Was an expensive ring a conditional gift given in contemplation of marriage (to be returned if the wedding did not take place) or an outright gift (to be kept whether or not marriage ensued)?
The answer may depend on where the ring was given (New York or elsewhere), and application of principals of choice of law (where the parties resided in different states) and/or conflict of laws (where the laws in different states are not the same). Three recent cases are illustrative:
McMahon v. Decicco, 2018 NY Slip Op 31706(U), Sup Ct. Suff. Co. (July 18, 2018)
Supreme Court addressed a request by David McMahon for an order of attachment of an engagement ring in the possession of Tammy Decicco, his former finance.
The Court described the pleadings:
Plaintiff asserts one cause of action herein, to wit: for the return of an engagement ring worth $13,700 and other payments made by plaintiff allegedly in contemplation of a marriage to defendant that did not occur. Plaintiff claims that he made numerous payments on behalf of defendant in contemplation of marriage, including $15,000 for a downpayment on a 2015 Ford Explorer, as well as co-signing a loan for the vehicle in the amount of $33,000; $12,000 for veterinary bills for defendant’s dog; $1,200 for an engine for defendant’s son; $2,150 for defendant’s dentistry; $3,000 for furniture; and at least $30,900 “for other expenses of the Defendant and her family.” Plaintiff contends that he has given defendant a total of $61,326.59 in contemplation of marriage.
And denied the application for an Order of attachment:
CPLR 6201 (3) provides that an Order of Attachment may be granted in any action where the plaintiff has demanded and would be entitled, in whole or in part, or in the alternative, to a money judgment against one or more defendants, when the defendant, with intent to defraud his creditors or frustrate the enforcement of a judgment that might be rendered in plaintiff’s favor, has assigned, disposed of, encumbered or secreted property, or removed it from the state or is about to do any of these acts…The moving papers must contain evidentiary facts — as opposed to conclusions — proving the fraud…In addition to proving fraudulent intent, the plaintiff must also show probable success on the merits of the underlying action in order to obtain an Order of Attachment…However, the mere removal, assignment or other disposition of property is not grounds for attachment[.]
Here, the Court finds the allegation that defendant “is no longer residing in New York, and has removed some or all of the property at issue out of state frustrating enforcement” does not rise to the level of demonstrating an intent to defraud or frustrate enforcement of a judgment. Plaintiff’s moving papers do not contain any evidentiary facts proving fraudulent transfers…In opposition, defendant avers that she moved to Virginia to work full-time in November 2015, prior to the commencement of this action. Notably, plaintiff’s own complaint recites that defendant resides in Barboursville, Virginia. With respect to the merits, as will be discussed more fully below, defendant has raised questions of fact as to whether the subject ring and other payments were given in contemplation of marriage or merely as gifts.
Therefore, plaintiff’s motion for an Order of Attachment is DENIED, with leave to renew in the event plaintiff can demonstrate actions undertaken by defendant designed to defraud plaintiff and/or frustrate enforcement of any money judgment[.]
Decicco’s cross-motion for an Order dismissing the complaint:
With respect to defendant’s motion for dismissal and/or summary judgment, the Court finds that personal jurisdiction was obtained over defendant by personal service of process upon her on August 17, 2016, in Charlottesville, Virginia…Further, the Court finds that defendant is subject to the jurisdiction of this Court concerning the engagement ring, as it is undisputed that the ring was given by plaintiff to defendant in Sag Harbor, New York[.]
Plaintiff’s cause of action is based upon Civil Rights Law § 80-b, which addresses gifts in contemplation of marriage. Pursuant to Civil Rights Law § 80-b, an individual may recover property or other gifts where the sole motivation for the transfer was a contemplated marriage which never occurred[.]
On a motion to dismiss a complaint for failure to state a cause of action under CPLR 3211 (a) (7), the complaint must be construed in the light most favorable to the plaintiffs and all factual allegations must be accepted as true…The Court finds that plaintiff has sufficiently pleaded a cause of action pursuant to Civil Rights Law § 80-b to recover the alleged monetary conditional gifts, as well as the return of the engagement ring. Therefore, upon favorably viewing the facts alleged as amplified and supplemented by plaintiff’s opposing submissions…and affording plaintiff “the benefit of every possible favorable inference”…the Court finds that plaintiff has stated a cause of action under Civil Rights Law § 80-b[.]
