With This Ring I Do Thee (Sue)

This was recently published on the SGR Blog.

C. Baxter and  Sandra Campos began a romantic relationship in 2006. They divided their time between their respective homes in Connecticut and Manhattan. Possessions were moved between the two houses, including artwork and a Steinway piano, without transfer in title. Campos purchased a 2008 Lexus, which he registered in his name and for which he paid taxes.  Baxter drove the car.

Baxter and Campos got engaged in November 2012. They shopped for a ring and Baxter purchased one for Campos. In January 2014, he presented her with the ring (appraised at $24,000).

In February 2014, Campos sent Baxter a Valentine’s Day card. The card had a picture of her displaying a diamond ring on her left ring finger, with the pre-printed language on the card: “Today Tomorrow Always.”

Baxter added Campos to his health insurance plan and listed her as his domestic partner.

By email in March, 2014, in the course of discussing their future plans, Campos told Baxter: “You have asked me numerous times in the past couple of weeks whether or not I see myself being able to move from NYC. Yes, I can. You have asked me numerous times whether or not I see being able to pull kids out of schools in a year. Yes, I can. You have asked me if I want to marry you and be in the same home and city. Yes, I do.”

During 2014 and 2015,  Campos and Baxter continued their relationship with periods of conflict and reconciliation. In December 2015, in the course of discussing their relationship, they agreed that title to the Lexus would be transferred to Campos with the understanding that she would transfer it back should their relationship end. Campos also agreed to return the engagement ring in the event a marriage did not ensue.

Campos and Baxter continued discussing their relationship. In July 2016, Campos asked Baxter about the return of her personal property stored at Baxter’s house. Baxter agreed to let  her retrieve the property whenever she wished. While Baxter preferred to continue the relationship, he told Campos that if she ended it, she would have to return his property, including the piano, engagement ring, and artwork, and resolve the ownership of the Lexus.

In October 2016, Campos told Baxter that she needed to move her furniture and artwork from his home and asked about the cost of the piano with a view toward purchasing it from him. Baxter gave her a copy of the sales receipt.

In November 2016, Baxter told Campos that he had arranged for movers to return Campos’ belongings to her and asked that she return his piano and artwork at the same time. Campos agreed to return the artwork and told Baxter that she would obtain an appraisal for the piano. In December 2016, Baxter returned Campos’ property to her.

In July 2017, at Campos’ suggestion, the parties spent a week of vacation together with their children. They argued during the vacation but did not resolve whether the relationship would continue. Without telling Baxter, Campos traded in the Lexus for a new, more expensive model.

By September 2017, Baxter realized that Campos was not genuinely interested in continuing the relationship. On October 20, 2017, he formally asked her to return his property, and offered to sell the piano to her for $8,000. Campos counter-offered to buy it for $4,000, which Baxter rejected and told her to return the piano and the rest of his property, preferably before Thanksgiving. Campos replied that, as the piano was a gift, Baxter should sell it to her for $4,000. She also asserted that Baxter had promised certain art to her daughter as a birthday present. A few weeks later, Campos returned Baxter’s artwork to him, but  refused to return the engagement ring, the piano, and the car.

Litigation ensued. Baxter moved for summary judgment.

Baxter asserted claims against Campos to recover the piano and engagement ring, for conversion of the piano, ring, and car, and  for unjust enrichment. Also for fraudulent inducement related to the car—asserting that  Campos materially misrepresented her intent to continue her relationship with Baxter; that she did not intend to continue it; and that, absent the misrepresentation, on which Baxter justifiably relied, he would not have transferred title to the car to her. Baxter also sought an injunction prohibiting Campos from selling or otherwise disposing of the piano and ring.

Campos denied Baxter’s allegations and asserted that Baxter gifted the car to her and, upon the conclusion of their relationship, the car was transferred to Campos’s name for her to assume responsibility for it. She also denied that the ring was an engagement ring or that the parties were ever engaged, or that she was required to return any of the property given to her by Baxter as gifts.

In defense to the fraudulent inducement claim, Campos stated that the parties’ relationship was over by the time Baxter transferred title to the car to her.

In support of her counterclaims, Campos alleged that:  throughout the parties’ relationship, Baxter regularly gave her and her children gifts;  the parties jointly selected for purchase various artwork and it was their intention that  the art would be jointly owned even though it would be located in Baxter’s home;  in October 2015, Campos ended the parties’ relationship and there had been no reconciliation; the parties did not vacation together in July 2017; and  Baxter had repeatedly and unsuccessfully attempted to restore the relationship.

