v. Teleprompter Corp., 592 F.2d 49, 56 (2d Cir.1979). This same standard has been applied by courts relying on federal common law. See Taylor v. Gordon Flesch Co., 793 F.2d 858, 862 (7th Cir.1986) (enforcing an oral settlement of a Title VII case where the parties had not specified the need for a final, signed document); Board of Trustees of Sheet Metal Workers Local Union No. 137 Ins. Annuity & Apprenticeship Training Funds v. Vic Constr. Corp., 825 F.Supp. 463, 466 (E.D.N.Y.1993) (adopting the Winston analysis as based on “general contract principles” to uphold an oral settlement of an ERISA case); see also 1 Samuel Williston & Walter H.E. Jaeger, A Treatise on the Law of Contracts § 28 (3d ed. 1957) (“It is … everywhere agreed that if the parties contemplate a reduction to writing of their agreement before it can be considered complete, there is no contract until the writing is signed.”).

 

[7]  RDA urges us to fashion a federal rule of decision that would disregard this longstanding rule of contract interpretation and would hold parties to an oral settlement whenever their attorneys arrive at an agreement on all material terms.[2] We reject this suggestion. Even in cases where federal courts can choose the governing law to fill gaps in federal legislation, the Supreme Court has directed that state law be applied as the federal rule of decision unless it presents a significant conflict with federal policy. See Atherton v. FDIC, 519 U.S. 213 (1997); O’Melveny & Myers v. FDIC, 512 U.S. 79, 87 (1994) (noting that “cases in which judicial creation of a federal rule would be justified…are…‘few and restricted’”) (quoting Wheeldin v. Wheeler, 373 U.S. 647, 651 (1963)).

 

[8]  We can find no federal objective contained in the ADA or ERISA that would be compromised by the application of the common law rules described above. RDA is correct that at least one of the federal statutes at issue expresses a preference for voluntary settlements of claims. See 42 U.S.C. § 12212 (1994) (encouraging the use of alternative means of dispute resolution, such as settlement, to resolve claims arising under the ADA). However, the common law rule does not conflict with this policy. The rule aims to ascertain and give effect to the intent of the parties at the time of contract. Such a rule promotes settlements that are truly voluntary. See, e.g., Winston, 777 F.2d at 80 (“Because of this freedom to determine the exact point at which an agreement becomes binding, a party can negotiate candidly, secure in the knowledge that he will not be bound until execution of what both parties consider to be final document [sic].”).

 

[9]  In fact, it is the rule suggested by RDA that would conflict with federal policy. Enforcing premature oral settlements against the expressed intent of one of the parties will not further a policy of encouraging settlements. People may hesitate to enter into negotiations if they cannot control whether and when tentative proposals become binding. We therefore decline to adopt a federal rule concerning the validity of oral agreements that is in conflict with federal policy and the settled common law principles of contract law.

 

B. Existence of a Binding Agreement

 

[10] This court has articulated four factors to guide the inquiry regarding whether parties intended to be bound by a settlement agreement in the absence of a document executed by both sides. Winston, 777 F.2d at 80. We must consider (1) whether there has been an express reservation of the right not to be bound in the absence of a signed writing; (2) whether there has been partial performance of the contract; (3) whether all of the terms of the alleged contract have been agreed upon; and (4) whether the agreement at issue is the type of contract that is usually committed to writing. Id. No single factor is decisive, but each provides significant guidance. See R.G. Group, Inc. v. Horn & Hardart Co., 751 F.2d 69, 74-75 (2d Cir.1984) (granting summary judgment where all four factors indicated that the parties had not intended to be bound by an oral franchise agreement). The district court did not explicitly rely on the Winston test, but concluded that based on the evidence the parties intended to enter into a binding oral agreement. Considering the above factors in the context of this case, we are left with the definite and firm conviction that the district court erred in concluding that the parties intended that the unexecuted draft settlement constitute a binding agreement. See United States v. United States Gypsum Co., 333 U.S. 364, 395-97, 68 S.Ct. 525, 542-43, 92 L.Ed. 746 (1948) (finding clear error where trial court’s findings conflicted with uncontroverted documentary evidence); Winston, 777 F.2d at 83 (finding clear error where the district court had enforced an unsigned settlement and three of the four factors indicated that the parties had not intended to be bound in the absence of a signed agreement).