And Decicco’s motion for summary judgment:
Regarding that branch of defendant’s motion for summary judgment, on such a motion the Court’s function is to determine whether issues of fact exist not to resolve issues of fact or to determine matters of credibility…Therefore, in determining the motion for summary judgment, the facts alleged by the nonmoving party and all inferences that may be drawn are to be accepted as true…The failure of the moving party to make such a prima facie showing requires denial of the motion regardless of the insufficiency of the opposing papers…Once the movant’s burden is met, the burden shifts to the opposing party to establish the existence of a material issue of fact…However, mere allegations, unsubstantiated conclusions, expressions of hope or assertions are insufficient to defeat a motion for summary judgment[.]
In the case at bar, the Court finds that defendant has made an initial prima facie showing of entitlement to judgment as a matter of law dismissing the claims for the other conditional gifts allegedly made by plaintiff, as defendant has demonstrated that those payments and transactions were made outside of the State of New York…Therefore, the Court does not have jurisdiction over those claims…Thus, the burden shifted to plaintiff to produce evidentiary proof in admissible form sufficient to establish material issues of fact which require a trial with respect to these claims…Plaintiff failed to do so. Plaintiff has not refuted defendant’s allegations that these claims arise from dealings of the parties without the state[.]
However, the Court finds that it has jurisdiction over the claim for return of the engagement ring, as the marriage proposal was made in New York. Notwithstanding the foregoing, defendant has raised questions of fact as to whether the ring was a gift given solely in contemplation of marriage, or rather as a Christmas present[.]
Accordingly, defendant’s motion is GRANTED solely to the extent that plaintiff’s claims against defendant for $15,000 for a downpayment on a 2015 Ford Explorer, $12,000 for veterinary bills, $1,200 for an engine, $2,150 for dentistry, $3,000 for furniture, and $30,900 for other expenses of defendant and her family are hereby dismissed.
Finally, defendant’s request…that this matter be dismissed due to New York being an inconvenient forum, is DENIED. On a motion…to dismiss the complaint on the ground of forum non conveniens, the burden is on the movant to demonstrate the relevant private or public interest factors that militate against a New York court’s acceptance of the litigation…”Among the factors the court must weigh are the residency of the parties, the potential hardship to proposed witnesses, the availability of an alternative forum, the situs of the actionable events, and the burden which will be imposed upon the New York courts, with no one single factor controlling”[.]
Upon weighing the relevant factors, the Court finds that defendant has failed to meet her burden for dismissal. The claims arising from the dealings of the parties outside of New York have now been dismissed, plaintiff resides in New York, and the alleged engagement which gives rise to this action took place in New York. Moreover, defendant has failed to show that the hardship to her or her potential witnesses is so great as to warrant dismissal of the action in New York…The Court notes that defendant has retained local counsel in New York to defend her interests herein.
Hart v. Cappa, 2018 NY Slip Op 31602(U), Sup Ct. N.Y. Co. (January 9, 2018)
Supreme Court summarized the dispute and pending motion:
This action involves a dispute between plaintiff Penny F. Hart and defendant Thomas V. Cappa, who were lovers before they broke off their romantic relationship in or about 2012. Plaintiff’s amended complaint1 asserts four causes action: partition and sale of a cooperative apartment; declaratory judgment that plaintiff may retain all gifts defendant gave her in the course of their relationship; rescission under Civil Rights Law § 80-b; and conversion. In response, defendant filed an amended answer asserting various affirmative defenses and fifteen counterclaims. Pursuant to the instant motion…plaintiff moves to dismiss many of such counterclaims[.]
The Complaint alleges that plaintiff and defendant were, at one point, “romantically involved” but “not ever intending to marry,” and that plaintiff eventually “called off the relationship” and returned the engagement ring to defendant…During their romantic involvement, the parties acquired a cooperative apartment located at 383 Grand Street, New York City…as joint tenants with rights of survivorship…After their relationship ended, plaintiff “no longer wishes to remain tied to Defendant in any way,” and has asked defendant to either buy out her interest in the Apartment or to sell the Apartment and split the proceeds, but defendant has refused to agree to either option…Because physical partition of the Apartment would “unduly prejudice the parties,” and because their relationship has “suffered a breakdown impinging on their ability to enjoy peacefully their occupancy rights.” plaintiff asserts that she is entitled to “partition and sale” of the Apartment[.]
