McLaren v. Gabel, No. 19-003

Citation229 A.3d 422
Case DateFebruary 14, 2020
CourtUnited States State Supreme Court of Vermont

Alden T. Bryan, J. (Ret.), Specially Assigned

Mary G. Kirkpatrick and Jennifer E. Agnew (On the Brief) of Kirkpatrick & Goldsborough, PLLC, South Burlington, for Plaintiff-Appellee.

Bridget C. Asay of Stris & Maher LLP, Montpelier, and Erin Miller Heins of Langrock Sperry & Wool, LLP, Burlington, for Defendant-Appellant.

PRESENT: Pearson, Acting C.J., Wesley, Manley, DiMauro and Howard, Supr. JJ. (Ret.), Specially Assigned


¶ 1. Patricia Gabel, defendant below, appeals the trial court's judgment in favor of plaintiff Ian McLaren, awarding him restitution in the amount of $553,534.881 for sums he contributed to the purchase and renovation of real property located on Logging Hill Road in Stowe, Vermont. She argues that the trial court erred as a matter of law in applying the factors underlying his claim for unjust enrichment pursuant to § 28 of the Restatement (Third) of Restitution and Unjust Enrichment (2011) [hereinafter Restatement], specifically whether plaintiff's expectations were justifiable, and abused its discretion in finding that plaintiff's expectations were justifiable given the facts as found by the court. Defendant also asserts the statute of limitations as a defense to plaintiff's claim for unjust enrichment. She further contends that even if plaintiff has a valid claim for restitution, the trial court abused its discretion in awarding the full amount of the money plaintiff contributed to the purchase and renovation of the property, and by structuring its final award with an extended payout schedule despite no record evidence to support such an award. We affirm in part, and reverse and remand in part.

¶ 2. In sum, we conclude that the court correctly applied § 28 of the Restatement and that the record supports its finding that defendant has been unjustly enriched. We affirm the court's determination that the statute of limitations does not bar plaintiff's claim. However, we reverse as error the court's determination of the amount of restitution owed and its structuring of the award, as a matter of law and an abuse of discretion with regard to the restitution amount, and for lack of record evidence to support crucial findings as to the extended payout structure of the award. We remand for recalculation of the amount of restitution owed as well as reconsideration of the nature of the final remedy.

I. Facts

¶ 3. Following a bench trial, the court found the following. After dating for around three years, the parties began a long-term domestic relationship in 1993 that effectively lasted until November 2015, except for a relatively brief hiatus from 1996 to 1998. During the course of this relationship, the parties resided together, first in plaintiff's home in Montreal, Quebec, in Canada, then in a residence they purchased together on Redpath Crescent in Montreal, and finally at the property on Logging Hill Road in Stowe, Vermont. It is this last residence in Stowe, wholly owned by defendant, that is the subject of this appeal.

¶ 4. While the parties lived together in Montreal, defendant contributed to the household expenses, both at plaintiff's residence and then at the property they bought together. She also shared in the expenses to purchase and renovate the Redpath Crescent home. Plaintiff was an independent film producer and director in Montreal. Defendant worked as an attorney, first as the managing partner of the Montreal office of a Burlington law firm, and then out of her own law office in Burlington and affiliated consulting firm in Montreal. When defendant was in Vermont during this period, she lived in furnished rental apartments.

¶ 5. The Redpath Crescent home was purchased jointly in 1997, and the parties began residing in it together shortly thereafter. Towards the end of 2004, the expenses associated with Redpath had become a concern. Defendant drafted and the parties signed two agreements with respect to the Redpath home: one titled "Joint Ownership Agreement" that addressed the parties' responsibilities for various expenses concerning the home, and which also anticipated the sale of the home and how the proceeds and personal property contained therein would be divided; and the other called "Joint Debts and Expenses Agreement" that detailed various financial arrangements not having to do with the home itself.

¶ 6. In 2006, defendant closed her Montreal and Burlington law practice and began working for the Vermont Judiciary in Montpelier, Vermont. With defendant no longer residing full time in Montreal, the parties decided to sell the Redpath Crescent home. The home sold in 2007, and the proceeds from the sale were used to pay off the parties' joint and separate debts, after which each party was left with $611,513. They did not divide their personal property at that time, but rather put most of it in storage.

¶ 7. By 2007, the parties were living apart a majority of the time. Defendant still resided in Vermont in furnished apartments, and plaintiff rented his own apartment in Montreal. They no longer shared household expenses. However, the parties continued to maintain a "marriage-like, domestic relationship," spending the majority of their free time together, traveling together, and holding themselves out to friends as a couple.2

¶ 8. In 2008, the parties began looking together at homes in Stowe for defendant to live in full time. The house on Logging Hill Road was the only home both agreed on, and defendant purchased it in her own name in late May 2008 for $770,000. Defendant paid $465,216.20 plus the down payment of $50,000, and plaintiff contributed $284,783.80 towards the purchase price. These funds, except for the down payment, were deposited into and withdrawn out of a Vermont account set up at defendant's bank, which the parties called their "House Renovation Account."

