[March 21, 2020] Sabbatical update: For obvious reasons, I am home, and not in Africa. Thanks to my wife who booked my return journey from Windhoek to Boston. Stay tuned for a return to normalcy. Meanwhile, #QuarantineLife.

Sunday, February 11, 2018

'False claims of love': Mass. App. speaks from the heart for Valentine's Day

Just in time for Valentine's Day, the Massachusetts Court of Appeals rejected a divorcee's lawsuit for "false claims of love."

The plaintiff's eight claims were aptly characterized by the court as sounding in fraud, battery (i.e., contact upon improperly procured consent), infliction of emotional distress, and unjust enrichment.  All of these claims turned on misleading inducement to marry as a common, operative allegation.

Massachusetts by statute "abolished the common law actions for alienation of affection," "reflect[ing] the Legislature's public policy decision to no longer consider judicial remedy appropriate for what is only 'an ordinary broken heart.'"  Christopher Robinette wrote succinctly about the "heart balm torts"—alienation of affections, criminal conversation, seduction, and breach of promise to marry—in November at Tortsprof Blog.  Reading between the lines of the law, the court explained that legislators meant to preclude any cause of action that would require "'explor[ing] the minds of' consenting partners" (quoting precedent).

This case was not about failure to marry, but about marriage under allegedly false pretenses.  Same difference, the court held, with respect to claims of fraud or misrepresentation: plaintiff's "artful pleadings fail to hide the fact that these claims, based on events that occurred prior to the marriage, are precluded ...."  The same result controlled battery, as the consent analysis plainly would defy the inferred legislative intent.

As to IIED, the plaintiff could not meet the threshold of "extreme and outrageous," neither through allegation of an adulterous affair, even if calculated to inflict emotional injury, nor through failure to disclose "concealment of past sexual or romantic history."  Massachusetts courts at least in theory recognize a cause of action for negligent infliction of emotional distress (NIED)--the truly pure case of it is far rarer than recitation of the theory--but found the record "bereft of physical harm manifested by objective symptomatology."  On both points, one must recall Jones v. Clinton, 990 F. Supp. 657 (E.D. Ark. 1998), per the Hon. Susan Weber Wright.  This case also well exemplifies why NIED is not sound doctrine, a point the Supreme Judicial Court might ought revisit one day.

On unjust enrichment and related theories, the court concluded that any unjustness was predicated on the earlier rejected fraud, and otherwise, the plaintiff was in no way of feeble mind.

The court summed up: "[N]ot all human actions in the context of the dissolution of a marriage have an avenue for legal recourse, no matter how much anger, sorrow, or anxiety they cause." Broadened to all affairs of the heart, the conclusion well restates essential tort policy, lest we become the caricature of the litigious society.

The case is Shea v. Cameron, No. 16-P-1479 (Mass. Ct. App. Feb. 9, 2018), per Agnes, Sacks, and Lemire, JJ.

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