The Complaint also alleges that during their relationship, the parties exchanged gifts for birthdays and holidays, but plaintiff “made clear” to defendant that she would not marry him, and that defendant understood her…Nevertheless, defendant asked plaintiff to wear an “engagement style ring” to signal she was “off the market,” and when their relationship ended, plaintiff returned the ring to defendant…Because defendant has demanded that plaintiff return other gifts that he gave her throughout the course of their relationship, plaintiff seeks a declaratory judgment that she may retain all such other gifts[.]
The Complaint further alleges that, if the court finds that the parties’ exchanged gifts were given in contemplation of marriage, plaintiff is entitled to the return of cash and other gifts she gave to defendant, pursuant to Civil Rights Law § 80-b, in an amount of no less than $1.169 million, to be proven at trial[.]
The Complaint additionally alleges that, during the course of their relationship, plaintiff deposited $825,000 in a retirement account held in defendant’s name, the intent of which was to fund the parties “mutual retirement,” but not to be a gift to defendant…Because defendant has refused to return the funds in the account to plaintiff, despite demand, plaintiff is “entitled to a judgment in the amount of $825,000,” plus interest and any appreciation of such funds in the account, based on the legal theory of conversion[.]
Defendant’s answer and counterclaim:
In response to the Complaint, defendant filed an answer which asserts various affirmative defenses and counterclaims. The defenses include: complaint’s failure to state a cause of action; unclean hands; unjust enrichment; equitable estoppel; waiver; breach of contract; and equitable relief of partition [is] barred because there is adequate remedy at law and because plaintiff has agreed that defendant could reside in the Apartment for the rest of his life. The counterclaims, which mirror the defenses to a substantial extent, include: constructive trust; breach of contract; fraud; unjust enrichment; and a Civil Rights Law §80-b cause of action[.]
The legal template:
The standards for determining whether a motion to dismiss should be granted or denied are well-established. “The motion must be denied if from the pleading’s four corners, factual allegations are discerned which taken together manifest any cause of action cognizable at law”…The pleading is to be afforded a “liberal construction,” and the court is to “accord [the pleading’s proponent] the benefit of every possible favorable inference.”… However, while factual allegations should be accorded a favorable inference, “bare legal conclusions” and “inherently incredible” facts are not entitled to preferential consideration…Moreover, “[w]hen the moving party offers evidentiary material, the court is required to determine whether the proponent of the [pleading] has a cause of action, not whether [he or] she has stated one”…Further, if the pleading’s allegations consist of bare legal conclusions, but “documentary evidence flatly contradicts the factual claims, the entitlement to the presumption of truth and the favorable inference is rebutted.”[.]
The first, second and third counterclaims:
In this action, the first (imposition of a constructive trust), second (breach of contract) and third (fraud) counterclaims in defendant’s answer pertain to the Apartment. The answer alleges that, in or about 2003, defendant purchased the Apartment in plaintiff’s name, because he believed that he and plaintiff were in a romantic and committed relationship, and that plaintiff agreed to hold the Apartment in trust for him…The answer also alleges that in reliance upon plaintiff’s promise, he renovated and maintained the Apartment at a cost in excess of $900,000…The answer further alleges that, after he became aware of plaintiff’s multiple sexual affairs, he demanded that she transfer the Apartment’s ownership back to him, but she refused…The answer acknowledges, however, that in or about September 2013, plaintiff transferred one-half of the Apartment’s ownership to him as a joint tenant with the right of survivorship, and that plaintiff promised him that he could continue to live in the Apartment for the rest of his life…In addition, the answer alleges that plaintiff made false representations to defendant in obtaining the Apartment, with the intent to deceive him, and that he justifiably relied upon her misrepresentations[.]
Plaintiff argues that each of these three counterclaims is barred by the Statute of Frauds, because New York law requires that conveyances or contracts relating to real property, including shares of stock and proprietary leases in cooperative apartments, be made in writing and signed by the party to be charged…Because defendant does not allege that the purported agreements and/or representations were reduced to writing, plaintiff asserts that these counterclaims must be dismissed[.]
