CATES v. SWAIN CONCLUDED
May 13, 2013 § Leave a comment
I posted here and here about the saga of Cates v. Swain, the COA decision that essentially denied cohabitants any equitable relief to recover assets invested in the relationship. You can read the fact outline in that first prior post.
At trial the chancellor had rejected Mona Cates’ agrument that she was entitled to imposition of either a resulting or constructive trust, but granted her relief on the theory of unjust enrichment.
On appeal, the COA reversed, applying the rationales in Davis v. Davis, 643 So.2d 931 (Miss. 1994) and Estate of Alexander v. Alexander, 445 So.2d 836 (Miss. 1984), to reach the conclusion that equitable remedies are not available to unmarried parties who acquire assets titled in only one party’s name through the contributions of both. The court agreed with the chancellor that neither equitable trust should have been imposed, but disagreed that unjust enrichment could be applied.
On May 2, 2013, the MSSC reversed the COA decision and affirmed the chancellor on the theory of unjust enrichment. The court distinguished the cases that had been relied upon by the COA. The court did modify the amount awarded by the chancellor. Justice Dickinson, concurring in part and dissenting in part, would have remanded the case to the chancellor for further evidence on what would have been an equitable determination of what each party should receive, based on appreciation of the investments over time.
In my opinion, this decision clarifies the state of the law in an important area. Unmarried relationships are a fact in Mississippi, and there has to be a mechanism for people to recover money or property that in good conscience and justice should not be retained by another.
There is, of course, the danger that the doctrine will be overapplied and stretched to the breaking point. As the court’s opinion stated at ¶ 19, quoting an Iowa case, ” … [T]he doctrine of unjust enrichment is not ‘a roving mandate [for a court] to sort through terminated relationships in an attempt to nicely judge and balance the respective contributions of the parties.'” Applied carefully and judiciously, however, as the chancellor did at trial in this case, it’s a useful tool in an appropriate case, and it’s no longer precluded in our jurisprudence.