November 2023 Millar’s JurisDiction - Disengagement

by Richard W. Millar, Jr.

As I have said in at least one prior column, when I started practice, California divorce law was based on fault. I had a fair amount of experience in handling divorces then, and while I would hesitate to call any of the cases “fun,” let’s just say some were more memorable than just cross-examining an accountant.

I never had any broken engagement cases, however, either personally or professionally, so I do not have the foggiest idea what the law is for the question of who gets to keep the ring.

Now I know what it is—at least in Massachusetts. An engagement is considered a pledge of upcoming marriage and if it is terminated without fault by the donor, the donor gets the ring back.

Thus did one Bruce Johnson sue one Caroline Settino.

The two began dating in the summer of 2016 and according to the court, their relationship became serious in just a few months. “The two would often travel together, visiting places such as New York City; Bar Harbor, Maine; the Virgin Islands; and Italy. The plaintiff paid for these vacations and expected nothing from the defendant in return.” I am not buying the last sentence, but I digress.

Ultimately, Mr. Johnson bought an engagement ring from a Boston jeweler “valued at over $70,000,” which I assume establishes Superior Court jurisdiction. At some undisclosed point in the timeline, he gave Ms. Settino the receipt, which I find interesting all by itself.

At any rate, they got engaged and started planning their wedding. And then the bloom started to come off the rose. Mr. Johnson began to find “some traits of [Ms. Settino] to be troubling.” She “would berate [him] over a spilled drink,” the way he would eat oysters, and how long “it took him to access messages on his cell phone.” “She would call him a ‘moron’ and treat him like a child.” The record is silent as to whether he left the toilet seat up.

One night after dinner, drinks, and an argument, not necessarily in that order, she said: “I’m a good-looking woman. I can get a man whenever I want.” (The record is also silent as to whether other dinner patrons could hear that gauntlet fly across the room, but, again, I digress.)

That led to Mr. Johnson checking Ms. Settino’s cell phone and the discovery of a text from her that said: “My Bruce is going to be in Connecticut for three days. I need some playtime.”

By this point, the rose was down to its thorns.

So, he sued. And she cross-complained. For money to complete dental implant surgery.

They had a court trial. The court found that Mr. Johnson was mistaken in believing that Ms. Settino was having an affair and therefore he was “at fault” in breaking up, so she could keep the ring. The court also awarded her $42,882 to complete her dental implant surgery and “over $20,000 in prejudgment interest.”

Probably figuring there was no way he could get a worse result, Mr. Johnson appealed.

After reviewing cases from multiple jurisdictions, the appellate court found that, “no legal standard exists by which a fact-finder can adjudge culpability or fault in a prenuptial breakup.” And, the one who broke up the relationship is not necessarily the one to blame, otherwise it would devolve to strict liability, and “a justification analysis is needed to assess fault in these circumstances.”

The appellate court decided that the question was not whether she was having an affair, but whether Mr. Johnson was justified in breaking things off because she didn’t respect him and he could no longer trust her. The court said it could not say he was unjustified under the circumstances, and, “sometimes there simply is no fault to be had.” Therefore, Mr. Johnson was not at fault in breaking off the engagement. The court upheld the award to Ms. Settino for the implant surgery and prejudgment interest, which needed to be recalculated.

Barring further appeals, and I am not betting that this will not go further, Mr. Johnson gets his ring back and she gets her new teeth plus interest.

If nothing else, you could say that, at the very least, the Order has some teeth in it.

Richard W. Millar, Jr. is Of Counsel with the firm of FSG Lawyers PC in Irvine. He can be reached at rmillar@fsglawyers.com.