By Richard D. Vetstein, ESQ
A Simple Email Disclaimer Cannot Hurt & Can Only Help
Boilerplate email disclaimers at the bottom of messages are so ubiquitous that most of us hardly notice them anymore. They certainly take up a lot of text space and can be annoying to some, but are they legally effective or just plain toothless?
In the real estate context, where Realtors and attorneys write in the language of contract everyday, I believe that a short and simple email disclaimer may help, and certainly cannot hurt, the sender (aside from annoying a snarky recipient or two). In this post, I will discuss a few common real estate situations where an email disclaimer could come into play, then give you the disclaimer that I use in my emails. Now I have my own disclaimer here: A court will determine each case individually, and there is no guarantee that any particular disclaimer will be effective in any given case.
The most common situation where an email disclaimer could come into play is during real estate contract negotiations. For many agents and attorneys, e-mail has become the default mode of communication, replacing the telephone and the outdated fax. E-mail, however, can provide the "smoking gun" in litigation because it's nearly impossible to delete permanently, and people tend to be more casual and less introspective before hitting "send." And don't get me started with texting, which is even worse.
Realtors must remember that under Massachusetts agency law they are agents with actual or apparent legal authority to bind their clients to the statements they make in emails and other forms of communication. Like the Miranda warnings given by the police, a real estate agents' statements "can and will be used against them in a court of law." The same is true for attorneys.
A case in point: In the recent well-publicized case of Feldberg v. Coxall [enhanced version available to lexis.com subscribers], a Massachusetts judge ruled that a series of e-mail exchanges between the buyer and seller's attorney, the last one attaching a revised, but unsigned, offer to purchase, could create a binding contract even though no formal written agreement was ever signed. This is also one of the first cases applying the new Massachusetts E-Sign law to preliminary negotiations in real estate deals. There have been cases in other jurisdictions holding that e-mails can result in a binding contract even though the parties may have assumed otherwise.
"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 agreement."
This is the new email disclaimer that I've formulated after the Feldberg ruling. It does two things. First, it provides that only a fully signed contract can bind the parties. Second, it attempts to counter the presumption in the E-sign Act of conducting the transaction electronically via email. It has not been tested in court yet, but again, aside from taking up some pixel space, it can't hurt. Now remember, this type of disclaimer would favor a selling/listing agent, but not necessarily a buyer's agent, because the buyer's agent would typically want to enforce preliminary negotiations. So, caveat emptor (buyer beware).
Practice Pointer: "Subject to final client review/approval"
Another best practice that Realtors and attorneys should get in the habit of doing is to write "subject to final client review and approval" or words to that effect in the midst of email contract negotiations and draft agreements being circulated. This could sway a court from determining that a binding deal was formed, and plus, it gives you an "out" in case a client has last minute changes.
Attorneys love to use long confidentiality disclaimers in their email. Do they work? Occasionally. Do they matter in real estate? I still think so.
First, the concept of legal confidentiality is limited to those situations governed by legal privilege. There is an attorney-client privilege between lawyers and their clients, obviously. While there is no legal privilege between a Realtor and his/her client as for communications solely between the agent and the client, the attorney client privilege will likely attach to emails and communications between and among the real estate agent, the attorney, and the client provided that legal advice is being given. But a particular email does not automatically get confidentiality protection simply because the attorney is copied on it. Some courts have pointed to email disclaimers as a factor in upholding the confidentiality. But there have been many court rulings where judges have discarded the disclaimers.
While attorneys should absolutely have a confidentiality email disclaimer, do Realtors need one? I say yes, because sometimes emails between attorney and client wind up in Realtors' inboxes and sometimes they get forwarded on purpose or by mistake when they shouldn't, and that could waive any privilege which is attached and become the "smoking gun."
I use this simple email disclaimer:
CONFIDENTIALITY: This e-mail message and any attachments are confidential and may be privileged.
The best practice, of course, is to cleanse and delete portions of any email with attorney-client or confidential information before forwarding. And of course, THINK BEFORE YOU HIT SEND!
**Thank you to Cambridge MA Realtor Charles Cherney for suggesting this topic!
View more from The Massachusetts Real Estate Law Blog
Mr. Vetstein has represented clients in hundreds of lawsuits and disputes involving business, real estate, construction, condominium, zoning, environmental, banking and financial services, employment, and personal injury law.
In real estate matters, Mr. Vetstein handles residential and commercial transactions and closings. In land use, zoning, and licensing matters, Mr. Vetstein offers his clients an inside perspective as a former board member of the Sudbury Zoning Board of Appeals. Mr. Vetstein has an active real estate litigation practice, and was a former outside claims counsel for a national title company.
Drawing on his own business degree and experience, Mr. Vetstein assists his business clients with new business start ups, acquisitions, sales, contract, employment issues, trademarks, and succession planning. Mr. Vetstein also litigates, arbitrates and mediates a wide variety of commercial disputes.
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