Imagine this – somehow, you got involved in a nasty real estate or business dispute with a customer, client or competitor. One thing led to another and the dispute became a legal battle. Luckily, just as it seemed a full-blown trial in a South Florida court was inevitable, the lawyers for both sides reached a mutually acceptable settlement agreement. They put it in writing, everyone signed it, and you breathed a huge sigh of relief. You thought everything would finally be okay but now the other party isn’t fulfilling their end of the settlement. What can you do?
Faced with this dilemma, the most obvious solution is to seek court intervention. Specifically, you (or your lawyer) can request a court order enforcing the agreement. For that request to be granted, you must have convincing proof that:
- There’s an enforceable agreement in place
- There’s a definite set of terms
- All relevant parties agreed to abide by said terms
It sounds simple, but what does this really mean? To see what a court considers convincing proof, let’s consider the following matter involving a botched Florida real estate transaction. Here, the parties tried to reach a settlement agreement after prolonged litigation. Although one party signed the agreement, the other did not. The party who signed the agreement thought that the other had signed and began to fulfil his side of the settlement terms. Unfortunately, an argument later arose and the court had to examine the validity of the alleged agreement.
The defendants maintained that the agreement was a legally binding settlement and requested an enforcement order. They also provided supporting evidence in the form of email messages between their lawyers and the plaintiffs’ lawyers, as well as a deposition given by a representative from their insurance company.
Although the defendants prevailed in trial court, the plaintiffs won on appeal because the court found there was no proof of “manifestation of mutual assent.” As we have noted, proof of mutual acceptance is necessary to enforce a settlement agreement. In absence of that, the appeals court determined the parties had only engaged in preliminary negotiations, which can’t be enforced.
Florida law provides several options for the disposition of a court case once a settlement agreement is finalized. The one chosen will depend on the specific circumstances of the case. This is important because it will dictate:
- Whether the court that initially heard the matter can enforce the settlement agreement; and
- Whether provisions approving the settlement are included.
It is important to note, however, that there is a catch. Even if the chosen option for disposition allows the trial court to retain jurisdiction, certain circumstances may negate its authority to enforce the agreement. As experienced Fort Lauderdale business and real estate lawyers, we are always prepared to act accordingly.
Can a settlement agreement be enforced if it’s not in writing?
The short answer to this question is yes. In fact, there have been several cases in which Florida courts have enforced agreements based on the contents of emails between attorneys. Here are just two examples.
Because a string of email messages between attorneys in Warrior Creek Development, Inc. v. Cummings, 56 So. 3d 915 (Fla. 2d DCA 2011) included the “essential and material terms” of the agreement between their clients the Second District Court of Appeals affirmed the trial court’s order enforcing it. Explaining its decision to do so even though one of the parties refused to sign a written agreement, the court said the “parties had agreed upon all of the essential and material terms for settlement…” It also explained that, “those terms were reflected in the November e-mail.”
In another case called Miles v. Northwestern Mut. Life Ins. Co., 677 F. Supp. 2d 1312, 1315-1317 (M.D. Fla. 2009) the court ruled that a written agreement is essentially a formality if:
- The parties demonstrate intent to abide by the settlement; and
- The written agreement reflects the terms to which the parties have already consented.
If you have questions about a settlement agreement we are here to help
If you are involved in a Fort Lauderdale business or real estate dispute and you want to know more about the negotiation or enforcement of settlement agreements, we’re ready and willing to help. But you need to take the first step. Contact the legal team at Eskander Loshak LLP online or by phone at (954) 334-1122.