As frequent readers of this blog may know, earlier this year, we were the winning attorneys in the landmark palimony case, Maeker v. Ross. My post on that case on this blog was entitled Is Palimomy In New Jersey Over As We Knew It? Since the Supreme Court recently granted Certification, we will see what they ultimately have to say about this issue some time next year.
In the mean time, a lot has been written about the unreported trial court opinion in the case of Joiner v. Orman recently decided by Judge Rosenberg in Essex County, suggesting that palimony is alive and well, especially the argument that partial performance is a bar to the statute of frauds (the statute requiring palimony agreements to be in writing was included as an amendment to the Statute of Frauds). While the palimony opponents could be worried about this decision, it is not precedential (i.e. it doesn’t have to be followed) both because it is a trial court opinion and unreported. More importantly, the facts of this case seemingly dictated that an equitable result occur. Some of the more critical facts which were largely not in dispute, are as follows:
- The parties started dating in 1972 and began cohabiting shortly thereafter
- During their relationship of approximately 39 years, they celebrated June 11, 1973 as their anniversary
- The parties maintained a marriage type relationship, holding each other out as husband and wife, raised 4 children and resided together as a family.
- The parties filed joint tax returns
- The parties maintained joint accounts
- The parties purchased real estate together
- The plaintiff went by the name Joiner-Orman
- The defendant, who was Gordon on Sesame Street, dedicated his memoir, “To my wife, Sharon Joiner-Orman, thanks for providing this story and my life with true meaning.” A personal copy of the book also bears an inscription, dated June 21, 2006, which states, “To Sharon, thank you for being my wife, my partner, the love of my life. Always and Forever, Roscoe.”
- Plaintiff provided companionship and social support, took care of the household and raised the parties’ four children.
- Due in large part to Defendant’s financial success, and Plaintiff’s reliance thereon, Plaintiff never attended college or pursued a career of her own.
- Plaintiff asserts that it was always her intention to continue residing with the Defendant as husband and wife for the rest of her life as it was their “life plan” to do so.
- After the parties separated, defendant continued to financially support plaintiff until he remarried
Clearly, these facts are starkly different from Maeker v. Ross. While Maeker really involved an allegation of an implied promise, here the court found that there was actually an express promise, albeit one that was not in writing.
Further, in addressing the partial performance issue, the court noted:
To date, Maeker is the only reported case to address the partial-performance exception in the context of a post-Amendment palimony claim. In Maeker, the plaintiff brought an action against defendant, which included, among other claims, a claim for palimony…………
Maeker court did not decide whether the partial-performance claim was an exception to the requirements of the Amendment. Instead the court found that, assuming the exception did apply, plaintiff’s pleadings failed to provide a basis for relief. Id. at 94. Specifically, Plaintiff’s pleading alleged that defendant’s performance, not Plaintiff’s, barred defendant from asserting a statute of frauds defense. Id. at 20. Furthermore, the court found that the case was distinguishable from the case relied on by the trial court, Klockner v. Green, 54 N.J. 230 (1969), finding that, unlike Klockner, “there was nothing exceptional or peculiar about the services performed by defendant, and plaintiff, as well as her son, already received the full benefit of those services.” Id. at 22.
Because Maeker was decided on the facts, it does not truly answer whether the exception applies as a matter of law. Moreover, the facts here are different. And it is indeed the facts of this particular case that compel this Court to take a closer look at the issue. (Emphasis added).
The court then went on to state it’s rationale for finding that palimony was appropriate here:
With these principles in mind, the Court finds there is no good reason why a partial or – at the very least – full performance exception should not apply in the context of palimony agreements. This case demonstrates the inequities that would result from a denial of the claim. Here, the parties had an oral agreement to reside and work together in marital type relationship. In fact, as far as they were concerned, they were husband and wife. Plaintiff relied on the Defendant’s promises and support for 39 years, gave birth to and raised four children, and generally provided companionship and homemaking. The children are now adults and the parties no longer share the same home. The Court finds the Plaintiff has fully performed her end of the bargain (to put it tersely). In addition, there is no way to quantify the value of the services. Plaintiff provided over the course of 39 years, much less the value of foregone educational and work related opportunities. What is more, Defendant
does not deny the agreement and even acknowledged the obligation by deeds and words. Where then is the risk of fraud? The Court believes the risk lies in barring Plaintiff’s claim. Therefore, the Court holds that the partial or full performance exception can remove oral palimony agreements from the statute of frauds and further finds the facts satisfy the Plaintiff’s claim. …..
… Instead, the Court is hopeful that its decision promotes the common mantra of the Chancery Division that “equity regards and treats as done what in good conscience ought to be done.” Gallicchio v. Jarzla, 18 N.J. Super. 206, 214-15 (Ch. Div. 1952). (Emphasis added)
So there it is. The parties acted as if they were married in all ways, but for the actual marriage. The court did what it thought was fair. End of story. That said, this case in factually different from most palimony cases that we see, so it is easy to see how this decision, in the context of its specific facts, came to be. Whether this will survive appellate scrutiny remains to be seen.
Eric Solotoff is the editor of the New Jersey Family Legal Blog and the Co-Chair of the Family Law Practice Group of Fox Rothschild LLP. Certified by the Supreme Court of New Jersey as a Matrimonial Lawyer and a Fellow of the American Academy of Matrimonial Attorneys, Eric is resident in Fox Rothschild’s Roseland and Morristown, New Jersey offices, though he practices throughout New Jersey. You can reach Eric at (973)994-7501, or firstname.lastname@example.org.