 

1. Express Reservation

 

[11] We find numerous indications in the proposed settlement agreement that the parties did not intend to bind themselves until the settlement had been signed. We must give these statements considerable weight, as courts should avoid frustrating the clearly-expressed intentions of the parties. R.G. Group, 751 F.2d at 75. For instance, in paragraph 10, the agreement states, “This Settlement Agreement and General Release shall not become effective (‘the Effective Date’) until it is signed by Mr. Ciaramella, Davis & Eisenberg, and Reader’s Digest.”

 

[12] RDA argues that the effect of paragraph 10 was simply to define the “Effective Date” of the agreement for the purpose of establishing the time period in which RDA was obligated to deliver payment and a letter of reference to Ciaramella. RDA further urges that Ciaramella’s obligation to dismiss the suit was not conditioned on paragraph 10. However, this interpretation is belied by the language of paragraph 2, which addresses RDA’s payment obligation. Paragraph 2 states that RDA must proffer payment “[w]ithin ten (10) business days following the later of (a) the Effective Date of this Settlement Agreement and General Release (as defined by paragraph ten … ) or (b) entry by the Court of the Stipulation of Dismissal With Prejudice” (emphasis added). Under the terms of the proposed settlement, RDA had no obligation to pay Ciaramella until the agreement was signed and became effective. Likewise, under paragraph 12 of the final draft, RDA was not required to send the letter of reference until the agreement was signed. The interpretation that RDA advances, that Ciaramella had an obligation to dismiss the suit regardless of whether the settlement was signed, leaves Ciaramella no consideration for his promise to dismiss the suit. The more reasonable inference to be drawn from the structure of paragraph 2 is that it provided Ciaramella with an incentive to dismiss the suit quickly because he would receive no payment simply by signing the agreement, but that execution was necessary to trigger either parties’ obligations. See, e.g., Davidson Pipe Co., 1986 WL 2201, at *4 (finding that wording in a settlement agreement that placed great significance on the execution date evinced an intent not to create a binding settlement until some formal date of execution).

 

[13] Similarly, several other paragraphs of the proposed agreement indicate that the parties contemplated the moment of signing as the point when the settlement would become binding. The agreement’s first paragraph after the WHEREAS clauses reads, “NOW, THEREFORE, with the intent to be legally bound hereby, and in consideration of the mutual promises and covenants contained herein, Reader’s Digest and Ciaramella agree to the terms and conditions set forth below: ….” (emphasis added). This language demonstrates that only the terms of the settlement agreement, and not any preexisting pact, would legally bind the parties. Read in conjunction with paragraph 10, which provides that the settlement agreement is effective only when signed, this paragraph explicitly signals the parties’ intent to bind themselves only at the point of signature. See, e. g., R.G. Group, 751 F.2d at 71, 76 (finding an explicit reservation of the right not to be bound absent signature in the wording of an agreement that declared, “when duly executed, [this agreement] sets forth your rights and your obligations”). In addition to the language of the first paragraph, paragraph 13 of the final draft[3] contains a merger clause which states,

 

This Settlement Agreement and General Release constitutes the complete understanding between the parties, may not be changed orally and supersedes any and all prior agreements between the parties…. No other promises or agreements shall be binding unless in writing and signed by the parties.

 

[14] The presence of such a merger clause is persuasive evidence that the parties did not intend to be bound prior to the execution of a written agreement. See, e. g., R.G. Group, 751 F.2d at 76; McCoy v. New York City Police Dep’t, No. 95 Civ. 4508, 1996 WL 457312, at *2 (S.D.N.Y. Aug.14, 1996) (refusing to enforce a settlement of a § 1983 claim where a signed copy of the settlement agreement containing a merger clause had never been returned by the plaintiff).

 

[15] Other parts of the agreement also emphasize the execution of the document. Paragraph 9 states, in relevant part,

 

Mr. Ciaramella represents and warrants that he … has executed this Settlement Agreement and General Release after consultation with his … legal counsel; … that he voluntarily assents to all the terms and conditions contained therein; and that he is signing the Settlement Agreement and General Release of his own force and will.

 

[16] Ciaramella’s signature was meant to signify his voluntary and informed consent to the terms and obligations of the agreement. By not signing, he demonstrated that he withheld such consent.

 

[17] The sole communication which might suggest that the parties did not intend to reserve the right to be bound is Eisenberg’s alleged statement to RDA’s counsel, “We have a deal.” However, nothing in the record suggests that either attorney took this statement to be an explicit waiver of the signature requirement. Eisenberg’s statement followed weeks of bargaining over the draft settlement, which at all times clearly expressed the requirement that the agreement be signed to become effective. This Court has held in a similar situation that an attorney’s statement that “a handshake deal” existed was insufficient to overcome “months of bargaining where there were repeated references to the need for a written and signed document, and where neither party had ever … even discussed dropping the writing requirement.” R.G. Group, 751 F.2d at 76; see also Davidson Pipe Co., 1986 WL 2201, at *5 (holding that oral statement, “we have a deal,” made by one attorney to another did not in and of itself preclude a finding that the parties intended to be bound only by an executed contract).