Defendant counters that, while an agreement to convey an interest in real property must be in writing, as provided in GOL § 5-703, the courts may equitably impose a constructive trust as an exception to the Statute of Frauds…The four elements for the imposition of a constructive trust are: a confidential or fiduciary relationship; a promise; a transfer in reliance; and unjust enrichment…Also, a constructive trust may be imposed when property is acquired in circumstances that “the holder of legal title may not in good conscience retain the beneficial interest.”…Here, defendant’s answer alleges these four elements. Moreover, the proprietary lease for the Apartment, which comprises of units M2003 and M2004, evidences in writing that plaintiff and defendant share a legal interest in the Apartment, as shareholders and joint tenants with the right of survivorship. While the exhibit documents supplied by defendant show that he purchased from his mother only unit M2004, plaintiff admits that both units, M2003 and M2004, were merged into one Apartment after their acquisition by the parties. Further, even though plaintiff argues that there is no equitable basis for imposing a constructive trust upon her one-half interest in the Apartment…she does not refute defendant’s allegations, that he has spent more than $900,000 renovating and maintaining the Apartment and that she has promised to let him reside in the Apartment until his death, which allegations bolster his claim for the imposition of a constructive trust. Because issues regarding how the Apartment should be partitioned or how the parties should share in the proceeds of its sale (so as to avoid unjust enrichment) are not before the court, the constructive trust counterclaim survives dismissal at this point, unless it can be dismissed based upon an alternative theory, as discussed below.
Alternatively, plaintiff argues that the constructive trust counterclaim should be dismissed because, based upon defendant’s own allegations, plaintiff’s wrongful act in obtaining ownership of the Apartment, by fraudulently inducing him to place the Apartment in her name, occurred in or about 2003, and his belated assertion in 2016 of the constructive trust counterclaim, which has a statute of limitations of six years, is time-barred…Defendant contends that the wrongful act occurred in September 2013, when he learned of plaintiff’s “abhorrent conduct and betrayal” and “demanded that she transfer the Apartment into his sole name[,] at which time she refused and only transferred one-half of the property to him.”…Because this action was commenced in 2016, which was only three years after the allegedly wrongful act of plaintiff, defendant asserts that this counterclaim is timely…Notably, plaintiff fails to rebut or challenge defendant’s assertion in her reply brief. Thus, the constructive trust counterclaim survives the statute of limitations defense raised by plaintiff.
With respect to the breach of contract (second) and fraud (third) counterclaims, the facts alleged in support of these counterclaims are substantially identical to those for the constructive trust (first) counterclaim…Indeed, each of the “wherefore” clauses in the answer demands identical relief for these counterclaims: “a Constructive Trust be placed upon Plaintiff’s stock and propriety lease for [the Apartment] . . . for the benefit of Defendant.”…Moreover, in his opposition to plaintiff’s motion to dismiss, defendant relies almost exclusively on the same facts and legal arguments for all three counterclaims[.]
Because the breach of contract and fraud counterclaims are duplicative of the constructive trust counterclaim, the second and third counterclaims should be dismissed as redundant[.]
The fifth and sixth counterclaims:
While the fourth counterclaim, which is based upon plaintiff’s alleged violation of Civil Rights Law § 80-b and is not the subject of the instant motion to dismiss, the fifth (constructive trust/unjust enrichment) counterclaim is based upon substantially the same factual allegations as the fourth counterclaim. More specifically, defendant alleges that he provided plaintiff with “numerous and extravagant” jewelry in contemplation and on condition of marriage, but the parties did not marry, and despite his demands for the return of said jewelry or its value, plaintiff has refused[.]
The contentions of the parties as to the fifth counterclaim:
Plaintiff moves to dismiss the fifth counterclaim, arguing that “it is well settled that no cause of action lies for the return of any gifts given during a relationship, no matter what heartbreak, deceit or misconduct one jilted lover may allege against their former romantic partner, unless those gifts were given solely in contemplation of marriage.”…Defendant contends, at least as to the fifth counterclaim, that his allegation for the return jewelry is “not duplicative” of the fourth counterclaim and is “not based on a return of a gift in connection with a breach of a promise to marry, but an action for constructive trust/unjust enrichment.”…Such contention is unavailing, because the factual allegations for these two counterclaims are almost identical, as discussed above. Furthermore, there is caselaw support, as pointed out by plaintiff, that a claim of unjust enrichment should be dismissed when unmarried parties, prior to the breakup of their relationship, provided gifts to or expended monies on each other…Thus, the fifth counterclaim is dismissed.
The contentions of the parties as to the sixth counterclaim:
As to the sixth counterclaim (fraud), defendant alleges, inter alia, that during their long-term romantic relationship, plaintiff made false representations that she was in a committed and exclusive relationship with him, he provided her with expensive jewelry in justifiable reliance on such representation, but he later found out that she had “numerous sexual affairs” with others to “carry out her scheme to defraud” him…Plaintiff argues that the fraud counterclaim should be dismissed because it is “duplicative of Count 4”…or that the fraud claim fails to “sufficiently plead the elements” of fraud[.]
