Doe v. Burkland

Supreme Court of Rhode Island

808 A.2d 1090

November 12, 2002

Flanders, Justice.

This is a dispute between two men who lived together as domestic partners for approximately nine years before their relationship soured and ended on bad terms. Thereafter, one of them (the plaintiff, "John Doe") filed a Superior Court lawsuit seeking injunctive relief against the defendant, John Burkland (Burkland), his former cohabitant, to stop Burkland's alleged harassment and threats. Burkland responded by not only denying any harassment or threatening conduct, but also by filing counterclaims. He alleged, among other causes of action, breach of an oral agreement with the plaintiff to share equally any property that either of them had acquired individually during their cohabitation. Burkland's counterclaims also included allegations asserting breach of an express and implied contract, promissory estoppel, constructive trust, resulting trust, and unjust enrichment. Eventually, however, a Superior Court motion justice dismissed them all, concluding that they failed to state a claim upon which relief could be granted. She ruled that the counterclaims in question arose out of a course of conduct and a series of alleged agreements that centered on a "meretricious" relationship between the plaintiff and Burkland. Because Rhode Island law does not recognize "a marital dissolution between unmarried couples, homosexual or heterosexual," she decided that the counterclaims were not viable. The court then entered a final judgment in favor of the plaintiff, from which Burkland, the would-be counterclaimant, duly appealed.

A single justice of this Court ordered the parties to show cause why we should not decide the appeal summarily. After considering the parties' written and oral submissions, we conclude that we can decide the appeal at this time without further briefing and argument. Because the motion justice considered factual matters beyond the pleadings in dismissing Burkland's contentions, and because she ignored the valid consideration alleged for the property-sharing agreement averred in the counterclaims, we reverse and vacate the order and judgment dismissing these claims.

Motion to Dismiss

A motion to dismiss should be granted only when it is clear beyond a reasonable doubt that the party opposing the motion would not be entitled to relief under any set of facts that could be adduced in support of the claim. Bruno v. Criterion Holdings, Inc., 736 A.2d 99, 99 (R. I. 1999). On appeal, we review a motion justice's decision to dismiss a claim by accepting the allegations of the nonmoving party as true and by viewing them in the light most favorable to that party.

The motion justice dismissed the counterclaims because, she concluded, they arose out of a "meretricious" relationship between the parties, who were once a cohabiting, homosexual couple. She reasoned that contracts based on or arising out of "meretricious" relationships are void as against public policy. Burkland's counterclaims, however, did not allege that the parties' sexual relationship constituted the consideration for their putative property-sharing agreement. Indeed, the counterclaims contain no reference to the existence of any sexual relationship whatsoever between the parties, much less that it constituted, in whole or in part, the consideration for the alleged property-sharing agreement. Rather, the counterclaimant alleged that he agreed to "devote his skills, effort, labors and earnings" to assist plaintiff in his career, and that he provided homemaking services, business consulting, and counseling to plaintiff in consideration for the alleged property-sharing agreement. If it were proven to be so, then such consideration would not be illegal-irrespective of the fact that the parties may have been living together when they entered into the contract. Boland v. Catalano, 202 Conn. 333 (1987) ("Ordinary contract principles are not suspended * * * for unmarried persons living together, whether or not they engage in sexual activity."); see also Marvin v. Marvin, 18 Cal. 3d 660 (Cal. 1976) (noting that "[a] promise to perform homemaking services is, of course, a lawful and adequate consideration for a contract" between non-married cohabitants); Wilcox v. Trautz, 427 Mass. 326 (Mass. 1998) (holding that express contractual agreements between nonmarried cohabitants "are not invalid merely because the parties may have contemplated the creation or continuation of a nonmarital relationship when they entered into the agreement"). This remains true even if the parties were also involved in a homosexual relationship when they entered into the contract. See Whorton v. Dillingham, 202 Cal. App. 3d 447 (Cal. Ct. App. 1988) (holding that a same-sex, non-married cohabitant's alleged services as a chauffeur, bodyguard, secretary, and business partner were, if proven true, sufficient independent consideration for the formation of a contract).

Moreover, parties who engage in or who have engaged in certain illegal or "meretricious" acts are not necessarily precluded from contracting with each other on other matters. Marvin, 557 P.2d at 116 (holding that "adults who voluntarily live together and engage in sexual relations are nonetheless as competent as any other persons to contract respecting their earnings and property rights"); see also Rubano v. DiCenzo, 759 A.2d 959, 972 (R. I. 2000) (holding that Superior Court possessed concurrent jurisdiction with Family Court to decide whether to enforce an alleged visitation and co-parenting agreement between two women who were former cohabitants). The mere existence of a sexual relationship between two parties does not impair their right to contract with each other for consideration independent of the relationship. For example, an in-home caregiver may be involved in an adulterous, sexual relationship with her charge, yet still be entitled to receive payment for the services she performed as a nurse. See In re Estate of Steffes, 95 Wis. 2d 490 (Wis. 1980) (holding that an in-home nurse was not precluded from collecting for services rendered by the fact that she also engaged in an adulterous relationship with her charge). Thus, a contractor could enter into an adulterous, sexual relationship with a homeowner, yet still be entitled to be paid for remodeling the kitchen as per the parties' agreement -- even if both parties were living together during the project. In any event, it is not illegal for two men to live together, much less to contract and to enter into partnerships with each other while doing so. See Whorton, 248 Cal.Rptr. at 409-10 (discussing the right to contract between same-sex cohabitants). In sum, as long as the alleged consideration for the parties' putative agreement was not illegal, a suit for enforcement of that contract can proceed, subject to whatever other defenses may exist.

Furthermore, even in the absence of an enforceable contract, the equitable doctrine of unjust enrichment may apply under certain circumstances to prevent a person from retaining a benefit received from another without appropriate payment for same. Rhode Island Hospital Trust Co. v. The Rhode Island Covering Co., 96 R.I. 178, 179-80 (1963). Here, Burkland asserted that the legal consideration he provided to his former domestic partner for more than nine years unduly enriched plaintiff by benefiting his career and by helping him maintain his relationship with his children. Also, a resulting or constructive trust may have arisen in this case when plaintiff allegedly acquired property in his individual name during the relationship subject to an agreement to share the same with Burkland. At least, a court sitting in equity might be persuaded to grant such relief if, as Burkland alleged, plaintiff acquired certain property with the help of the legitimate services that Burkland provided to him under their alleged property-sharing arrangement. Such circumstances could give rise to an equitable duty on plaintiff's part to convey a fair portion of the acquired property to Burkland, especially if doing so would serve to avoid unjust enrichment. See, e. g., Desnoyers v. Metropolitan Life Insurance Co., 108 R.I. 100, 112-13 (1971).

In sum, we are of the opinion that the motion justice acted prematurely in dismissing these counterclaims. They alleged sufficient facts to conclude that, if Burkland proved them to be true, the court could grant him some type of legal or equitable relief.


Accordingly, we sustain the appeal, vacate the order and judgment dismissing the counterclaims, and remand this case for further proceedings consistent with this opinion.