Breaking Up Is Hard To Do (And May Be Expensive In Massachusetts)

Earlier this month the Massachusetts Appeals Court—in the latest he said/she said—determined the fate of a $70,000 engagement ring, a wedding band, and nearly $63,000 for dental surgery following the end of a brief engagement. The decision came in Johnson v. Settino. During the parties’ fourteen-month relationship, the couple traveled extensively, he gave her expensive gifts, and he paid for the first part of her two-part dental procedure. Following his proposal, he endured verbal abuse, felt unsupported, and discovered a text message from her to another male. Fearing infidelity, he broke off the engagement. She denied infidelity.

He then sued to recover the engagement ring and $3,700 in wedding bands given to her and she counter-claimed for breach of contract for the remaining cost of the dental procedure. In a jury-waived trial, the Superior Court relied on De Cicco v. Barker, 339 Mass. 457, 458 (1959), in which the Supreme Judicial Court (“SJC”) held that where a contract to marry is terminated without fault on the part of the donor, the donor may recover the ring. In De Cicco, the Massachusetts “Heart Balm” statute, Mass. Gen. Laws ch. 207 § 47A, which bars all causes of action for breach of a contract to marry, did not apply because the action was not for breach of the contract to marry, but to prevent the recipient’s unjust enrichment. The SJC did not, however, expound on the meaning of “fault.” With this in mind, the Superior Court in this case found that he had failed to show by a preponderance of evidence that she was having an affair. The judge therefore assigned him fault in the separation. Accordingly, she was awarded the engagement ring, one of the two wedding bands, and (on her theory of breach of contract) $42,982, plus interest, for the dental procedure.

On appeal, he argued that the judge incorrectly faulted him for the parties’ separation, given his allegation of infidelity. Directed by De Cicco, the Appeals Court reasoned that “[w]hatever the definition [of fault], in our view, it cannot be that the person at fault for a relationship break-up is simply the one who decides to end it; common sense dictates that a party who ends an engagement is not necessarily the one to blame.” His burden was not, as the Superior Court judge had required, to demonstrate that she was having an affair, but rather to demonstrate only that his termination of the engagement was based on circumstances which reasonably led him to do so. Accordingly, he was without fault and entitled to the return of the engagement ring and wedding band.

Judge Milkey dissented the decision, in part. He agreed with the majority insofar as it had reasoned that the plaintiff could not be blamed for his reasonable belief but disagreed that the Superior Court judge’s finding of fault was erroneous. “[I]t was not unreasonable for the judge to assign fault to someone who wrongly accused his fiancée of infidelity after going through her text messages and listening to her voicemail without permission,” Judge Milkey wrote. Given the evolution of social norms in the more than sixty years since the De Cicco was decided, Judge Milkey asked that the SJC reconsider De Cicco’s holding and pushed against the very premise of a judge or jury sitting in judgment of “matters of the heart.” Judge Milkey continued on to write, “[w]hile there is at least some force to the plaintiff's argument that applying notions of fault in this context is grounded in outdated, sexist norms, a similar argument can be forged with respect to viewing engagement rings as conditional gifts. Perhaps it is time to view a gift of jewelry as indeed a gift, and not, in effect, as security for the wedding.”