From Russia With Love

This was originally published on the SGR Blog.

Plaintiff (Natalya) and Defendant (Semen) were married in June 1997. They purchased a home in Valley Stream in September 1997. Semen filed for a divorce in Russia in November 2012 and was awarded a divorce in December 2012.

The parties lived together in the home until January or February 2013. When Natalya returned from a trip to Russia in January or February 2013, she found that the locks had been changed.

In November 2014, Natalya started an action to partition the home. The complaint alleged that Semen was in possession of the home and that he had refused to allow Natalya access to the home; sought return her belongings; and requested an equitable share of the value of the home.

The action proceeded to a nonjury trial, at which the parties were the only witnesses. The parties agreed that Semel would purchase Natalya’s interest in the home, with the purchase price to be determined by an appraisal. Accordingly, the only issue to be determined at the trial was the distribution of the funds.

Natalya presented evidence that Semen ousted her from the home. Natalya testified that the locks to the house and garage were changed and that a lock had been placed on the mailbox in January or February 2013. She further testified that Semen would not allow her access to the home.

When Natalya reported the situation to law enforcement, she was told that she would need to get a court order to access the home. Semen admitted that his son changed the locks to the home and garage, but denied ever telling Natalaya that she could not have access to the home. However, Semen’s attorney conceded that there was no dispute that Natalya did not have access to the home since January 2013.

Supreme Court directed Semen to pay Natalya $163,250, which represented her 50% interest in the home minus half of the principal balance due on two home equity lines of credit. The Court further directed Semen pay Natalya $47,967.67 in consideration of his exclusive use and occupancy of the home beginning on February 1, 2013.

The appeals court agreed with Supreme Court’s determination to direct Semen to pay Natalya $47,967.67 in consideration of his exclusive use and occupancy.

Semen argued on appeal that Supreme Court should have credited him $100,000 in light of his prior payments to Natalya in exchange for her share of the value of the home. Semen testified that he and Natalya entered into a verbal agreement in which she agreed to transfer her share of the home to him in exchange for $140,000. Semen offered into evidence at trial two checks payable from him to Natalya in the sum of $50,000 each, dated May 2, 2011, and May 10, 2011. Supreme Court rejected Semen’s claim as barred by the statute of frauds.

The statute of frauds prohibits the enforcement of  conveyance of real property without a written contract. While the statute of frauds empowers courts of equity to compel specific performance of agreements in cases of part performance, the claimed partial performance must be unequivocally referable to the agreement. And it is insufficient that the oral agreement gives significance to the actions. Rather, the actions alone must be unintelligible or at least extraordinary, and  explainable only with reference to the oral agreement.

The appeals court held that Semen’s  claim was barred by the statute of frauds. There was no written contract between the parties. And the doctrine of part performance was inapplicable. Although Semen presented evidence that he gave Natalya $100,000 in May 2011, prior to their divorce, those actions were not unintelligible or extraordinary without reference to the alleged agreement.

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