Campos asserted a counterclaim for a constructive trust given the joint purchase of the artwork; intent that it be mutually owned and enjoyed; and her demonstration that the parties intended joint ownership based on Baxter’s statements and conduct, on which she reasonably relied. She thus spent time, money, and effort in selecting the artwork. Moreover, she maintained that Baxter  took custody of the artwork under circumstances creating a fiduciary relationship. And it was just and equitable that a constructive trust be imposed for 50 percent of the artwork’s value. Campos also contended that Baxter converted their joint property, including artwork and real property.

Campos relied on an email sent in March, 2014, in which Baxter summarized a conversation with Campos the night before, during which they discussed retaining someone to help them decide if they should get back together. In an email in December, 2015, Baxter stated that the parties “need to move forward together getting engaged and getting married. Or need to part permanently and completely unwind any remaining items between [them] and have permanent closure.” In the same email chain, Baxter wrote “if we choose to move forward together, we would get engaged. Immediately, like before holidays, I have a special ring which I’ve had for some time now (actually think it is in your home) and a special place I’ve had in mind forever. Just wanted to let you know concrete timing given some of our past interactions.”  Campos argued that the ring was unrelated to an engagement, and that the appraisal did not reflect that it was an engagement ring.

New York Civil Rights Law § 80-b provides that a party may recover  a chattel, money or securities, or the value thereof, if the sole consideration for their transfer was a contemplated marriage which did not occur.

In her March, 2014 email, Campos expressed an agreement to marry Baxter and before that, in her 2014 Valentine’s Day card to him, she prominently displayed a diamond ring on her left ring finger. This evidence constituted evidence that the ring was given to her in contemplation of marriage. That property was given in contemplation of marriage does not mean that the marriage will occur. As in many relationships, parties who at one time contemplated marriage change their minds. The Court concluded that, whether Campos’s eventual reservations indicated that she had never contemplated marriage, notwithstanding the Valentine’s Day card and March, 2014 email, was a questions for a jury.

While it was undisputed that Baxter purchased the piano, it was always at Campos’s home. And while Campos offered to buy  the piano from Baxter, she also contemporaneously told Baxter that she believed the piano had been a gift to her and her children. Consequently, Campos’s offer to purchase the piano constituted evidence that it was not a gift. And rights to the piano was another question for a jury.

Baxter could not establish his right to summary judgment. He also failed to establish that he was likely to succeed on the merits of his claims. There was also no indication that Campos planned or was about to dispose of the property. So the Court denied Baxter’s application for an injunction.

* * * *

But compare:

Glenn McQuade and Aimee Safian were engaged to be married in 2012. McQuade gave Safian an engagement ring that cost him $6,650.. But no formal wedding ceremony was ever undertaken, although thy lived and had two children together.

The decision to defer the wedding was allegedly for financial reasons and for most of the six year cohabitation time appeared consensual. The parties broke up on May 1, 2018. And McQuade requested the return of his engagement ring in November 2019, after a custody battle.

Safian asserted three defenses to the argument that the engagement ring was a gift conditioned upon marriage; i.e. (1) the parties mutually decided to defer the wedding; (2) the parties resided together for over six years either as common law spouses or as domestic partners;  and (3) the action was untimely.  Safian  alleged that those actions met the condition of a gift, and that it would be inequitable to require return of the ring after such a long period of time.

The New York Civil Rights Law   authorized recovery of chattels under an unjust enrichment cause of action. It established a “no-fault” cause of action which requires the return of all gifts given in contemplation of marriage, regardless of the cause of the non- marriage. Under the statute, the marriage cannot be equitably/retroactively validated by reasons of estoppel, mutual agreement or the parties conduct.

Safian argued that her status as a common law wife and her registration of  McQuade  a domestic partner (for the purpose of obtaining family health benefits with her school district employer) satisfied the engagement condition in contemplation of marriage. This defense was also unavailable as New York common law marriages were abolished many years ago.

The demand for a return of an engagement ring is an action in replevin. New York applies a three year statute of limitations to a personal property replevin cause of action.  The three year limitation period begins to run on the date that the demand for a return of the ring is made and refused. McQuade requested the return of the ring sometime between the couples breakup in May and/or November 2018. In either event, the statute of limitations had yet to run by the February 7, 2019 filing of the complaint.

Accordingly, the Court granted judgment directing Safian to return of the engagement ring to McQuade. And, in the event  the ring was not returned, the Court would enter judgment against Safian for $5,000.

To read the full court decision on Baxter v Campos, click here and click here for Glenn McQuade v. Aimee Safian.

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