Plaintiff’s arguments are unpersuasive. The fraud counterclaim is not based solely upon a promise to marry, nor do the pleadings fail to sufficiently plead the elements of fraud, as described above. Also, CPLR 3014 permits a party to plead alternative theories for a cause of action, and the fraud counterclaim is based upon different factual allegations and is sufficiently plead. Consequently, the sixth counterclaim survives plaintiff’s dismissal challenge.
The eighth and ninth counterclaims:
Defendant’s seventh (breach of contract), eighth (unjust enrichment) and ninth (fraud) counterclaims all pertain to the same transaction. Specifically, defendant alleges, inter alia, that in or about 2006, defendant loaned plaintiff $850,000 for payment of attorneys’ fees incurred in connection with a litigation that involved plaintiff and her ex-husband, mother, father and brother over the ownership of a family-held insurance business wherein she later received a $24 million settlement, and she promised to repay defendant at a compound interest rate of 6%[.]
The contentions of the parties:
Plaintiff argues that the tort claims of unjust enrichment and fraud should be dismissed because they are either duplicative of the breach of contract claim, or if there was no agreement, the claims for payment are “based on things he did for his girlfriend while they were together,” and “the law does not allow such claims”[.]
The unjust enrichment counterclaim should be dismissed because the relief sought is duplicative of the breach of contract counterclaim, for the same reasons discussed above. Even assuming there is a valid contract between the parties for the repayment of the loan, as defendant alleges and as this court is required to assume in considering a motion to dismiss, defendant’s attempt to assert a quasi-contractual claim sounding in unjust enrichment is unwarranted under the circumstance[.]
As to the fraud counterclaim, defendant alleges that he loaned the money to plaintiff justifiably relying on her representation that they were in a committed and exclusive relationship, but he later found out that she had sexual affairs with others, and that he would not have loaned the money if he had known of her infidelity, but for her fraudulent scheme…Because this allegation is “collateral” to the contract, it is not duplicative of the breach of contract claim, and should not be dismissed at the pleading stage…Thus, the ninth counterclaim survives.
The eleventh, twelfth, thirteenth and fourteenth counterclaims:
Defendant’s tenth (breach of contract), eleventh (quantum meruit) and twelfth (unjust enrichment) counterclaims arise in connection with his alleged rendition of services at the premises on East End Avenue, New York City, owned by plaintiff…More specifically, defendant alleges that pursuant to an agreement with plaintiff, in which she would pay him 20% of the increase in value of the apartment, he renovated it at a cost of $600,000 that increased its value by $4 million, thereby entitling him to $800,000 under the agreement, or $1.1 million, representing the reasonable value of the services rendered… The thirteenth (breach of contract), fourteenth (quantum meruit) and fifteenth (unjust enrichment) counterclaims relate to defendant’s alleged rendition of services at the triplex apartment on East 72nd Street, New York City owned by plaintiff…Defendant alleges that plaintiff agreed, in exchange for his renovation and management services, to pay him a 20% share in the profit from the sale of that apartment, which was sold in 2015. He also alleges that she made a $1.7 million profit, but has refused to pay him $340,000 pursuant to the agreement. Alternatively, defendant alleges that the value of his services was $2.4 million, but that she only paid $1 million, entitling him to an extra $1.4 million under his quantum meruit and unjust enrichment claims[.]
[N]ew York courts have recognized the enforceability of express contracts that reflect an explicit and structured understanding between unmarried persons living together, even though the contracts are not in writing, provided only that illicit sexual relations are not part of the consideration of such contracts…Apparently, plaintiff is aware of the foregoing and does not seek a dismissal of the tenth and thirteenth counterclaims sounding in breach of contract. However, as to the tort counterclaims sounding in quantum meruit and unjust enrichment, plaintiff seeks to dismiss them on the basis that they are duplicative of the breach of contract counterclaims…Defendant contends that the tort counterclaims should not be dismissed because each asserts an independently valid legal theory[.]
Defendant’s argument is unavailing. To the extent that the oral agreements are deemed express contracts, as discussed above, the relief sought in the tort counterclaims are duplicative, even though the dollar amount of alleged damages suffered by defendant are different[.]
