Boland v. Catalano

Citation202 Conn. 333,521 A.2d 142
CourtSupreme Court of Connecticut
Decision Date17 February 1987
PartiesRuth BOLAND v. Ronald M. CATALANO.

M. Katherine Webster-O'Keefe, New Milford, for appellant (plaintiff).

Richard L. Nahley, with whom were Robert C. Stearns, Jr., and, on the brief, Ronald M. Sullivan, Danbury, for appellee (defendant).


SHEA, Associate Justice.

The plaintiff, Ruth Boland, brought suit against the defendant, Ronald M. Catalano, for the return of certain personal property and to recover an equal share of the money and property they had accumulated while living together in an unmarried relationship from 1971 to 1980. The trial court, Pickett, J., rendered judgment in accordance with the conclusion of the attorney trial referee that, while the plaintiff was entitled to the return of the specific items of personal property she sought, her major claims for relief based on contract and quantum meruit were not supported by the evidence. Because we agree with the plaintiff's contention on appeal that the referee's conclusion that the parties had not contracted to share property was wholly inconsistent with facts found in his report, we set the judgment aside and remand for a new trial.

The following facts appear to be undisputed. The parties began living together as unmarried lovers in 1971 in a house the defendant owned in the town of Sherman. In 1972 they became interested in building a new home on approximately twenty-seven wooded acres of land in the town of New Milford. Title to this realty was taken in the name of the defendant, who explained to the plaintiff "that it was easier to place it in his name because he had equity in another house and because they were not married." While the defendant was solely liable for the mortgage loan on the New Milford property in the amount of $29,500, as well as on a loan from his mother of $13,320 obtained for the purchase of the property, the plaintiff helped to plan, build and improve the house into which the parties moved, and also cleared and landscaped portions of the grounds. The plaintiff does not claim to have contributed any funds toward the purchase of the real estate or construction of the house. 1

During their years together, the parties were regarded by some members of the public as husband and wife. During the period of their cohabitation, the plaintiff earned approximately $50,000, which she turned over to the defendant. The defendant, in turn, provided the plaintiff with an allowance, which she used for groceries, and for personal and household expenses. Although the parties maintained separate bank and charge accounts and filed separate income tax returns, the defendant used the plaintiff's bank account, and each had signatory power to use the other's charge accounts. By agreement the plaintiff was responsible for the housework, grocery shopping, cooking and landscaping, while the defendant ran his automotive business.

In 1980, when the parties' relationship ended, the plaintiff brought this action in four counts claiming: (1) a contractual right to a one-half share of all the personalty accumulated during their relationship; (2) an equitable interest in the New Milford realty; (3) a right to restitution based on quantum meruit; 2 and (4) complete ownership of her own property. The trial court, Buzaid, J., rendered a judgment of dismissal of the second, third and fourth counts of the complaint for failure to make out a prima facie case. In Boland v. Catalano, 1 Conn.App. 90, 468 A.2d 1238 (1983), the Appellate Court set the judgment aside because the proof had been sufficient to establish a prima facie case, and remanded the action for a new trial. The case was subsequently referred to an attorney trial referee, who concluded in his memorandum that the plaintiff was entitled to recover only some furniture that she had purchased or received as gifts. In this appeal the plaintiff, who had filed an objection to acceptance of the referee's report pursuant to Practice Book § 440; see Seal Audio, Inc. v. Bozak, Inc., 199 Conn. 496, 518, 508 A.2d 415 (1986); contends essentially that the trial court, Pickett, J., erred in rendering judgment in accordance with the referee's report because (1) the conclusions reached by the referee are contrary to the facts found, and (2) the policy considerations underlying such conclusions are specious.

