ANNAPOLIS – The Court of Special Appeals Friday upheld a Montgomery County Circuit Court in its dismissal of a “breach of promise to marry” suit, holding that the Legislature’s abolition of that cause of action 51 years ago “is not even open to argument.”
The court based its decision on a 1945 statute which not only banned breach of promise to marry as a legal basis to sue, but prevents legislators or judges from attempting to change or overrule the law.
“We suspect that we would be hard pressed to find a stronger expression of a legislative entity’s attitude of repugnance towards a cause of action in statutory language,” Judge Dale R. Cathell wrote for the three-judge panel.
The initial suit, which never came to trial, was filed in late 1994 by Lonnie Miller. Miller claimed that her boyfriend, Warren Ratner, forced her to move out of the house they shared for three years after she was diagnosed with breast cancer.
Miller also alleged that Ratner, a vice president of the company which owns the Hair Cuttery chain, interfered with a contract she had negotiated between the chain and her employer after she and Ratner separated. The court found no support for that claim.
The couple began dating in December 1990, and Miller moved into Ratner’s house in June 1991.
According to the appeals brief filed by Miller’s attorney, Miller gave up her job, her apartment, her life insurance and her furniture on the understanding that “Ratner said that he would support [Miller] and take care of all her needs.”
However, in the appeals brief filed by Ratner’s attorney, the suit is likened to “an afternoon soap opera.” The brief says the story boils down to “Lonnie and Warren met, fell in love, moved in together, fell out of love and broke up.”
Miller’s brief says it was not so simple.
It states that Warren Ratner and his brother, Dennis Ratner, “inflict[ed] severe emotional distress…, relentlessly tormented Ms. Miller, eventually forcing her to move out of the house.”
Hubert M. Schlosberg, Miller’s attorney, says that she moved out only because Warren Ratner promised to support her. Indeed, Ratner’s brief says that he “bought her new furniture and moved her into an apartment.”
“And that is a ratification of his contract to support,” said Schlosberg, who said he based the original suit on a breach of contract to support, not a breach of promise to marry.
Ratner’s attorneys asked the Circuit Court to dismiss the case based on the prohibition against breach of promise to marry. But Schlosberg argues that was not an issue in his initial filing.
“There was no contract to marry,” Schlosberg said in an interview. “There was no date, no nothing.”
However, the Court of Special Appeals opinion notes that Miller had stated in a deposition that there was an agreement to marry and that Ratner had a prenuptial agreement drawn up.
The appeals court upheld the Circuit Court decision to dismiss, saying that it had no choice given the state statute banning “breach of promise to marry” suits.
It further outlined the difference between such cases and “palimony” suits, citing the “most famous … case Marvin v. Marvin,” in which the long-time mistress of actor Lee Marvin sued for damages after they split up.
The appeals court noted that there was no promise to marry in Marvin v. Marvin. It also stated that “nonmarital partners can certainly be subject to suit for promises made independent of promises to marry.”
Schlosberg called the court’s ruling “tragic,” saying that it “knocks every unmarried couple out of the box. Contracts are absolutely void if they ever mention or even think about marriage.”
Finally, the appeals court addressed Miller’s claim of mental distress, with the caveat that it had no way without a trial to know whether the allegations were true.
“The case … is a pure `change of mind’ case,” Cathell wrote. “It is exactly that type of case that heart balm statutes are intended to prohibit. Once Warren Ratner conveyed his change of mind to appellant and asked her to leave his house, his subsequent conduct had to be viewed as conduct designed to assert his legal rights to cause her to remove herself from the house.”
Schlosberg indicated that, if Miller agreed (and he anticipates she will), he would file for review by the Maryland Court of Appeals.
“Regardless of marriage, [Miller] should’ve had her day in court,” Schlosberg said. Ratner’s attorney could not be reached for comment. -30-