Almost every day in my practice area, lawyers are faced with the dilemmas:

  • When should you agree to an order, especially after a contested hearing?
  • What is the difference between “agreed as to form” versus “agreed as to form and substance”?
  • Is there ever a time to not sign off on an order even as to form?
  • Is there ever a time that a lawyer should agree to the substance of an order instead of the client?

I recently read an interesting blog post by the TexAppBlog.com guys on this topic Agreed as to Form and Substance: An Appellate Kiss of Death?

Consider that you have a contested hearing over an issue. You disagree with the judge’s ruling. You may even think this issue could be something appealable. The judge requests that the attorneys agree on the order. Opposing counsel presents an order that has the language “agreed as to form and substance” at the end by your signature blank. What do you do?

There is a split in the courts of appeals as to the effect of the language “agreed as to form and substance”. One view, according to Dallas, Texarkana, El Paso, and San Antonio, is that signing off on such language equates to a consent judgment that cannot be appealed. These courts distinguish between the phrases “agreed as to form” versus “agreed as to form and substance”. Claxton v. (Upper) Lake Fork Water Control and Imp. Dist. No. 1, 220 S.W.3d 537, 544 (Tex. App.—Texarkana 2006, pet. denied); Office of Attorney General of Texas v. Wilson, 24 S.W.3d 902, 906 (Tex. App.—Dallas 2000, no pet.); Cisneros v. Cisneros, 787 S.W.2d 550, 552 (Tex. App.—El Paso 1990, no writ); Bexar County Criminal Dist. Attorney’s Office v. Mayo, 773 S.W.2d 642, 644 (Tex. App.—San Antonio 1989, no writ).

On the other hand the two Houston courts, Corpus Christi, Austin and Fort Worth find that the language “agreed as to form and substance” is not enough to rise to a consent judgment. Standing alone, without other indications, the language is not enough to suggest that the matter was settled by agreement. Andrew Shebay & Co., PLLC v. Bishop, 429 S.W.3d 644, 646–47 (Tex. App.—Houston [1st Dist.] 2012, pet. denied); Chang v. Nguyen, 81 S.W.3d 314, 316, 319 n.1 (Tex. App.—Houston [14th Dist.] 2001, no pet.); Bonner v. Texas Children’s Hosp., No. 13-03-228-CV, 2006 WL 349510, at *2 & n.5 (Tex. App.—Corpus Christi Feb. 16, 2006, no pet.); Cash v. Cash, No. 03-04-00563-CV, 2005 WL 1787552, at *3 & n.7 (Tex. App.—Austin July 27, 2005, no pet.); Leeper v. Woodrick, No. 2-04-371-CV, 2005 WL 1475614, at *2 (Tex. App.—Fort Worth June 23, 2005, no pet.).

Seems to me that there is an important distinction between the langauge “agreed as to form” versus “agreed as to form and substance”. The word form denotes the form of the order — does it meet the requirements of formatting, language, and content per the Judge’s ruling? The word substance indicates that the heart of the matter, the substance, what the hearing was about, is agreed. Using Jimmy Buffett as an example… If he were the judge, he would rule that a cheeseburger should come with lettuce, tomato, Heinz 57, french fried potatoes, kosher pickle and a beer. I disagree and prefer my cheeseburger with mayo, lettuce,

The best practice is to never agree to “form and substance” unless you actually agree to the content and subject matter underlying the order. At most, only agree to form. However, many times when the order results from a contested hearing, the result of which I disagree, I will not even agree to form to avoid any ambiguity in my position. As to substance, it is the client’s agreement to substance that matters, so many times even if agreeing to the matters underlying the order — the substance — the client should be the one signing off on that, not the lawyer.