Recovery of Damages in Cohabitation Cases

May a party recover damages from a former romantic partner with whom the party cohabited, where the party contributed significantly to the improvement of the common home? Say, for example, that two people live together but never marry. One of them happens to be in the home improvement business. As the years pass, that party performs significant home repairs and improvements, paying for materials out of his pocket. When the parties break up, may that party recover for the amount of money and work he put into the home—which is staying with the other half of the couple, who happens to be the title owner?

The Massachusetts Appeals Court recently decided a case which dealt with this issue. Bonina v. Sheppard involved a long-term cohabiting relationship, where the parties never married. 1 The plaintiff was a contractor, and he expended significant funds, resources, and labor on fixing up the home, which was owned solely by the defendant. After the relationship ended, the plaintiff brought suit against the defendant, claiming that she was unjustly enriched by his contributions to the home’s improvement. The trial court ruled that the plaintiff could recover damages in the amount of over $156,000, and the defendant appealed.

The Appeals Court explained that unjust enrichment occurs “where a party retains the property of another ‘against the fundamental principles of justice or equity and good conscience.’” 2 The Court first shot down the defendant’s assertion that she could not have been unjustly enriched, because the parties were in a romantic relationship. “The parties’ romantic relationship does not prevent the plaintiff from recovering from the defendant under an unjust enrichment theory,” the Court explained. “In Massachusetts, there is no presumption that a claimant’s contributions during a romantic relationship are gratuitous.” 3

The Court also agreed with the trial judge in finding that the plaintiff’s contributions were not meant to be gifts. Instead, the court sided with the defendant’s argument that he believed the couple would eventually jointly increase the value of the home, and then jointly buy a bigger home. The plaintiff could recover damages under a restitution theory, the Court noted.

Next, the Court discussed whether the trial judge’s arrival at the damages amount was properly calculated. The Court recognized that the way to measure restitution damages is by reviewing not the defendant’s gains, rather than the plaintiff’s losses. However, the Court noted, the plaintiff’s costs may be used as evidence of and relevant to the value of the benefit the defendant received.

“The correlation of costs with benefits is especially valid where, as here, the costs that the plaintiff incurred were for construction materials and fixtures for the defendant’s home. In these circumstances, there is a direct dollar-for-dollar correlation between the costs incurred by the plaintiff and the benefit conferred on the defendant,” the Court explained. “Moreover, in the present case, neither the plaintiff nor the defendant presented evidence regarding other possible measures of unjust enrichment, such as the increased value of the home resulting from the materials and the services. As such, the trial judge had no other reliable, measurable basis on which to calculate the award.” 4 The Appeals Court affirmed the trial court’s award of damages.

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1 Bonina v. Sheppard, No. 16-P-771 (March 2, 2017-June 1, 2017).
2 Id., at 6.
3 Id.
4. Id., at 11.