 

2. Partial Performance

 

[18] A second factor for consideration is whether one party has partially performed, and that performance has been accepted by the party disclaiming the existence of an agreement. R.G. Group, 751 F.2d at 75. No evidence of partial performance of the settlement agreement exists here. RDA paid no money to Ciaramella before the district court ordered the settlement enforced, nor did it provide Ciaramella with a letter of reference. These were the two basic elements of consideration that would have been due to Ciaramella under the settlement agreement.

 

3. Terms Remaining to be Negotiated

 

[19] Turning to the third factor, we find that the parties had not yet agreed on all material terms. The execution copy of the settlement agreement contained a new provision at paragraph 12 that was not present in earlier drafts. That provision required RDA to deliver a letter of reference concerning Ciaramella to Eisenberg. The final draft of the settlement contained an example copy of the letter of reference annexed as Exhibit B. Ciaramella was evidently dissatisfied with the example letter. At the October 25, 1996, hearing at which Ciaramella appeared pro se, he attempted to explain to the court that the proposed letter of reference differed from what he had expected. He stated, “The original settlement that was agreed to, the one that was reduced to writing for me to sign had a discrepancy about letters of recommendation. I had requested one thing and the settlement in writing did not represent that.” Because Ciaramella’s attorney resigned when Ciaramella refused to sign the settlement agreement, and RDA thereafter moved to enforce the agreement, Ciaramella never had an opportunity to finish bargaining for the letter he desired.

 

[20] In Winston, this Court found that the existence of even “minor” or “technical” points of disagreement in draft settlement documents were sufficient to forestall the conclusion that a final agreement on all terms had been reached. Winston, 777 F.2d at 82-83. By contrast, the letter of reference from RDA was a substantive point of disagreement. It was also, from Ciaramella’s perspective, a material term of the contract since it was part of Ciaramella’s consideration for dismissing the suit. On this basis, we find that the parties here had not yet reached agreement on all terms of the settlement.

 

4. Type of Agreement That Is Usually Reduced to a Writing

 

[21] The final factor, whether the agreement at issue is the type of contract that is usually put in writing, also weighs in Ciaramella’s favor. Settlements of any claim are generally required to be in writing or, at a minimum, made on the record in open court. See, e.g., N.Y. C.P.L.R. § 2104; Cal.Civ.Proc.Code § 664.6 (West 1996). As we stated in Winston, “Where, as here, the parties are adversaries and the purpose of the agreement is to forestall litigation, prudence strongly suggests that their agreement be written in order to make it readily enforceable, and to avoid still further litigation.” Winston, 777 F.2d at 83.

 

[22] We have also found that the complexity of the underlying agreement is an indication of whether the parties reasonably could have expected to bind themselves orally. See R.G. Group., 751 F.2d at 76; Reprosystem, B.V. v. SCM Corp., 727 F.2d 257, 262-63 (2d Cir.1984) (finding that the magnitude and complexity of a four million dollar sale of six companies under the laws of five different countries reinforced the stated intent of the parties not to be bound until written contracts were signed). While this settlement agreement does not concern a complicated business arrangement, it does span eleven pages of text and contains numerous provisions that will apply into perpetuity. For instance, paragraph 6 determines how future requests for references would be handled, and also states that Ciaramella can never reapply for employment at RDA. Paragraph 7 states that Ciaramella will not publicly disparage RDA and agrees not to disclose the terms of the settlement agreement. In such a case, the requirement that the agreement be in writing and formally executed “simply cannot be a surprise to anyone.” R.G. Group, 751 F.2d at 77; see also Winston, 777 F.2d at 83 (finding a four page settlement agreement that contained obligations that would last over several years sufficiently complex to require reduction to writing).

 

CONCLUSION

 

[23] In sum, we find that the totality of the evidence before us clearly indicates that Ciaramella never entered into a binding settlement agreement with his former employer. This conclusion is supported by the text of the proposed agreement and by Ciaramella’s testimony at the October 25 hearing. Accordingly, the order enforcing the settlement is vacated and the case remanded for further proceedings. Costs to appellant.

