U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Martin Glenn recently decided that a fully-negotiated agreement would not be enforced in the absence of required signatures. The agreement contemplated a settlement between the General Motors bankruptcy trust and car purchasers and accident victims of General Motors cars following an alleged vehicle defect; both parties fully and unambiguously agreed to be bound by the terms of the agreement.

After filing for Chapter 11 protection in 2009, General Motors received $50 billion to operate its business, and the reorganized company was labeled by some as “New G.M.” While New G.M. resumed its business operations as a car manufacturer, Motors Liquidation Company, or “Old G.M.”, became a trust responsible for paying back creditors.

In 2014, G.M. became the target of a litigation whereby car accident victims accused the carmaker of defective ignition switches which led to the deaths of 124 people. In addition to recalling millions of cars, Old G.M. (or “the trust”) entered into a deal whereby it agreed to accept liability, make a $15 million payment and require the issuance of 30 million shares of common stock by New G.M. to its creditors. The combination of the $15 million payment and issuance of 30 million shares of stock totaled nearly a $1.02 billion settlement. Despite the plaintiffs’ attorneys and the trust agreeing to the deal, shortly thereafter New G.M. refused to cooperate. Instead, New G.M. brokered a deal with the trust whereby New G.M. would pay the trust’s legal fees in upcoming litigation with creditors in exchange for the trust withdrawing from the original agreement.

The plaintiffs argued that the settlement agreement should be binding under New York law.  The plaintiffs argued that the trust’s constant communication regarding its intent to be bound by the settlement constituted partial performance. In opposition, the trust argued that the agreement was never executed and therefore was not binding.

Judge Glenn’s decision turned on whether a provision within the settlement agreement, which called for signatures in order for the agreement to become “effective and binding”, was an essential part of the agreement or merely a boilerplate contractual provision. Judge Glenn held that contract law allows parties to withdraw from unsigned settlements and ruled that he could not enforce the deal without the trust’s signature. Judge Glenn left open whether plaintiffs may have other remedies against the trust.