On December 22, 2008, the California Supreme Court ruled in Patel V. Liebermensch that the parties had entered into an enforceable option contract for the sale of real property despite the absence of terms specifying the time and manner of payment. The controversial decision was widely reported by the media and in attorney blogs and the moral of the story appeared to be that parties could forego the inclusion of contract terms setting forth the time and manner of payment (at least for the purchase of real property in California). Although the decision is important, businesses entering into contracts should not be lulled into thinking exclusion of such terms is acceptable simply because their exclusion does not render a California contract unenforceable. Time and manner of payment is an important detail in any contractual relationship, and prudent business owners do not enter into contracts (for the sale of real property or otherwise) without knowing when and how they will be compensated.
The purpose of entering into a contract is set forth clearly and concisely the material terms agreed to by the parties and to affect a means of enforcing those terms should there be a dispute. A good attorney or other negotiator will ensure that all material terms are agreed to and that important factors such as the time and manner of payment are included in the contract regardless of any law or court decision that may appear to minimize their importance. Having a clear understanding of the contractual relationship is the best way to minimize potential misunderstandings and avoid future disputes. Whether a court will ultimately enforce the contract has little benefit to parties embroiled in a battle over when and how each side is to be compensated. The object of a good contract is to avoid these kinds of disputes in the first place. Such disputes are costly to businesses even with the long term prospect of prevailing in court. A business’ goodwill, reputation and bottom line all may suffer by the dispute’s mere existence. Too often, businesses and their lawyers lose sight of these practical aspects.
Of course, the Patel decision will impact the enforceability of many existing California contracts, particularly those executed by unsophisticated parties without the benefit of a contract attorney. In fact, the contract at issue in Patel was a short contract in the form of a proposal sent by fax. The point of this article is that while Patel may be the law of the land for California, San Diego businesses shouldn’t rely on it and similar decisions in place of common sense and sound contractual negotiation.