 

 

 

 

2.2.1 Preliminary Agreements

 

A frequently recurring fact pattern arises when parties orally express agreement on a deal (or draft a preliminary “agreement in principle”) but they also agree to memorialize their agreement in a more formal writing. When, as in Ciaramella, one of the parties refuses to sign the final written contract, courts sometimes struggle to determine whether the parties intended to be bound by their earlier oral (or incomplete written) agreement. The Restatement (Second) largely punts on this question:

 

§ 26. Preliminary Negotiations

 

A manifestation of willingness to enter into a bargain is not an offer if the person to whom it is addressed knows or has reason to know that the person making it does not intend to conclude a bargain until he has made a further manifestation of assent.

 

§ 27. Existence of Contract Where Written Memorial Is Contemplated

 

Manifestations of assent that are in themselves sufficient to conclude a contract will not be prevented from so operating by the fact that the parties also manifest an intention to prepare and adopt a written memorial thereof; but the circumstances may show that the agreements are preliminary negotiations.

 

A prominent federal judge from New York has proposed a more complex approach—the so-called “Leval Test”—that is explained in this Second Circuit opinion:

 

Parties to proposed … transactions often enter into preliminary agreements, which may provide for the execution of more formal agreements. When they do so and the parties fail to execute a more formal agreement, the issue arises as to whether the preliminary agreement is a binding contract or an unenforceable agreement to agree. Ordinarily, where the parties contemplate further negotiations and the execution of a formal instrument, a preliminary agreement does not create a binding contract. In some circumstances, however, preliminary agreements can create binding obligations. Usually, binding preliminary agreements fall into one of two categories.

 

The first is a fully binding preliminary agreement, which is created when the parties agree on all the points that require negotiation but agree to memorialize their agreement in a more formal document. Such an agreement is fully binding; it is “preliminary only in form — only in the sense that the parties desire a more elaborate formalization of the agreement.” A binding preliminary agreement binds both sides to their ultimate contractual objective in recognition that, “despite the anticipation of further formalities,” a contract has been reached. Accordingly, a party may demand performance of the transaction even though the parties fail to produce the “more elaborate formalization of the agreement.”

 

The second type of preliminary agreement, dubbed a “binding preliminary commitment” by Judge Leval, is binding only to a certain degree. It is created when the parties agree on certain major terms, but leave other terms open for further negotiation. The parties “accept a mutual commitment to negotiate together in good faith in an effort to reach final agreement.” In contrast to a fully binding preliminary agreement, a “binding preliminary commitment” “does not commit the parties to their ultimate contractual objective but rather to the obligation to negotiate the open issues in good faith in an attempt to reach the … objective within the agreed framework.” A party to such a binding preliminary commitment has no right to demand performance of the transaction. Indeed, if a final contract is not agreed upon, the parties may abandon the transaction as long as they have made a good faith effort to close the deal and have not insisted on conditions that do not conform to the preliminary writing.

 

Hence, if a preliminary agreement is of the first type, the parties are fully bound to carry out the terms of the agreement even if the formal instrument is never executed. If a preliminary agreement is of the second type, the parties are bound only to make a good faith effort to negotiate and agree upon the open terms and a final agreement; if they fail to reach such a final agreement after making a good faith effort to do so, there is no further obligation. Finally, however, if the preliminary writing was not intended to be binding on the parties at all, the writing is a mere proposal, and neither party has an obligation to negotiate further.

 

Courts confronted with the issue of determining whether a preliminary agreement is binding, as an agreement of either the first or the second type, must keep two competing interests in mind. First, courts must be wary of “trapping parties in surprise contractual obligations that they never intended” to undertake. Second, “courts [must] enforce and preserve agreements that were intended [to be] binding, despite a need for further documentation or further negotiation,” for it is “the aim of contract law to gratify, not to defeat, expectations.” The key, of course, is the intent of the parties: whether the parties intended to be bound, and if so, to what extent. “To discern that intent a court must look to ‘the words and deeds [of the parties] which constitute objective signs in a given set of circumstances.’ ” Subjective evidence of intent, on the other hand, is generally not considered.

 

Adjustrite Systems, Inc. v. Gab Business Services, Inc., 145 F.3d 543, 549 (2d Cir. 1998).