Luce v. Fleck, 2018 NY Slip Op 28122, Sup Ct. Livingston Co. (April 18, 2018)
Supreme Court described the action, pleadings and pending motion:
Plaintiff commenced this action seeking the partition of residential property…held jointly by her and Defendant Robert A. Fleck…The Property was owned solely by Defendant until September 30, 2016, when he deeded the property to himself and Plaintiff as joint tenants. It is Defendant’s contention that the transfer was a conditional gift done solely in contemplation of marriage, as was his gift to Plaintiff of a.70 carat diamond ring in February, 2016. Defendant counterclaims for the return of the ring, and for recision of the conveyance to Plaintiff. Defendant moves for summary judgment dismissing the complaint, and for judgment on his counterclaims.
In support of the motion, Defendant submitted his own affidavit, stating that he purchased the property himself in 2013, prior to meeting Plaintiff. That meeting did not occur until approximately a year later when Plaintiff, at the time a resident of Florida, was visiting New York, and both were at a gathering at a friend’s house in Avon. Defendant purchased the ring in January 2016 at a jewelry store in Geneseo, and gave it to Plaintiff as an engagement ring in February, “as a symbol of and in sole consideration for, the contemplated marriage between us”…Plaintiff continued to reside in Florida after the couple’s engagement until April 2016, when she moved in to the Property with Defendant. Upon the conveyance to Plaintiff of her ½ interest in the Property in September, 2016, the couple executed a consolidated mortgage on the premises; prior to that point, Plaintiff had made no payments on the property. In November, 2016, the couple took out a HELOC on the Property, to pay for an addition. Defendant avers that “in authorizing the issuance of a deed to Plaintiff as a joint tenant with right of survivorship, [he] relied upon a confidential relationship then existing between us as persons then engaged to be married”…He further avers that he “would not have authorized he issuance of the said deed . . . except for the fact that, at the time said deed was issued, we were engaged to be married”…After the couple ended their engagement in September 2017, Defendant demanded that Plaintiff give back the ring and deed the property back to him, and she refused[.]
In opposition to the motion, Plaintiff submitted her own affidavit, in which she agrees that she had met Defendant at a party at a mutual friend’s house in Avon in late 2014, and afterwards they embarked on a long-distance dating relationship. She further agrees that Defendant gave her the diamond ring in February 2016. According to Plaintiff, however, the ring was given “to celebrate our romantic and intimate relationship. At the time of the delivery of the gift of said ring, he did not propose marriage and he did not state or imply that the gift of the ring was conditional, qualified or temporary”…Furthermore, according to Plaintiff, “[i]n accepting the ring [she] did not make any promises or commitment to marry the Defendant. There was and never has been any agreement between the defendant and [her] to get married”…According to Plaintiff, with the couple’s mutual experiences with prior marriages and divorce, neither wanted to marry again. After the ring was given, the couple discussed living together, and they agreed that whoever could obtain a job transfer first would be the one to move. Plaintiff, a postal worker, was able to obtain a transfer to Victor, but was forced to take a pay cut of just over $13,000 per year, lose contributions to her pension and forfeit seniority. After the transfer, Plaintiff sold her home in Florida, and moved in with Defendant, and the couple agreed to share expenses, including “utilities, insurance, real property taxes, home maintenance, maintenance of automobiles, animal care, travel and vacations”…The couple also began looking for a new, bigger, home that they planned to purchase together. When they were unable to find one, however, they agreed to remain in Defendant’s home, expand it, and share ownership of the Property. Accordingly, Defendant quitclaimed her a ½ interest in the Property, and the two consolidated the mortgage, and took out the HELOC to pay for an addition. According to Plaintiff, she offered to contribute towards the expansion, but Defendant “rejected that offer and stated that [she] had sacrificed enough”…A year later, on October 11, 2017, Defendant called her “and announced that he was terminating our relationship and that he wanted [her] to move out”…She was working at the time, and pulled her postal vehicle over to the side of the road, where she sat for two hours. She was “distraught and angry,” and took the ring off and threw it out of the vehicle…While in the time the two were together, they had “discussed it several times,” they never agreed to marry…The two continued to live together, and discussed selling the house, but then Defendant decided he wanted to keep the house and buy Plaintiff out, but they could not agree on a price. In January 2018, Defendant moved out of the house; Plaintiff continues to reside there.
