by: Peter J. Gallagher (@pjsgallagher) (LinkedIn)
Nothing says romance like asking your girlfriend to sign a contract before you agree to help her fix up her house. Nonetheless, this is essentially the take-home message from the Appellate Division's decidedly unromantic decision in Sukenik v. Dizik.
In Sukenik, plaintiff and defendant dated for approximately 18 months. "Beginning in January 2014, they spent every weekend and holiday together, with plaintiff frequently staying overnight in defendant's home." Eventually, plaintiff moved into defendant's home.
Plaintiff claimed that while he and defendant were dating, he "spent substantial sums not only on mutual expenses such as vacations and dinners, but also on needed improvements to defendant's home and property because the home was in poor condition." He testified that he spent more than $8,000 on materials. He also "contributed his labor, which he valued at $3,000." Unfortunately for plaintiff, "the relationship ended shortly after he underwent kidney surgery on June 18, 2015, when defendant demanded he move out of her home." Two weeks later, plaintiff sued, seeking to recoup the costs of the materials and labor he contributed to the repairs on defendant's home. Defendant denied liability, arguing that the improvements plaintiff made to her home were unconditional gifts.
Plaintiff was the only witness to testify at trial. After his testimony, defendant moved for involuntary dismissal. The trial court granted the motion, and plaintiff appealed.
The Appellate Division affirmed the trial court. It observed that dismissal is appropriate "when no rational factfinder could conclude from the evidence that an essential element of the plaintiff's case [was] present." It then held that plaintiff could not satisfy any of the essential elements of his unjust enrichment, detrimental reliance, quantum meruit, or quasi contract claims for the following reasons:
Plaintiff did not enter into a contract with defendant. Defendant did not promise to reimburse plaintiff for the cost of materials or the value of his labor. Plaintiff had no expectation of renumeration or compensation for undertaking the improvements. Plaintiff has not shown detrimental reliance. The home improvements were not undertaken in contemplation of any future event. Instead, they were unconditional gifts that were complete upon delivery.
As a result, the Appellate Division held that the trial court was correct to conclude (1) that there was no basis for equitable recovery under any of plaintiff's theories, and (2) that there was no basis for plaintiff to recover damages for the cost or value of his unconditional gifts.
So, if you are contemplating performing any home repairs for your boyfriend or girlfriend be sure to get a signed contract first, or at least make clear that should the two of you break up, you expect to be paid for the costs of those repairs, both time and material. This may not be the best advice from a relationship standpoint, but it is sound legal advice.