Reformation may save you, but tech experts warn against “cut and pasting” document automation

During her presentation on legal tech at the TBA’s 2020 Creditors Practice Forum, Lori Gonzalez conducted an audience poll on what document-automation technology everybody was using.

The creditors’ bar must be an old-school crowd. Overwhelmingly, the most common practice was to: (1) find a similar existing document on your system in Microsoft format; and (2) cut-and-paste the old terms in the forms to match the new terms.

Lori told everybody to stop doing that.

In a recent decision, the Tennessee Court of Appeals explained why. The case is Franklin Real Estate Group, Inc. v. Spero Dei Church, No. M2019-01691-COA-R3-CV (Tenn. Ct. App., Jan. 27, 2021).

There, a real estate broker was working with property owner to sell their church building. Later, the owner asked the broker to, also, assist them in finding a property to buy.

The broker was smart to recognize the need to get a signed “seller’s” agreement; but, in preparing it, the broker “used language from the Seller’s Agreement as a template, simply substituting ‘Seller’ for ‘Buyer’ where appropriate to make the Agreement conform to a standard buyer’s agent agreement.” A classic cut-and-paste document creation.

As the legal tech experts said can happen, the broker missed a cut and paste. And, it happened in a very important paragraph–the one that defined the situation where the broker would get paid. Due to error, the final version awarded a broker a commission only where the Buyer bought a property from a “Seller/Landlord who has been introduced to the property…by Broker.”

It’s such non-sense that you almost read it the way it should have been written, but, in short, the broker would get paid if the client-Buyer bought a property from a Seller who was introduced to his own (the Seller’s) property by the broker. So, basically, if the broker found a Seller who didn’t know they owned the property and the broker was the one to tell the Seller about their property, the broker gets paid.

Total non-sense, and it’s inconsistent with the broker and client’s contemporaneous emails about the engagement.

You know how the rest of the story goes. The buyer ended up buying a property that the broker assisted on, but, for many reasons, didn’t pay a commission.

In defense, the buyer argued that the provision was drafted so poorly that it was unenforceable–that it was “void for vagueness.” The Court noted that “[i]t is a fundamental rule of law that an alleged contract which is so vague, indefinite and uncertain as to place the meaning and intent of the parties in the realm of speculation is void and unenforceable.” See Four Eights, L.L.C. v. Salem, 194 S.W.3d 484, 486 (Tenn. Ct. App. 2005).

But, while the Court agreed that the provision was “illogical,” it went on to find that the rest contract is certain and clear, except for this one provision, which is merely “the result of a mistake.” Instead, the Court decided, the real question is “whether the mistake ..is subject to reformation so that the contract conforms to the true intention of the parties.”

Courts are to enforce contracts as written, but “the law’s strong policy favoring the enforcement of contracts as written must occasionally give way and grant courts the power to alter the terms of a written contract where, at the time it was executed, both parties were operating under a mutual mistake of fact or law regarding a basic assumption underlying the bargain.”

This is called reformation, which seeks “to make the contract conform to the real intention of the parties.” The elements are:

(1) the parties reached a prior agreement regarding some aspect of the bargain; (2) they intended the prior agreement to be included in the written contract; (3) the written contract materially differs from the prior agreement; and (4) the variation between the prior agreement and the written contract is not the result of gross negligence on the part of the party seeking reformation.

The Court then considered many factors, including the the purpose of parties’ overall transactions, relationship, and related communications about the contract.

When I looked at the elements, though, I wondered about “gross negligence.” I mean, if missing a critical word in a contract that you drafted isn’t that, then what is?

The Court addressed that issue head on, finding that the drafting error was not “gross negligence.” The Court wrote, errors resulting from “inattention” are not “categorical exemption[s]” to reformation. If drafting errors were exceptions, then reformation would never be available to correct typographical mistakes.

In the end, it turned out fine for the broker, after, of course, years of litigation.

Listen to Lori on this point, consider a more advanced technology for your document automation. Because no lawyer wants to have to defend their work as “sure, it’s inattentive, but…”

Author: David

I am a creditors rights and commercial litigation attorney in Nashville, Tennessee.

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