A core tenet of contract law is that the contracting parties are masters of the agreement. Parties negotiate and ultimately agree upon terms that each party expects to be bound by and hold the other side to. Most commercial agreements include an integration or merger clause stating that the written and executed contract is the complete and final agreement between the parties, and supersedes any and all prior agreements on the same subject matter between those same parties.
Most commercial agreements also include a provision that states any future modifications to the agreement must be in writing and executed by the parties. In other words, there will be no oral modifications to the contract. These provisions make sense. After all, the parties engaged counsel who spent countless hours negotiating the terms of the agreement. The parties deliberated, debated and compromised until they reached terms that both sides could live with. The time and attention that resulted in these final, agreed-upon terms was substantial, as was evident from the legal fees each party paid its lawyers.
So what happens when the parties have an ongoing working relationship and the subject matter of the agreement is a regular topic of discussion between the parties?
Perhaps the parties are jointly developing a product and, as the development work proceeds, the teams from each company realize that one company is going to have to contribute more than was originally anticipated. Because the parties have worked so closely on the project, the relationship takes on an informality that leads to the teams deciding orally that the terms of the written agreement should change.
This is exactly why that “no oral modification” provision is in the contract. The lawyers anticipated this and similar scenarios, and included the provision to make sure that the contract is not modified without careful consideration and buy-in from the highest levels of the companies. But these lawyers might be surprised to learn that in many states a no oral modification provision isn’t worth the paper it is written on and oral modification between the joint development teams might actually be enforceable.
State By State Analysis
The California Civil Code (§ 1698(d)) provides that “[a] contract in writing may be modified by an oral agreement to the extent that oral agreement is executed by the parties.” This statute, however, does not preclude waiver of a provision of a written contract, including a no oral modification provision by words or conduct. Accordingly, California courts will look to all actions between the parties. The issue of whether a no oral modification provision has been waived is a question of fact and requires a party asserting an oral modification to prove it by a preponderance of the evidence.
Delaware courts have held that a contract provision deeming oral modifications unenforceable can be waived orally or by course of conduct. However, Delaware courts require a party attempting to prove the existence of an oral modification to do so by clear and convincing evidence. Where the parties have reduced a modification to writing on a prior occasion, Delaware courts are less likely to enforce an oral modification.
Florida law provides that a no oral modification provision is generally enforceable. However, “[a] written contract or agreement may be altered or modified by an oral agreement if the latter has been accepted and acted upon by the parties in such manner as would work a fraud on either party to refuse to enforce it.” Florida courts require the plaintiff to prove that (1) the parties agreed upon and accepted the oral modification, (2) both parties’ performance was consistent with the terms of the alleged oral modification, and (3) due to one party’s performance under the contract as amended, the other party received and accepted a benefit that it otherwise was not entitled to receive.
In Georgia, contractual provisions requiring all modifications to be in writing are valid and enforceable but may be waived by the course of conduct between the parties. For example, where the oral modification has been acted upon by one party and accepted by the other, that modification is likely to be enforced.
In New York, no oral modification clauses are enforceable by statute. Nonetheless, the statute can be avoided where there is partial performance of an oral modification and such partial performance is “unequivocally referable to the oral modification” (Rose v. Spa Realty Associates, 1977).
In the commercial transactions context, the Ohio Revised Code provides “[a] signed agreement which excludes modification or rescission except by a signed writing cannot be otherwise modified or rescinded. . . .” However, this same statute also states that, as with any other contractual provision, the no oral modification provisions may be waived by the parties. The waiver must be clear and unequivocal.
Pennsylvania law provides that a no oral modification provision can be waived and a subsequent oral agreement enforced if the parties’ conduct clearly shows an intent to waive the provision. The party seeking to prove a subsequent oral modification must do so by clear, precise and convincing evidence. In determining whether to enforce the oral modification, Pennsylvania courts will also take equitable considerations into account. Such considerations may include unjust enrichment and subsequent reliance.
Statute of Frauds
In addition to the law described above, parties should keep in mind any applicable statute of frauds, which may also have the effect of limiting the enforceability of an alleged oral agreement. These statutes vary by state but generally require the following contracts to be in writing: contracts for the sale of land, contracts for the sale of goods over a certain dollar amount, and contracts that are not to be performed within a year. If not in writing, the contract will not be enforceable.
In most states, the statute of frauds not only applies to original contracts but also typically applies to contract modifications. There are exceptions to when the statute of frauds will apply to contract modifications. For example, in some states if the oral modification relates only to the manner of performance, and not the substance of the contract, the statute of frauds may not apply. Additionally, even where the statute of frauds might apply to an oral modification, if the modification has already been performed by one party and accepted by the other, the modification may be enforced.
There is significant variation among the states with respect to the enforceability of no oral modification provisions in written contracts. What we know for sure is that drafters should not assume such a provision will be enforced. Where the risk of attempted oral modifications is high, drafters should consider using choice of law provisions to achieve the parties’ intended contractual goals. For example, under California law, a party asserting an oral modification need do so only by preponderance of the evidence. States such as Delaware, New York and others, however, require more exacting proof.
By Marla R. Butler and David Castillo Gocher, Thompson Hine