Condoning Fraud?

(also posted on my mediation blog)

Even if there hadn’t been a movie making this whole story famous, those of us concerned with the law and mediation might still follow the saga of the lawsuit between Mark Zuckerberg and the Winklevosses with interest.  Yesterday the twins were dealt a setback in their efforts to overturn a settlement they claim was fraudulently induced. Here is theNinth Circuit opinion’s description of that settlement agreement:

Affter a day of negotiations, ConnectU, Facebook and the Winklevosses signed a handwritten, one-and-a-third page “Term Sheet & Settlement Agreement” (the Settlement Agreement). The Winklevosses agreed to give up ConnectU in exchange for cash and a piece of Facebook. The parties stipulated that the Settlement Agreement was “confidential,” “binding” and “may be submitted into evidence to enforce [it].” The Settlement Agreement also purported to end all disputes between the parties.

People might be surprised to learn that this sort of thing happens in mediation. Even in a dispute worth tens of millions of dollars, the parties sometimes conclude a day of mediation with nothing but a hastily-prepared handwritten term sheet, leaving a number of items open for future clarification, and contemplating a further long form agreement.  They do that because they do not want to leave the table without some documentation of the deal, otherwise the deal might fall apart. But they don’t have time to think about all the details required to finish a complete agreement. In this case, where the parties scrawled out a document that was labeled both a term sheet and a settlement agreement, and that said it was both confidential as well as admissible in evidence, the agreement seems to express contradictory purposes. What happens when the parties sign such a flawed document, and never sign the final agreement they were contemplating? Two questions were decided by the panel in the Winklevoss v. Facebook case. (1) Was the handwritten agreement definite enough to be enforceable? and (2) Does the parties’ agreement to maintain mediation confidentiality bar a claim to set the agreement aside based on alleged fraudulent inducement?  The panel answered “yes” to both questions.
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