Church Property

The sale of a Georgia church’s property triggered an unfortunate legal dispute.

The sale of a Georgia church's property triggered an unfortunate legal dispute. In April of 1985, the church had signed an exclusive listing agreement with a realty company to sell certain church property. This listing expired in September of the same year, but the broker continued to assist the church with the sale of its property.

A few months later, the broker started his own agency, and presented the church with another exclusive listing contract. In December of 1985 the pastor signed the new contract without reading it. He assumed, based on discussions with the broker, that the contract called for a three-month exclusive listing.

In June of 1986, the broker called the pastor with an offer on the property, congratulated him, and reminded him that he expected 10% of the $200,000 sales price as his commission under the terms of the contract. The pastor, thinking that the new contract had only been for a three-month term, notified the broker that the listing agreement had expired in March, and accordingly that no commission was due. In fact, the new listing contract was not limited to three months.

The broker sued the church for his commission, and a trial court ruled in favor of the church. The broker appealed, and a state appeals court reversed the trial court's determination and ruled in favor of the broker. The court rejected the pastor's argument that he had been misled into assuming that the new contract contained a three-month term. "Where one signs a contract without reading it," observed the court, "he is bound by its terms unless he can show that an emergency existed at the time that he signed it that would excuse his failure to read it, or the other party misled him … or a confidential relationship existed upon which he relied in not reading the contract."

No emergency existed in the present case, noted the court, and the pastor could not argue that he had been misled "where he had the capacity and opportunity to read the contract …. He is not entitled to relief where, by exercising slight diligence, he could have prevented the fraud which he alleges to have been perpetrated upon him." This ruling illustrates the risks that a minister or church representative assumes in signing legal documents without a careful review. Never assume that you are familiar with the terms of any legal document that you have not read, no matter how logical or reasonable your assumptions or understandings may be. Stacey Realty Company v. Calvary Baptist Church, Inc., 374 S.E.2d 537 (Ga. App. 1988).

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