In reply, Defendant submitted affidavits from two women who are mutual friends of the couple. Attached as exhibits to one of the affidavits are screenshots from Plaintiff’s Facebook page. In one of these, Plaintiff posted on February 12, 2016 that “Robert Fleck proposed to me with my Grandparents and Aunt Barbara and Uncle John and I said yes.” Accompanying that post is a picture of the ring. In another post one week later, Plaintiff says “[w]ell as you all must know by now Robert Fleck and I are engaged. I have put in for a transfer to New York,” and goes on to offer her home for sale. Both women attest to the authenticity of these Facebook posts, and both say that Plaintiff told them she and Defendant were engaged and identified the ring as an engagement ring.
The legal template:
As the proponent of the motion for summary judgment, Defendant “bears the initial burden of establishing entitlement to judgment as a matter of law by submitting evidence sufficient to eliminate any material issues of fact”…”This burden is a heavy one and on a motion for summary judgment, ‘facts must be viewed in the light most favorable to the non-moving party’”…Moreover, “every available inference must be drawn in the [non-moving party’s] favor”…However, viewing the evidence in the light most favorable to the non-moving party does not mean that the Court must accept “feigned issues of fact where none truly exists”…Indeed, while it is a truism that “[t]he court may not weigh the credibility of the affiants on a motion for summary judgment,” this general rule is subject to a crucial caveat — i.e. “unless it clearly appears that the issues are not genuine, but feigned”[.]
The threshold question:
Here, inasmuch as Defendant contends that both gifts at issue — the ring and the Property — were conditional, the most crucial question is whether Plaintiff and Defendant were engaged at the time the gifts were made. Plaintiff’s Facebook posts constitute documentary evidence of Plaintiff’s admissions to being given the ring as an engagement ring, upon her acceptance of Defendant’s proposal of marriage. Indeed, they are not just admissions, but proclamations to the world of her engagement. Both non-party witnesses also confirm that Plaintiff admitted her engagement to them as well. The statements in Plaintiff’s Affidavit contradicting her own admissions, as reflected in that documentary evidence, appear to the Court to be nothing more than attempts to raise a feigned issue of fact where none truly exists…“Where, as here, documentary evidence (CPLR 4528) conclusively establishes that an issue of fact is ‘not genuine, but feigned’ it is appropriate to summarily resolve the matter”[.]
The Court initially concluded that the diamond ring was given as an engagement ring in contemplation of the party’s marriage and then turned to the choice of law issues:
Turning first to the ring, there is a significant choice of law issue that must be resolved in order to determine who is rightly entitled to it, or at least to its value. In New York, it is clear that an engagement ring is a conditional gift, and where that condition — i.e. the parties’ contemplated marriage, — is not fulfilled, the gift is revoked and the ring must be returned…[“It is well settled that an engagement ring `is in the nature of a pledge for the contract of marriage’ and, upon the breaking of the engagement, the recipient is required, `upon demand, to return the ring on the theory that it constituted a conditional gift’“…Moreover, “[w]hether [Defendant] was at fault for the breakup of the engagement is wholly irrelevant to his right to recover possession of an engagement ring that he . . . gave to defendant in contemplation of marriage”…Here, however, the ring was given in Florida, and the rule there appears to be that, if the donee of an engagement ring breaks off the engagement without legal justification, the donor is entitled to retain the ring…Defendant’s motion papers do not address the issue of fault for the breaking of the engagement and, in any event, Plaintiff’s affidavit is more than sufficient to raise an issue of fact. Thus, Defendant is entitled to summary judgment on his cause of action for return of the ring — or, in the alternative, recovery of its value — only if the law of New York applies. Surprisingly, the Court has been unable to find a single case from any jurisdiction in this Country that is even remotely on point[.]
And, after concluding that New York law applies, the Court turned to the conflict of law issues:
Plaintiff contends, without citation, that Florida law must apply because Defendant gave the ring to her there. It does appear that the original common law rule supported this position. The First Restatement of Conflict of Laws states that “[t]he nature and characteristics of an interest created by a conveyance of an interest in a chattel is determined by the law of the place where the chattel is at the time of the conveyance”…Under this rule, Plaintiff would appear to be correct that the law of Florida, where the chattel was conveyed, would be controlling. However, this is not the modern rule. While the situs of the transaction is still an important factor in resolving the conflict of law question, under modern conflict analysis it is not the sole consideration. The Restatement now states the modern rule as:
- The validity and effect of a conveyance of an interest in a chattel as between the parties to the conveyance are determined by the local law of the state which, with respect to the particular issue, has the most significant relationship to the parties, the chattel and the conveyance[.]
