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Massachusetts Ruling: E-mail Legally Binding

Saturday, March 16, 2002

In a case with potentially enormous and far reaching impact for the digital world, a Massachusetts judge upheld an agreement reached over a series of e-mail messages in which a couple agreed to sell their home to a buyer even though neither party signed any documents.

The couple had tried to back out of the deal when they were later made a higher offer. They argued that without their signatures the agreement was not legally binding. Even if it were binding, they continued, the wife, who is part owner of the home, never participated in the e-mail conversation.

The judge dismissed both of these arguments, deciding "the e-mails, taken together, constituted a legally binding purchase and sale agreement that outlined all the necessary terms of the contract." Furthermore, the judge ruled that "the respondences suggest that the defendant-wife was aware of the ongoing negotiations concerning the sale of the property. Thus, a reasonable trier of fact could conclude that the defendant-husband's signature on the memorandum acted as a signature of both defendants...."

It is the first decision of its kind in Massachusetts, suggesting that an agreement reached via e-mail, even when believed by both parties to preceded signed documents, is legally binding in and of itself. As such, it will certainly act as a precedent for many cases to come and should make people think twice about what they choose to discuss via e-mail.

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