Thursday, November 14, 2019

Hydrojet Services v. Reading Area Water Authority – Cmwlth. Court – November 14, 2019 – reported precedential opinion

The court affirmed a trial court ruling in favor of the enforcement of a settlement agreement concerning a large past-due water bill, relying primarily on Mastroni-Mucker v. Allstate Insurance Co., 976 A.2d 510 (Pa. Super. 2009), which held that the verbal agreement reached by the parties constituted a binding agreement and any delay in executing a written agreement memorializing the agreed- upon terms does not defeat that agreement

From the opinion:

The law of this Commonwealth establishes that an agreement to settle legal disputes between parties is favored. Compu Forms Control Inc. v. Altus Group Inc., 574 A.2d 618, 624 (Pa. Super. 1990). There is a strong judicial policy in favor of voluntarily settling lawsuits because it reduces the burden on the courts and expedites the transfer of money into the hands of a complainant. Felix v. Giuseppe Kitchens & Baths, Inc., 848 A.2d 943, 946 (Pa. Super. 2004). If courts were called on to re-evaluate settlement agreements, the judicial policies favoring settlements would be deemed useless. Greentree Cinemas Inc. v. Hakim, 432 A.2d 1039, 1041 (Pa. Super. 1981). 

Settlement agreements are enforced according to principles of contract law. Pulcinello v. Consolidated Rail Corp., 784 A.2d 122, 124, (Pa. Super. 2001), appeal denied, 796 A.2d 984 (Pa. 2002). “There is an offer (the settlement figure), acceptance, and consideration (in exchange for the plaintiff terminating his lawsuit, the defendant will pay the plaintiff the agreed upon sum).” Muhammad v. Strassburger, McKenna, Messer, Shilobod and Gutnick, 587 A.2d 1346, 1349 (Pa. 1990), cert. denied, 502 U.S. 867 (1991). 

Where a settlement agreement contains all of the requisites for a valid contract, a court must enforce the terms of the agreement. McDonnell v. Ford Motor Co., 643 A.2d 1102, 1105 (Pa. Super.), appeal denied, 652 A.2d 1324 (Pa. 1994). This is true even if the terms of the agreement are not yet formalized in writing. Mazzella v. Koken, 739 A.2d 531, 536 (Pa. 1999); see Commerce Bank/Pennsylvania v. First Union Nat. Bank, 911 A.2d 133, 147 (Pa. Super. 2006) (stating “an agreement is binding if the parties come to a meeting of the minds on all essential terms, even if they expect the agreement to be reduced to writing but that formality does not take place.”). 

Pursuant to well-settled Pennsylvania law, oral agreements to settle are enforceable without a writing. Pulcinello, (citing Kazanjian v. New England Petroleum Corp., 480 A.2d 1153, 1157 (Pa. Super. 1984)). An offeree’s power to accept is terminated by (1) a counter-offer by the offeree; (2) a lapse of time; (3) a revocation by the offeror; or (4) death or incapacity of either party. See First Home Savings Bank, FSB v. Nernberg, 648 A.2d 9, 15 (Pa. Super. 1994) (citing Restatement (Second) of Contracts §36 ([Am. Law Inst.] 1981)), appeal denied, 657 A.2d 491 (Pa. 1995). However, “[o]nce the offeree has exercised his power to create a contract by accepting the offer, a purported revocation is ineffective as such.” Restatement (Second) of Contracts §42, Comment c. ([Am. Law Inst.] 1981). 
Mastroni-Mucker, 976 A.2d at 518.

Where a settlement agreement contains all of the requirements for a valid contract, a court must enforce the terms of the agreement even if they were never formalized in writing. See also Shovel Transfer & Storage, Inc. v. Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board, 739 A.2d 133, 136 (Pa. 1999) (holding that “[i]f the parties agree upon essential terms and intend them to be binding, a contract is formed even though they intend to adopt a formal document with additional terms at a later date”). Section 27 of the Restatement (Second) of Contracts includes similar language, stating that: 
Manifestations of assent that are in themselves sufficient to conclude a contract will not be prevented from so operating by the fact that the parties also manifest an intention to prepare and adopt a written memorial thereof; but the circumstances may show that the agreements are preliminary negotiations. 

In this case, RAWA does not dispute that the parties reached a verbal agreement with respect to Hydrojet’s unpaid water and sewage bills at the meeting between the parties on December 5, 2017. This verbal agreement called for Hydrojet to make installment payments until these unpaid bills were fully satisfied. As can be seen in the subsequent written settlement agreement, the parties agreed that Hydrojet owed RAWA a total of $133,298.00 for past water service and that Hydrojet would make 98 monthly payments of $1,020.00 along with a lump sum payment of $33,329.50 to satisfy these outstanding charges, upon which RAWA would release Hydrojet from any claims relating to its past water usage. Hence, the necessary prerequisites for a valid contract were established at the December 5, 2017 meeting, i.e., offer, acceptance, and consideration, and the trial court did not err in concluding that the verbal agreement was a sufficient basis upon which to rely in granting Hydrojet’s enforcement petition.