New York Court Rules Alleged Gay Former Partner Can Maintain Action for Contract Breach and Constructive Trust

Justice Saliann Scarpulla of New York Supreme Court in Manhattan ruled on January 15 that Craig Massey, who alleges that he was the “life partner” of Christopher Byrne from 1997 through 2007, can proceed on his claim for compensation based on an alleged agreement to shared assets.  However, Justice Scarpulla found that Massey’s complaint did not support a claim for partition of the condominium apartment purchased by Byrne in which they lived together prior to the end of their relationship.  The opinion was published by the New York Law Journal on February 19.  Massey v. Bryne, 107935/10, NYLS 1202588223263 (N.Y.Sup.Ct., N.Y. Co.). 

As Justice Scarpulla describes Massey’s allegations, “throughout the time they lived together and worked together [in Byrne’s business, Byrne Communications, Inc.], Byrne made promises to Massey regarding Byrne’s intentions to share their assets, and that throughout their ten year relationship the parties agreed and Byrne represented and promised that the parties’ assets would be jointly used to maintain their lifestyle together and ‘invest in their mutual benefit.’  Massey further alleges that he relied on these promises when making personal and financial decisions, such as ‘making personal and financial sacrifices for the benefit of Byrne Communications, Inc.”  According to Massey, these included working at a “reduced salary” and foregoing various employment benefits.  Massey claims that Byrne has been “unjustly enriched” by Massey’s contributions to Byrne’s business, relationship and property (the apartment).  Massey also claims that Byrne fraudulently induced him to move to New York and to work at a reduced salary in reliance on Byrne’s promises concerning shared assets.  Massey claims that otherwise he would have worked to build up his own individual savings and investments.  In effect, he charges, Byrne misled him and then, when the relationship ended, left him out in the cold.

Byrne’s response to the complaint was basically to deny everything, although eventually in the papers filed in support of his motion for summary judgment, he does concede that the men had a “romantic relationship.”  However, he denies that they were more than “boyfriends,” although they did live together for ten years, which included occupying a succession of three different apartments, the last of which was the condo that Byrne purchased, and they did have some joint bank accounts.  Massey never paid rent to Byrne, and when he was diagnosed with tuberculosis in 2002, Byrne kept him on salary at the business even though he couldn’t work for a time, and took care of him through the illness.

In addition to contesting Massey’s claim that the men had some sort of contractually binding agreement concerning shared assets, Byrne denied Massey’s story that they had jointly decided to purchase the condo on East 25th Street but put everything in Byrne’s name for tax reasons.  Byrne argued in support of his motion to the court to dismiss the case that Massey’s claims were filed too late, so much of the court’s opinion focused on the “statute of limitations” for filing claims of breach of contract, unjust enrichment and the like.

Ultimately, Justice Scarpulla concluded that there were so many contested facts in the case that it was not really possible to rule on the timeliness issues.  First, Massey will have a chance to try to prove that there was an agreement, when it was made and when Byrne breached it, since the time to file a breach of contract claim would begin to run when the contract was breached.  The court concluded that similar factual disputes precluded ruling at this time on the other timeliness issues.

However, Massey’s action for “partition” – that is, a division of the property ownership rights – concerning the apartment foundered on the requirements of the statute authorizing such claims.   The New York Real Property Law provision says that “A person holding and in possession of real property as joint tenant or tenant in common, in which he has an estate of inheritance, or for life, or for years, may maintain an action for the partition of the property, and for a sale if it appears that a partition cannot be made without great prejudice to the owners.”   The court found merit to Byrne’s argument that Massey did not possess the condo as a joint tenant or a tenant in common, and had no “estate of inheritance, or for life, or for years.”  In addition, ownership rights in property in New York need to be evidenced in some form of writing.  Massey’s response to these arguments was that he wasn’t actually bringing a partition action, but rather seeking the court to make a division of assets as a remedy for his other claims.  Thus, Justice Scarpulla dismissed this part of the case. 

She also rejected Massey’s demand for costs and sanctions to be imposed on Byrne and his attorney.  Massey argued that Byrne’s response to Massey’s complaint was full of “mischaracterizations which defendants and their attorney know to be false,” including the blanket denial that Massey and Byrne once had a “romantic relationship,” something that Byrne now concedes.  The judge responded that such contradictions are typical of these kinds of cases, and not the basis for imposing sanctions on the defendant and his lawyer.  “A dispute over what constitutes ‘uncontroverted facts’ lies at the heart of this and most other legal actions,” she wrote.  “In this matter, which deals with the end of a romantic relationship, the dispute over the facts and denial of certain allegations may be hurtful, but it does not rise to the level of frivolous conduct required for the imposition of sanctions.” 

The court also rejected Massey’s suggestion that Byrne’s lawyer, who had been friends with both men, should be disqualified from representing Byrne in this case, as Massey might call him as a witness at trial.  The judge said that Massey had not alleged that the lawyer was a “necessary witness,” and had not substantiated any claim that the lawyer had a “conflict of interest” in representing Byrne.

Break-ups are messy, and this opinion suggests that the end of the relationship between Massey and Byrne, however it is eventually characterized by the court, is not unusual in this respect.  Courts have been struggling for years to figure out how to deal with the end of relationships that are not legally recognized through marriage.  Even though we now have marriage equality in New York, there will still be plenty of couples, both same-sex and different-sex, who live together without marriage, so this will continue to be an important area of legal development.

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