Louisiana law favors the settlement of disputes. With a settlement, both sides agree to avoid costly litigation and obtain a certain, negotiated result. While neither side is completely happy with the result in a typical settlement, the case is at least closed and the financial and emotional drain of litigation is ended. But the recent decision in The Marietta Trust and The Warren Trust v. J.R. Logging, Inc., Fair Hills Farm, LLC, Jerry Avants, Jr., Thomas Keaty, Jr. and XYZ Insurance Company, 2016 CA 1136 (La. App. 1 Cir. 5/11/17) shows what can happen when one of the parties change their mind. This case is important because it calls into question whether an exchange of emails is sufficient to reach a final settlement.
The Marietta Trust case involved a dispute regarding the wrongful cutting of timber and the parties seemingly came to a resolution. Via email, the case was negotiated and the terms were agreed upon. Formal settlement documents were drawn up and money was exchanged. However, when the time came to execute the final documents, one set of defendants refused to sign the paperwork. This refusal to sign came after the attorney for these defendants directly stated in an email that his “clients have agreed to the settlement.” Id. at *4. In response to the refusal to sign, the other parties filed a Joint Motion to Enforce Settlement Agreement which was denied by the Trial Court.
Settlement agreements are governed by the Louisiana Civil Code art. 3071 which provides that litigation can be resolved via settlement or compromise. A settlement agreement can take two forms: 1) recitation in open court; or 2) a writing. “The purpose of the writing requirement is to serve as proof of the agreement and the acquiescence therein.” Marietta Trust, 2016 CA 11336, Id. at *3. The writing must be signed by the parties or their agents. “Until the parties sign a written document or documents evincing their consent to the terms of the proposed agreement, a party is free to change his or her mind.” Id. at *3. Prior courts have found that emails meet the “writing” requirements. See, Geer v. BP America Production Co., 2014-450 (La. App. 3 Cir. 11/5/14), 150 So. 3d 621; Dozier v. Rhodus, 2008-1813 (La. App. 1 Cir. 5/5/09), 17 So. 3d 402.
The appellate court in Marietta Trust refused to enforce the “settlement.” The court found that the exchange of emails was insufficient to meet the “writing” requirement of Civil Code article 3071 because neither the emails nor any other evidence showed that the attorney possessed “the express consent necessary to accept the terms of the settlement.” Id. at *3.
When is a settlement not a settlement? Maybe when it came to you through your inbox. So, if an email from the attorney is not sufficient to perfect a settlement, what can we do? The answer offered by the 1st Circuit is to either: 1. Recite in open court; or 2. Obtain a writing that includes the client’s express consent given to the attorney to settle the case (presumably for the amount in the writing).