- In the absence of an effective choice of law by the parties, greater weight will usually be given to the location of the chattel, or group of chattels, at the time of the conveyance than to any other contact in determining the state of the applicable law[.]
The Court of Appeals has expressly adopted the “most significant relationship” approach to conflict of law cases…[T]he Court has expressly referred to and apparently adopted the Restatement, Second positions, at least with respect to substantive law issues. While it does not appear that the Court of Appeals has specifically decided the issue in the context of a conveyance of personal property, it seems clear from this consistent line of precedent that the Court would adopt the Restatement rule.
And then turned to “the most significant relationship” test:
This, then, leaves the Court with the task of applying this amorphous “most significant relationship” test in the context of an engagement arising out of a long distance, cross-country relationship. The fact that the ring was given to Plaintiff in Florida is entitled to significant weight; the Court is mindful of the Restatement proviso that “greater weight will usually be given to the location of the chattel…at the time of the conveyance”…However, this is not the only factor; the Court must determine which state has the “most significant relationship to the parties [and] the chattel” as well as “the conveyance”…With respect to the parties, clearly Defendant’s contacts are with New York. Plaintiff is more problematic. While she was a resident of Florida at the time of the engagement, it is clear that the couple were already making plans for her to move to New York. Indeed, within a week of the engagement, she was looking for a buyer for her Florida home. And in fact, less than two months later, she did, in fact, move to New York, where she remains to this day, and where it was contemplated that she would live after the parties’ marriage. Accordingly, the Court finds that Defendant, too, has a stronger relationship to New York than Florida. With respect to the chattel — i.e. the ring itself — while it was given in Florida, it was purchased here in New York, and worn by Plaintiff for the bulk of her engagement here in this state as well. Accordingly, New York has a more significant relationship to the chattel as well. Finally, there is an additional factor that tilts the scale in favor of New York. The fundamental issue here is what public policy should apply to the breaking of an engagement, for it is that engagement that the ring symbolizes. And, again, the great bulk of the couple’s engagement was spent together here in New York. This points to New York having the more significant relationship as well, since New York policy as to the breaking of engagements should apply to engagements that are spent, for the most part, here in New York.
Concluding, as follows, the plaintiff must return the ring:
The Court thus finds that New York law should apply to the question of who retains the ring upon the end of the parties’ engagement. Because fault is not an issue in New York, and an engagement ring is clearly a conditional gift that reverts to the grantor upon the failure of the condition — i.e. the breaking of the engagement — Defendant is entitled to have the ring returned, or, if the ring can not be returned, to be reimbursed for its value. Defendant submitted proof establishing that the ring is worth $3,000, and Plaintiff failed to raise an issue of fact in that regard. Accordingly, Plaintiff is ordered to return the ring forthwith if she has it, and, if she does not, Defendant may submit a judgment for $3,000 and the third and fourth counterclaims are severed from the remainder of this action.
And, as to the house, concluding that:
Turning, finally, to the issue of whether the house also constitutes a conditional gift, “[w]hether in a given instance the gift is conditional or absolute is an ordinary question of intention to be determined by an express declaration in the making of the gift or from the circumstances”…It is fairly simple to resolve this factual issue of intention in the case of the ring, since the circumstance of its being given as an engagement ring — which the Court has determined Defendant’s proof established, and Plaintiff’s proof did not rebut — determines the matter conclusively…The same can not be said, however, with respect to the deeding over of the Property. In order for the Property to be deemed a conditional gift, Defendant must establish that “the sole consideration for the transfer of the . . . real property was a contemplated marriage which has not occurred”…Here, even assuming, arguendo, that Defendant established that deeding over ½ of his interest in the Property to Plaintiff was done solely in consideration of marriage, Defendant’s proof raises an issue of fact…[p]laintiff here sold her home in Florida, and transferred her employment here to New York, taking a pay cut in doing so. In addition, she became obligated as a mortgagor on the property. Moreover, the Property was not transferred at the time of the couple’s engagement, but only when Plaintiff became obligated under the mortgage. Thus, there is an issue of fact as to whether the transfer of the Property to Plaintiff was made solely in contemplation of marriage, and the motion to dismiss the Complaint, and for judgment on the first two counterclaims, must be DENIED.