ContractsProf Blog

Editor: Jeremy Telman
Oklahoma City University
School of Law

Thursday, September 21, 2023

Dishy Case About Recovery of an Engagement Ring with a Coda on Promissory Estoppel

This week, I learned from Professor Alexandra Jane Roberts that instead of following the Grateful Dead, people now follow cases involving attempts to recover rings from failed engagements.  We got a live one out of Massachusetts.  

Fare Thee Well Soldier Field
Fans gathering in Soldier Field, perhaps to hear a new Engagement Ring Case read . . .  
Image by Shelby Bell from Omaha, NE, US, CC BY 2.0 , via Wikimedia Commons

According to Justice Singh of the Appeals Court of the Massachusetts Superior Court, writing in Johnson v. Settino, "If the contract to marry is terminated without fault on the part of the donor[, the donor] may recover the ring."   Fair enough, but what does "without fault" mean?  The Superior Court awarded the ring and one wedding band to Ms. Settino, but a divided panel of the Appeals Court reversed.  And now, . . .

TeaThe parties began dating in 2016. Mr. Johnson paid for vacations within the U.S. and abroad and bought many gifts for Ms. Settino, always providing her with receipts.  She wanted dental implants (below, left), and he paid for the first stop in the process, the extraction of her upper teeth.  After a year, he asked her parents for permission to marry her and then popped the question, to which she said yes, while slipping a $70,000 engagement ring onto her finger.  He also sent he two wedding bands, again with receipts.

Dental Implant
Isn't it romantic?

Once they were engaged, Mr. Johnson found some things about Ms. Settino troubling.  She became vexed with him about trivial things -- a spilled drink, or the way he ate his oysters.  She seemed not to appreciate his accomplishments, and he did not think she supported him when he got a cancer diagnosis.  She would call him a "moron" and storm off if he tried to prevent her from gumming his arm with her toothless mouth.  Okay, I made that last bit up, but the rest is really in the case. 

After Ms. Settino bragged to Mr. Johnson, "I can get a man whenever I want," he grew concerned that she might not be entirely faithful to him.  He found what he took to be evidence of an affair on her cellphone and confronted her.  Soon thereafter, he ended the engagement by voicemail, as one does.  The trial court found that he was mistaken in his suspicions of her fidelity, and so concluded that he was at fault for the demise of the relationship.  Ms. Settino was awarded the ring, and Mr. Johnson was also directed to pay for the completion of her dental implants, as he had promised.

On appeal, the court spends many pages reviewing the approaches that courts take to such matters.  Some courts sensibly treat engagement rings as either revocable conditional gifts or irrevocable inter-vivos gifts.  I can live with either of those rules.  Other courts try to determine who was "at fault" for the break up.  At fault might be determined by establishing which party broke off the engagement, which is arbitrary and idiotic, or by determining, regardless of who broke off the engagement, whose fault it was that the parties did not proceed, which is far more idiotic.  Who goes to court to determine why a couple broke up?   And why is there no Seinfeld episode covering the subject?  

Massachusetts opts for the most idiotic approach.  It's not the Appeals Court's fault.  They have to play the precedential hand they were dealt.  The trial court determined that Mr. Johnson was at fault, because he falsely accused Ms. Settino of being unfaithful to him.  The Appeals Court reversed.  Even granting that she did not cheat on Mr. Johnson, Mr. Johnson had other reasons for ending the relationship.  Nobody should have to marry someone who judges them based on how they eat oysters.  

Justice Milkey, sensibly dissented in part.  While he did not think Mr. Johnson was at fault for the break-up, he would not disturb the trial court's finding that he was.  More generally, Judge Milkey notes, "Simply put, there is an inherent unseemliness to having judges, or juries, sitting in judgment of matters of the heart." Justice Milkey's conclusion seems spot on to me:

None of this is to say that I think the defendant here should have kept the ring. To the contrary, my own view is that she should have given it back. But why should my personal view on this issue matter? To me, the ultimate question this case poses is whether such issues should be resolved in courts of law, or instead left to the interplay between private conscience and social norms.

The court's reasoning on the dental implants is an object lesson in the vast gulf between how we teach promissory estoppel and how courts treat it.  The trial court ordered Mr. Johnson to pay for Ms. Settino's dental implants because he breached a promise to do so.  He did not challenge that ruling on appeal.  The promise was binding because she relied on it in having her upper teeth removed.  Now that's reliance!  The court drops a footnote explaining why this is the proper result under Massachusetts law:

Val RicksThe plaintiff has not challenged the trial judge's finding on this point. See Rhode Island Hosp. Trust Nat'l Bank v. Varadian, 419 Mass. 841, 849 (1995) ("When a promise is enforceable in whole or in part by virtue of reliance, it is a 'contract,' and it is enforceable pursuant to a 'traditional contract theory' antedating the modern doctrine of consideration" [citation omitted]).

This bugs me.  I doubt that promissory estoppel predates consideration, but I know somebody who could tell us for sure ๐Ÿ‘‰.  I don't think it is best understood as a contract or as a "contract."  But Val Ricks (right) has done great work showing that most courts do not follow the grand design of R.2d ยง 90, and award expectation damages as a remedy for promissory estoppel, effectively treating it no differently from how they would a breach of contract.  Val applauds this development as predictable, practical, and just.  I find it dissatisfying as inconsistent with the majestic theory of damages as laid out by Fuller and Perdue.  My attitude towards Val's "predictable, practical, and just" is akin to Einstein's horror of quantum mechanics.  I find this form of justice aesthetically disquieting.

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