September 29, 2009
Contracts Limerick of the Week: Fitzpatrick v. Michael
The Law in Action casebook includes two nicely contrasting cases in its section on the Statute of Frauds and problems that arise in enforcing contracts in the family setting. The first is Fitzpatrick v. Michael, 9 A.2d 639 (Maryland, 1939), in which a man (Orion C. Michael) hires a woman (Marie Ellen Fitzpatrick) to be his nurse, chauffeur, companion, gardener and housekeeper for $8/week plus a promise to will her his home property with all its furnishings and furniture. After she performs for two years, culminating in a trip in which she drove him from Maryland to Miami, Florida -- and somehow got him to Cuba as well -- Mr. Michael abruptly decides to end the contractual relationship by having her arrested for trespass when his attempts to get her to leave the property were unavailing. There can be no doubt that Mr. Michael was satisfied with Ms. Fitzpatrick's performance until that point because, in my favorite fact from the case, he took out a newspaper advertisement to announce their happy return to "their home" after a vacation in Florida during which Ms. Fitzpatrick had driven the entire 4,400 miles "without the least mishap either with motor or tires."
Ms. Fitzpatrick sued for specific performance of the contract and relied on her part performance in order to get around the Statute of Frauds. The court first announced that "[t]here can be no possible doubt that upon these facts the plaintiff should be entitled to some relief against the defendant." Unfortunately, the only remedy that the court thought was available was to compel the defendant "to accept the personal services of an employee against his wish and his will." The court found itself without authority to order people to live together when one of them did not wish to do so.
This case made me wonder why American courts are so shy of positive injunctions, Clearly, if the court had ordered Michael to specifically perform he would have settled with Ms. Fitzpatrick. So, here is how I would revise the opinion, were I to address Mr. Michael in verse:
Fitzpatrick v. Michael
I now pronounce you and Marie
To be bound by this solemn decree:
She will be your nurse,
'Til you leave in a hearse;
You owe that to your promisee.
Tune in next week for a Limerick on Brackenbury v. Hodgkin, which illustrates why a court might indeed have good reason to be wary of positive injunctions.
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