 

In view of the uncertainty attending the judicial resolution of these questions, parties to commercial negotiations quite often draft explicit clauses to govern the legal effect of their preliminary agreements. One example of such a clause follows:

 

This Heads of Agreement (“HOA”) is intended solely as a basis for further discussion and is not intended to be and does not constitute a binding obligation of the parties. No legally binding obligations on the parties will be created, implied, or inferred until appropriate documents in final form are executed and delivered by each of the parties regarding the subject matter of this HOA and containing all other essential terms of an agreed upon transaction. Without limiting the generality of the foregoing, it is the parties’ intent that, until that event, no agreement binding on the parties shall exist and there shall be no obligations whatsoever based on such things as parol evidence, extended negotiations, “handshakes,” oral understandings, or course of conduct (including reliance and changes of position).

 

2.2.2 Discussion of Ciaramella v. Reader’s Digest Association

 

What facts in Ciaramella allow the court to hold that “We have a deal” doesn’t mean that the parties have a legally binding deal?

 

Suppose that the principals of two businesses meet and hash out the basic elements of a merger agreement. They shake hands and say, “It’s a deal.” Then they send their lawyers back to draft a formal contract. What result if one of the parties decides to back out of the deal before signing the formal written agreement? Is this a binding contract?

 

2.2.3 The Mailbox Rule

 

Contractual offers and acceptances are sometimes transmitted through the mail. Problems can arise during the period that an offer or acceptance is in transit between the parties. Courts have developed rules to resolve these problems. The most famous is the so-called “mailbox rule” described in the Restatement (Second) of Contracts:

 

§ 63. Time When Acceptance Takes Effect

 

Unless the offer provides otherwise,

 

(a) an acceptance made in a manner and by a medium invited by an offer is operative and completes the manifestation of mutual assent as soon as put out of the offeree’s possession, without regard to whether it ever reaches the offereor; but

 

(b) an acceptance under an option contract is not operative until received by the offeror.

 

Comment:

 

a. Rationale. It is often said that an offeror who makes an offer by mail makes the post office his agent to receive the acceptance, or that the mailing of a letter of acceptance puts it irrevocably out of the offeree’s control. Under United States postal regulations however, the sender of a letter has long had the power to stop delivery and reclaim the letter. A better explanation of the rule that the acceptance takes effect on dispatch is that the offeree needs a dependable basis for his decision whether to accept. In many legal systems such a basis is provided by the general rule that an offer is irrevocable unless it provides otherwise. The common law provides such a basis through the rule that a revocation of an offer is ineffective if received after an acceptance has been properly dispatched.

 

c. Revocation of acceptance. The fact that the offeree has power to reclaim his acceptance from the post office or telegraph company does not prevent the acceptance from taking effect on dispatch. Nor, in the absence of additional circumstances, does the actual recapture of the acceptance deprive it of legal effect, though as a practical matter the offeror cannot assert his rights unless he learns of them. An attempt to revoke the acceptance by an overtaking communication is similarly ineffective, even though the revocation is received before the acceptance is received. After mailing an acceptance of a revocable offer, the offeree is not permitted to speculate at the offeror’s expense during the time required for the letter to arrive.

 

A purported revocation of acceptance may, however, affect the rights of the parties. It may amount to an offer to rescind the contract or to a repudiation of it, or it may bar the offeree by estoppel from enforcing it. In some cases it may be justified as an exercise of a right of stoppage in transit or a demand for assurance of performance. Compare Uniform Commercial Code §§ 2-609, 2-702, 2-705. Or the contract may be voidable for mistake or misrepresentation, §§ 151-54, 164. See particularly the provisions of § 153 on unilateral mistake.

 

§ 66. Acceptance Must Be Properly Dispatched

 

An acceptance sent by mail or otherwise from a distance is not operative when dispatched, unless it is properly addressed and such other precautions are taken as are ordinarily observed to insure safe transmission of similar messages.

 

The U.S. Postal Service regulation to which the Restatement’s first comment refers was issued years before the adoption of § 63 and provided:

 

(c) On receipt of a request for the return of any article of mail matter the postmaster or railway postal clerk to whom such request is addressed shall return such matter in a penalty envelope, to the mailing postmaster, who shall deliver it to the sender upon payment of all expenses and the regular rate of postage on the matter returned….

 

39 C.F.R. ¶ 10.09, 10.10 (1939 ed.). Despite periodic calls to reform the mailbox rule, courts generally have adhered to this traditional approach to determining the time of acceptance.

 

Although we will take up revocation in the next section, it is convenient to note here that when parties bargain by mail a corollary of the mailbox rule governs the timing of revocation. The Restatement (Second) of Contracts expresses the rule as follows:

 

§ 42. Revocation by Communication from Offeror Received by Offeree

 

An offeree’s power of acceptance is terminated when the offeree receives from the offeror a manifestation of an intention not to enter into the proposed contract.

 

 


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