Peter Vieth//December 29, 2016
Peter Vieth//December 29, 2016//
The Supreme Court of Virginia has resolved a long-standing split among Virginia trial judges on what happens when love fades and leaves a property dispute in its wake.
An intended husband can recover a $26,000 engagement ring from his one-time bride-to-be, the court said.
Even though Virginia’s “heart balm” law bars claims based on breach of a promise to marry, a suit to recover an engagement ring is a different type of action that is allowed under common law, the justices ruled.
The court’s Dec. 15 opinion is McGrath v. Dockendorf (VLW 016-6-092).
Maryland accountant Ethan Dockendorf proposed to Julia McGrath in 2012, and she accepted. The couple already had a child together, according to Dockendorf’s lawyer.
Nevertheless, the relationship soured the next year. Dockendorf broke off the engagement before the two were married.
“Love yielded to litigation,” in the words of opinion author Justice Stephen R. McCullough. Dockendorf sued to get the ring back.
Fairfax County Judge Daniel E. Ortiz heard the case and concluded that the ring was a conditional gift and that the heart balm statute did not bar an action in detinue to recover the ring. Ortiz ordered McGrath to either return the ring or face a judgment of $26,000 in Dockendorf’s favor.
The Supreme Court agreed to hear McGrath’s appeal.
McCullough reviewed the colorful history of “breach of promise” litigation, featuring trials that provided “entertainment for the entire town and fodder for sensationalistic tabloid media.”
Over time, breach of promise to marry lawsuits were criticized as anachronistic, subject to blackmail abuse and marked by excessive verdicts, the court said. Beginning in the 1930s, states began to pass so-called “heart balm” acts that abolished breach of promise and related actions.
Virginia’s reform came in 1968 with a statute that barred civil actions for alienation of affection, breach of promise to marry and “criminal conversation.”
Despite the change, Virginia had earlier recognized a separate right to seek return of an engagement ring when the engagement is broken off, the court said, pointing to a 1941 Virginia Supreme Court decision.
McGrath argued that an action to recover an engagement ring is, in effect, an action for breach of promise to marry, because – without a breached marriage promise – there would be no action to recover the ring.
The court agreed with Dockendorf, however, that the common law action abolished by the heart balm statute was not at issue in the ring dispute.
“Dockendorf did not file a civil action seeking damages based upon McGrath’s breach of a promise to marry. Instead he filed an action in detinue seeking the recovery of the ring or its monetary value on a theory of conditional gift,” McCullough wrote.
Because of its limited scope and the limited relief available, a detinue action rooted in a conditional gift theory does not resemble an action for breach of promise, the court said.
The court cited seven other jurisdictions where courts rejected heart balm defenses in actions for recovery of rings or other property.
Further support came from the fact that the 1941 case had been on the books for decades when the legislature passed the heart balm statute in 1968.
“Had the General Assembly wished to bar actions in detinue for the recovery of engagement rings, it would have chosen a vehicle that unequivocally does so,” McCullough wrote.
The court disavowed any consideration of fault as a relevant consideration. “The question of fault may (or may not) bear upon on the viability of a detinue action, but it is not relevant to our construction of the heart balm statute,” the court said in a footnote.
The decision ends uncertainty for lawyers advising disappointed lovers. Judges had ruled both ways over the years.
“There was no clear direction and there was a split in the circuits,” said John C. Altmiller of Tysons Corner, who represented Dockendorf.
In a 2010 case, a Richmond judge told the parties after a hearing he would not order recovery of the disputed engagement ring, but he changed his mind by the time he put pen to paper. On reconsideration, Judge Melvin R. Hughes Jr. said the intended husband could get back his conditional gift. The opinion is Hicks v. Jordan (VLW 010-8-140).
In 2014, Loudoun County Circuit Judge Thomas D. Horne said he was following the “majority view” that a heart balm act would not bar an action to recover an engagement ring. His opinion is Peter v. Langley (VLW 014-8-103).
Although the appeal in McGrath concerned only the effect of the Virginia heart balm act, Altmiller said discussion at oral argument touched on the enforceability of a “conditional gift.”
The language of the resulting opinion leaves little doubt that engagement ring actions have validity, Altmiller said.
“If anyone questions whether a conditional gift could be the basis of an action in detinue, I don’t think they should question it anymore,” he said.
Altmiller said it is the second engagement ring case he has handled.
“I don’t think they’re common, but they do come up,” he said.
McGrath was represented on appeal by Franklin R. Cragle III of Richmond who said he was not authorized to comment on the record.