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Monday, March 5, 2012

History Repeats Itself in Ohio: The Kirksey v. Kirksey Tragedy Replayed as the Williams v. Ormsby Farce

Ohio Supreme CourtOur colleagues on the Contracts Listserv have brought to our attention the very interesting case of Williams v. Ormsby, decided last week in the Supreme Court of Ohio.  There has been some suggestion that this is a repeat of the great Kirksey v. Kirksey case.  But as William Casto or  Val Ricks would have told Amber Williams “I knew Antillico.  Antillico was a friend of mine.  You, madam, are no Antillico.”

In May 2004, Frederick Ormsby moved in with his on-again off-again girlfriend, appellee, Amber Williams.  Subsequently, Ormsby paid off the mortgage and in return, Williams quitclaimed the title to the property.  Off again, the couple separated and agreed in March 2005 to sell the house and allocate the proceeds.  On again, they attempted to reconcile, but in return for moving back in, Williams demanded an undivided half interest in the property.  In June 2005, they signed a second document, ostensibly making them “equal partners” in the house. 

By September 2007, the couple was off again, and now they assumed an equal undivided interest in a lawsuit.  Williams sought either specific performance of the June 2005 agreement or damages arising from Ormsby’s alleged breach of that agreement.  Ormsby alleged causes of action for quiet title and unjust enrichment/quantum meruit and sought declaratory judgment that both the March 2005 and June 2005 documents were invalid for lack of consideration.  The trial court ruled in Ormsby’s favor; the Ninth District Court of Appeals reversed, concluding that “moving into a home with another and resuming a relationship can constitute consideration sufficient to support a contract.”  The Supreme Court of Ohio accepted jurisdiction to decide whether or not that proposition is in fact good law.

The court of appeals found that the June 2005 agreement was supported by valid consideration because “romantic relationships typically involve some sacrifice by each partner.”  The majority on the Ohio Supreme Court disagreed.  Unlike Antillico Kirksey, Williams suffered no detriment from the June agreement; she received only a benefit and so the June 2005 offered evidence only of Ormsby’s gratuitous promise to give Williams an interest in the property based solely on the consideration of her love and affection.  Such consideration is no consideration, harrumphed the majority.

Justice PfeiferJustice Pfeifer (pictured), writing in dissent, saw matters differently:

The record is replete with shadings and innuendo that there was no love and affection between the parties. The record includes statements that suggest or allege that Williams and Ormsby were searching for a way to continue living well without engaging in full-time work, that Williams was seeking to both delude and elude creditors, that Williams’s name may have been fraudulently signed on the quitclaim deed or that the person who notorized her signature did so without being present when Williams signed, that domestic violence charges had been filed, and that each had promised not to accuse the other of domestic violence. That Williams wouldn’t move back into the house until Ormsby signed the agreement, which he wrote, was not offered as consideration and was not consideration. It was a simple fact of life—a fact that is outside the contract and is of no relevance.

Justice Pfeifer points out that identical language concerning consideration was used in both the March and June agreements.  If the first is to be enforced, the second should be as well.   Moreover, by voiding the March agreement, which entitled her to specific rights, Williams gave valid consideration for the June agreement, which entitled her to different rights.  Under the June agreement, Ormsby gained more control over the timing of any sale of the house and in gaining these benefits, forfeited some equity in the house.  Justice Pfeifer would have found both agreements enforceable, but since the case is so idiosyncratic as to be useless as a precedent, Justice Pfeifer would have dismissed the case, review having been granted improvidently.

[JT & Christina Phillips, with a hat tip to Catherine Garcia-Feehan, Esq., Career Law Clerk to Hon. David A. Katz at the Northern District of Ohio, through whose good offices this came to the attention of the Contracts Listserv]

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