By Christoper D. Strang
The Massachusetts Superior Court recently held that electronic communications and signatures — no less than physically signed documents — can constitute a “written contract” for general contractors, subcontractors and construction material suppliers, within the meaning of the Massachusetts mechanic’s lien statute, G. L. c. 254. In Clean Properties, Inc. v. Riselli (“Clean Properties”), the parties mainly communicated via e-mail. The defendant, a property owner, sought to discharge the mechanic’s lien levied against her property for work performed by the plaintiff, a contractor. Because the parties never executed a paper contract, the property owner argued that the contractor could not meet the mechanic’s lien statute’s requirement of a written contract. The court held otherwise.
Applying the Uniform Electronic Transactions Act (UETA) adopted by Massachusetts in 2004, the court held that, where there is a clear intent between parties to conduct their business via electronic means, an enforceable contract can be formed when one accepts a written offer via e-mail. Thus, in certain circumstances, an electronic signature — such as one’s name at the end of an e-mail — can have the same legal effect as a physical signature on paper. See G.L.c. 110G, §7(b) (“contracts may not be deemed unenforceable solely because electronic records were used in formation.”).
In Clean Properties, the parties’ e-mail correspondence made clear that each intended to enter into a contract. Specifically, the court held that the contractor had extended an offer by attaching contract terms to an e-mail with instructions for the property owner to respond, if desired, with an acceptance. The property owner replied as instructed and included her name at the end of the e-mail. Because this reply formed a contract under the UETA, the court concluded that the parties’ e-mail communications sufficed to establish a written contract within the meaning of G. L. c. 254.
Contractors and construction material suppliers should still be diligent in getting formal contracts signed. However, this is a positive sign for the future use of electronic communications in negotiating construction contracts.
The case is Clean Properties, Inc. v. Riselli (Salinger, J.) (Middlesex Superior Court) (Docket No. MICV2014-04742) (June 18, 2014).