Constitutional Contract Law

I love “Judge Judy”! Her ability to cut through the malarkey and skewer the wrongdoers is just amazing. Among the little life lessons that get repeated again and again is, “Get it in writing!”

Most of her customers have gotten the message that there is such a thing as an oral contract, and many show up having managed to extract a written agreement from their opponent. But people tend to get tripped up when there is a written agreement and an oral agreement, and the two conflict. “But he said,” or “but he promised,” is the refrain heard often on the show.

Here’s the rule: When a written agreement exists, it entirely takes the place of any oral agreements made either prior to the written agreement or subsequent to it. Period. It’s called the parol evidence rule, and it’s written in stone.

Real estate agents know this rule only too well; many have horror stories of agreements reached between buyer and seller that haven’t been honored and that are unenforceable, either because the agreement wasn’t memorialized in the purchase and sales agreement or because it was inadequately memorialized. One agent reported that a written agreement was made to sell a particular house “with appliances,” only to discover that the expensive appliances, worth many thousands of dollars, that the buyers had viewed when they toured the house had been removed and replaced by inexpensive, used appliances. In another instance, the same real estate agent got an irate call from his new buyer, telling him that when they moved into their new home, all the electrical fixtures had been removed-not just the chandelier in the dining room, but all the faceplates and light switches in the room. All they had were bare wires sticking out of holes in the walls. Now the second instance might be more easily actionable than the first-it’s reasonable to assume that your basic electrical setup isn’t going to be carted away by the seller-but the real estate agent quickly learned to add to his purchase and sales agreements the words, “as seen by the buyers on [January 7, 2007],” (Polaroid photos attached to the P&S wouldn’t have hurt, either.)

One common occurrence is that two parties will reach an agreement, sign a document to that effect, and then keep talking. Often one party will make additional promises to the other, and then renege. In this instance the injured party is out of luck unless he or she has thought to create a written addendum to the original agreement, signed and dated by both parties.

The lesson? Get it in writing. And if the agreement changes for some reason, get that in writing, too.