The Massachusetts Appeals Court yesterday ordered a woman to return the $70,000 engagement ring her former beau bought her - but also ruled he would have to pay interest on the $43,000 a judge had already ordered him to pay for dental-implant surgery he had promised to cover during their engagement, for which she had her front teeth removed shortly before he broke things off.
In a 2-1 ruling that included legal angst on the part of the justices, because it turns out Massachusetts has little in the way of precedent involving the disposition of expensive baubles bought in relationships that ultimately fail, the court concluded that the woman had to return the ring.
The majority ruled such things are "conditional gifts" and that, in this case, the gift was given only on the condition that the wedding went through and that the man was not at fault for wanting to call off the wedding, even after he had asked her parents for permission and then reserved a corner-window table at a restaurant to pop the question and offer her the ring, which she accepted and put on her finger.
In coming to that conclusion, the court reviewed the case law in the other 49 states and even a 1686 English treatise on matrimonial contracts, as well as extensive details of what led to the man's decision to end the engagement:
As the wedding planning progressed, the plaintiff noticed that he found some traits of the defendant to be troubling.
Following their engagement, the plaintiff began to feel that he was routinely subject to verbal abuse. For instance, the defendant would berate the plaintiff over a spilled drink, how he ate oysters, and the time it took him to access messages on his cell phone. She would call him a "moron" and treat him like a child. If something went wrong, he was to blame. If the plaintiff stood up for himself, the defendant would yell at him and storm away. The plaintiff also felt that the defendant did not appreciate any of his accomplishments, and that she did not support him following his cancer diagnosis. Despite these concerns, the plaintiff thought they could fix these issues and make the relationship work.
Then, one day, during an argument, the court summary continued, she yelled at him: "I'm a good-looking woman. I can get a man whenever I want." He got a hold of her phone somehow, looked through her text messages and listened to her voicemail and found one text and one message that seemed to indicate she, in fact, had a side piece. The next morning, they argued again, she said the guy from her phone was a platonic friend of more than 40 years and that she was not having sex with anybody else.
But the man could no longer take it, wondered why, if the guy was such a good friend the woman had never introduced him, and so, a week or two later, he ended things - by leaving her a voice message.
When she refused to return the engagement ring - and two other, less expensive wedding bands - one with his name inscribed, the other with hers - he sued. She countersued, over the money to finish the dental implant surgery that left her with missing front teeth and no way on her own to pay to replace them.
A Plymouth Superior Court judge ruled for the woman, saying she could keep the ring and ordering the man to pay up for the remainder of the dental work, concluding:
[T]he plaintiff was mistaken in his belief that the defendant was having an affair and thus, the plaintiff had to bear the fault for the parties' separation. He awarded the engagement ring and one of the two wedding bands to the defendant. The judge also entered judgment for the defendant on her counterclaim, ordering the plaintiff to pay "the reasonable costs to complete [the defendant's] dental procedure of $42,982" in addition to over $20,000 in prejudgment interest.
The man appealed.
To reach its decision to reverse the judge's ruling, the appeals court had to figure out who was at fault for the break-up and if that mattered, because of the paucity of case law on the issue.
The court reached back to a 1959 ruling, known as the De Cicco ruling, in which the Supreme Judicial Court concluded that engagement rings, such as the six-carat one involved in that case, generally represented a pledge to do something, in other words, a contract - specifically, to wed - and that if "the contract to marry is terminated without fault on the part of the donor he may recover the ring."
Ah, but what about the state's "heart balm law," which specifically bans suits over broken hearts when one party pulls out of a wedding? In the 1959 ruling, the SJC concluded the suit over the multi-carat ring was "not to recover damages for breach of the contract to marry, but to prevent unjust enrichment."
And then the justices began their dive into decisions in other states because:
In the many years since the Supreme Judicial Court decided De Cicco, our appellate courts have not addressed how fault should be assessed in this context.
The court noted that a majority of states now treat the issue as similar to that of no-fault divorces - rather than trying to assess blame, just call the whole thing off. "In employing this approach, courts generally view the ring as a conditional gift that must be returned to the donor if the engagement is terminated, regardless of fault."
The court noted that Massachusetts, too, has no-fault divorce these days. But the justices said they could not simply order the ring returned to the man, because that would be setting a legal precedent involving uncharted legal territory and they are not the decider of legal precedent in Massachusetts.
If Massachusetts is to join States that have held that the consideration of fault has no place in determining ownership of an engagement ring following a broken engagement ... it will have to come from the Supreme Judicial Court or the Legislature.
Still, the justices continued that in 1959, the SJC seemed to be taking the "the conditional gift fault-based approach," that is, the appeals court would have to figure out if anybody was really at fault for the wedding being called off. They said that doesn't necessarily mean the person who actually called off the wedding is automatically at fault, because he or she might have legitimately good reasons to have done so.
The justices concluded that the Superior Court judge was wrong to have blamed the man for acting on the premise his fiancee was having an affair when she wasn't, because more was at play in his decision making.
The question was never whether the defendant was actually having an affair; it was whether the plaintiff terminated the engagement without fault. ...
That the defendant was not at fault and did not want to end the engagement does not mean that the plaintiff was at fault. In removing the reasonableness of the plaintiff's conduct from the calculus, the judge failed to consider whether the circumstances were such that the plaintiff may have been justified or had adequate cause to break off the engagement, in other words, that he may have been "without fault," the relevant inquiry as set out in De Cicco. ...
Although the plaintiff may have largely been motivated by a mistaken belief, we cannot say that he was unjustified or did not have adequate cause to break the engagement under the circumstances presented. Sometimes there simply is no fault to be had.
The court said the issue of whether the man should pay the woman for interest in addition to the cost of the dental work was simpler: He should. However, it sent the case back down to the Superior Court judge to calculate exactly when the interest should start to accrue.
Justice James Milkey dissented from the overall ruling, even as he agreed the woman should give the ring back. He said that even as they tried not to set precedent, the other justices in fact did just that, by reaching their conclusion under the "no fault" approach. He said he hopes the SJC will soon take up what to do with property in cases of what he called "amatory matters:"
I question the propriety of trying to get to the bottom of such fault issues in the context of failed engagements. Although the reasons for that are largely self- evident in this era of no-fault divorces, the majority itself has well explained the problematic nature of trying to assign fault in a case such as this. Simply put, there is an inherent unseemliness to having judges, or juries, sitting in judgment of matters of the heart.