Is It a New Contract Or Modification of an Existing One? Illinois Case Discusses Why It Matters

In business relationships that contemplate a series of reciprocal services, it’s at times unclear if extra services are being offered as a modification to an existing contract or are done as part of a new agreement.  Landmark Engineering v. Holevoet, 2016 IL App (1st) 150723-U examines this sometimes fine-line difference and illustrates in stark relief the importance of honoring contractual provisions that require contract changes to be in writing and signed by the parties.

The defendant hired the plaintiff under a written contract to do some engineering work including a soil study on a parcel of land the defendant was going to sell.  The plaintiff’s work would then be submitted to the governing county officials who would then determine whether the sale could go through.

The contract, drafted by plaintiff, had a merger clause requiring that all contract modifications be in writing and signed by the parties.  When the plaintiff realized the contract’s original scope of work did not satisfy the county’s planning authorities, the plaintiff performed some $50,000 in additional services in order to get county approval.

The plaintiff argued the defendant verbally authorized plaintiff to perform work in a phone conversation that created a separate, binding oral contract.  For her part, the defendant asserted that the extra work modified the original written contract and a writing was required to support the plaintiff’s additional invoices.

The defendant refused to pay plaintiff’s invoices on the basis that the extra work and accompanying invoice far exceeded the agreed-upon contract price.  Plaintiff sued and won a $52,000 money judgment at trial.

Reversing, the appeals court examines not only the reach of a contractual merger clause but also what constitutes a separate or “new” contract as opposed to only a modification of a pre-existing one.

In Illinois, a breach of oral contract claim requires the contract’s terms to be proven with sufficient specificity.  Where parties agree that a future written document will be prepared only to memorialize the agreement, that oral agreement is still binding even though the later document is never prepared or signed.

However, where it’s clear that the parties’ intent is that neither will be legally bound until a formal agreement is signed, no contract comes into existence until the execution and delivery of the written agreement.

Illinois law defines a  contractual “modification” as a change in one or more aspects of a contract that either injects new elements into the contract or cancels others out.  But with a modification, the contract’s essential purpose and effect remains static.  (¶¶ 35-36)

In this case, since the plaintiff submitted a written contract addendum (by definition, a modification of an existing agreement) to the defendant after their telephone conversation (the phone call plaintiff claimed was a new contract), and defendant never signed the addendum, am ambiguity existed concerning the parties intent.  And since plaintiff drafted both the original contract and the unsigned addendum, the ambiguity had to be construed in defendant’s favor under Illinois contract interpretation rules.

Since the unsigned addendum contained the same project name and number as the original contract, the appeals court found that the record evidence supported a finding that the addendum sought to modify the original contract and was not a separate, new undertaking.  And since defendant never signed the addendum, she wasn’t bound by it.

Afterwords:

The case serves as a cautionary tale concerning the perils of not getting the party to be charged to sign a contract.  Where one party fails to get the other to sign it yet still does work anyway, it does so at its peril.

Here, since both the original and unsigned addendum each referenced the same project name, description and number, the court found plaintiff’s extra work was done in furtherance of (and as a modification to) the original contract.  As the contract’s integration clause required all changes to be in writing, the failure of defendant to sign off on the addendum’s extra work doomed the plaintiff’s damage claims.

 

 

 

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PaulP

Litigation attorney at Fisher Kanaris, P.C. representing businesses and individuals in all types of commercial disputes.