¶ 9. Extensive renovations were made to the house and grounds. Both parties communicated with the various contractors to ensure the work met their joint expectations. Between August 8, 2008, and May 22, 2009, plaintiff and defendant each deposited additional money into the House Renovation Account to fund the renovations. Plaintiff acted as the primary bookkeeper and created a spreadsheet for the project, and kept track of all contributions and payments. The court ultimately found that plaintiff's additional financial contributions to the Stowe property came to $268,751.08, resulting in a total cash contribution by plaintiff to the Stowe residence of $553,534.88 (see supra, note 1), which left him a balance (not including any interest or investment earnings) of $57,978.12 from the $611,513 he had netted from the sale of the Redpath Crescent home in 2007.

¶ 10. The court did not make a specific finding as to the additional amount contributed by defendant, although it stated that the total amount spent from the account by September 2012 was $1,325,000.3 However, not all of the funds disbursed were actually spent on renovation expenses. Plaintiff did not make any significant financial contribution to any renovations or capital improvements after August 2009, although he did perform some small tasks around the home, including refinishing the deck and maintaining extensive gardens.

¶ 11. The Stowe home on Logging Hill Road thereafter served as defendant's primary residence. Plaintiff traveled from his apartment in Montreal and stayed at the house on weekends and holidays. Plaintiff brought several valuable pieces of his personal property to the house as decoration and furnishings. The parties entertained mutual friends in the home, continued to engage in recreational activities together, and otherwise behaved (at least outwardly) in the manner of two people in a long-term domestic relationship, for a number of years after 2008.

¶ 12. The relationship, however, was in fact deteriorating and came to an end in November 2015, at least in part as a result of medical issues involving defendant.4 At the time of the separation, defendant drafted and the parties signed an agreement, dated November 15, 2015, which attempted to unwind the parties' financial and legal entanglements. The opening paragraph of this agreement states:

The parties own personal property, either jointly or severally, and they have each expended certain funds related to [defendant's] home [on] Logging Hill Road. Over time, they expect to reach certain final agreements related to these matters or to have these matters resolved through one or more private dispute resolution processes or by a court of competent jurisdiction ....

The parties signed a second agreement on February 14, 2016, relating to plaintiff's responsibility to repair a wall on which had hung a decorative carpet owned by him that he removed from the residence. Finally, the court found that the fair market value of the Stowe property on Logging Hill Road, at the time of the final hearing in June 2018, was in the neighborhood of $880,000 to $890,000 based on competing appraisals, the court's assessment of each appraiser's credibility at the final hearing, and a site view conducted by the court. Neither party challenges this finding on appeal.

¶ 13. Plaintiff filed suit on February 22, 2017, alleging unjust enrichment and breach of an implied contract, seeking to recover the money he had advanced for the Stowe property, the return of his separate personal property, and an accounting and division of joint personal property; in the alternative, plaintiff requested the imposition of a constructive trust on both the Logging Hill Road home and any jointly owned personal property. Defendant answered, raising various counterclaims, including breach of contract concerning the agreements of 2015 and 2016.

¶ 14. The court held a bench trial over five days in June 2018. In late November 2018, it ultimately ruled in favor of plaintiff on his claim of unjust...

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1 cases
  • Sutton v. Purzycki, 21-AP-261
    • United States
    • Vermont United States State Supreme Court of Vermont
    • November 10, 2022
    ...period begins when a plaintiff "knows or should know of the injury and its cause." McLaren v. Gabel, 2020 VT 8, ¶ 35, 211 Vt. 591, 229 A.3d 422 (per curiam) (quotation and brackets omitted). Thus, the question before us is whether plaintiff had enough information to put a reasonable person ......
1 books & journal articles
  • Review of the Year 2020 in Family Law: COVID-19, Zoom, and Family Law in a Pandemic
    • United States
    • ABA General Library Family Law Quarterly No. 54-4, January 2021
    • January 1, 2021
    ...J., dissenting). 286. Gyger v. Clement, 846 S.E.2d 496, 498 (N.C. 2020). 287. Id. at 500. 288. Id. at 500–01. 289. McLaren v. Gabel, 229 A.3d 422, 426 (Vt. 2020) (per curiam). 290. Id. at 435–36. 291. Id. at 429. 292. Id . at 439, 441, 443–44. 293. C.N. v. S.R., 230 A.3d 1003, 1008 (N.J. Su......

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