In his supplemental report the attorney trial referee found the following "ultimate fact": "The parties agreed implicitly by their conduct and/or words to share their earnings and the fruits of their joint labor." "A contract is an agreement between parties whereby one of them acquires a right to an act by the other; and the other assumes an obligation to perform that act. The obligation so assumed is called a promise. Contracts may be express or implied. These terms, however, do not denote different kinds of contracts, but have reference to the evidence by which the agreement between the parties is shown. If the agreement is shown by the direct words of the parties, spoken or written, the contract is said to be an express one. But if such agreement can only be shown by the acts and conduct of the parties, interpreted in the light of the subject matter and of the surrounding circumstances, then the contract is an implied one." Skelly v. Bristol Savings Bank, 63 Conn. 83, 87, 26 A. 474 (1893); Hale v. Fred Benvenuti, Inc., 38 Conn.Sup. 634, 638-39, 458 A.2d 694 (1983). A reasonable conclusion logically following from the referee's finding is that the parties created a contract to share their earnings and property accumulated during the relationship. Whether this contract is styled "express" or "implied" involves "no difference in legal effect, but lies merely in the mode of manifesting assent." 1 Restatement (Second), Contracts § 4, comment a; see also E. Farnsworth, Contracts (1982) pp. 124, 142 n. 2.

Despite the finding of an implied contract to share their earnings and the fruits of their joint labor as an "ultimate fact," the referee effectively awarded all of the property acquired during the cohabitation to the defendant, except for a few items of furniture as mentioned. In his memorandum 3 the referee concluded that "[t]he parties did not express the mutual assent necessary to form an express contract.... Similarly, the evidence as to the circumstances and conduct of the parties falls short of a standard required by Connecticut for an implied contract between the parties regarding the disposition of property." " 'As this court has many times stated, conclusions that violate "law, logic or reason or are inconsistent with the subordinate facts" cannot stand.' Delfino v. Vealencis, 181 Conn. 533, 543, 436 A.2d 27 (1980)." Edens v. Kole Construction Co., 188 Conn. 489, 502-503, 450 A.2d 1161 (1982). The contradiction between the finding and conclusions of the referee, therefore, precludes us from sustaining the judgment accepting the referee's report.

We are not persuaded by the defendant's attempt to reconcile the referee's conclusions with his finding of an agreement between the parties. The defendant interprets this finding to mean that the parties agreed to share jointly acquired property only as long as the relationship lasted. According to the defendant, "[t]he evidence presented at trial did not convince the referee that the parties agreed to or contemplated any exchange of ownership rights." Belying this assertion, however, is the unqualified agreement to share found as an "ultimate fact" and also the subordinate fact found by the referee that "[t]he defendant referred to the New Milford house as being 'our house' to the plaintiff." The referee found additional facts relating to the substantial amount of time and labor the plaintiff had devoted to building and maintaining the home. We therefore decline to read into the finding of an agreement between the parties "to share their earnings and the fruits of their joint labor" a concomitant finding that the parties intended no obligations arising from such agreement to survive the period during which they lived together.

A possible explanation of the discrepancy between the finding of an implied agreement to share and the recommended disposition of the case is that the referee viewed certain policy considerations as preventing the agreement between the parties from rising to the level of a contract. The term "agreement" has in some respects a wider meaning than "contract." 1 Restatement (Second), Contracts § 3, comment a. "A contract is a promise or a set of promises for the breach of which the law gives a remedy, or the performance of which the law in some way recognizes as a duty." Id., § 1. An agreement embodying promises that the law will not enforce is thus, by definition, not a contract.

In his memorandum, the referee stated that "Connecticut has refused to accord legal consequences to informed unmarried cohabitants.... Moreover, in the light of Connecticut's public policy with respect to common law marriages, rights accruing to unmarried individuals who choose to cohabit cannot be adjudicated simply on the basis of the law of express contract." The referee based these assertions on this court's decision in McAnerney v. McAnerney, 165 Conn. 277, 334 A.2d 437 (1973), and the Illinois case of Hewitt v. Hewitt, 77 Ill.2d 49, 31 Ill.Dec. 827, 394 N.E.2d 1204 (1979). It is conceivable that the referee may have viewed the refusal in this state to recognize common law marriages or to impose legal consequences simply by virtue of cohabitation between unmarried persons as militating against contractual enforcement of the implied agreement to share.

We agree with the trial referee that cohabitation alone does not create any contractual relationship or, unlike marriage, impose other legal duties upon the parties. In this jurisdiction, common law...

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