Oral agreements as enforceable as written ones

Can They Do That?

Your Money

March 28, 2004|By Carrie Mason-Draffen

Early last year the president of the college where I work told me I qualified for $3,000 in tuition aid that I could use to work on my doctorate. She informed the dean I report to of the offer as well as various other people at the college. In September, the president was demoted, and the chancellor told me there would be no aid because the president lacked the authority to make the offer.

Granted, the agreement was oral, but I counted on it and didn't apply for a student loan. Is there anything I can do?

Yes, indeed. Alan L. Sklover, an employee-rights attorney in New York, lays out three major points that should help you craft a plan of action:

As a rule, oral agreements are just as enforceable as written ones. The most difficult aspect of such agreements is proving they existed. But you seem to have that covered since the president notified other people of the tuition offer.

The law gives people the right to depend on a person's "apparent authority." That authority, Sklover explains, is what a reasonable person would presume from a person's title. "Surely, a janitor can't bind the college, but just as surely its corporate president can," Sklover says.

You can probably take your case to small claims court because $3,000 is within the court's limits in most states. And you can represent yourself. But the college, as a corporation, must be represented by an attorney, Sklover said. For that reason, he said, the college most likely will want to settle to avoid legal fees.

Carrie Mason-Draffen is a columnist for Newsday, a Tribune Publishing newspaper. E-mail her at yourmoney@tribune.com.

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