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Bonina v. Sheppard

Appeals Court of Massachusetts, Worcester

June 1, 2017

STEPHEN BONINA
v.
JANE A. SHEPPARD.

          Heard: March 2, 2017.

         Civil action commenced in the Superior Court Department on July 22, 2011. The case was heard by Gregg J. Pasquale, J.

          Barry A. Bachrach for the defendant. Scott G. Gowen for the plaintiff.

          Present: Kafker, C.J., Massing, & Desmond, JJ.

          KAFKER, C.J.

         The issue presented in this case is whether a substantial, uncompensated contribution by one unmarried cohabitant to improve the home owned by the other is recoverable in restitution. The plaintiff, Stephen Bonina, and the defendant, Jane A. Sheppard, were involved in a long-term nonmarital relationship. The plaintiff, a contractor, expended significant funds and labor to improve the home in which the couple lived for sixteen years, which was owned by the defendant. When the relationship ended, the plaintiff brought this action against the defendant claiming, inter alia, that she had been unjustly enriched by his contributions to the home. After a bench trial, a Superior Court judge awarded the plaintiff $156, 913.07 in restitution, which represented the funds he expended to improve the home over sixteen years. The defendant appeals, claiming that the trial judge erred by (1) finding that she was unjustly enriched; and (2) calculating the plaintiff's restitution based on his costs to improve the home, rather than the increased value of the home with the improvements. We affirm.

         Background.

         We summarize the facts found by the trial judge, supplemented by uncontroverted facts in the record. Weber v. Community Teamwork, Inc., 434 Mass. 761, 769 (2001). The plaintiff and the defendant met on New Year's Eve, 1989, and began dating shortly thereafter. Three years later, the parties became interested in purchasing a home in Bolton that had been vacant for two years. The home was owned by Concord Co-Operative Bank (bank). During negotiations with the bank, the parties coauthored a letter declaring their serious interest in the home, and explaining that the cost to bring the home to livable condition was $43, 500, based on estimations by the plaintiff and another contractor. In May, 1993, the defendant purchased the home for $131, 500 in her name only, becoming the sole obligor on the mortgage.

         As it turned out, the entire home had to be gutted, and the necessary repairs cost much more than anticipated. The parties moved into the home in September, 1993. The plaintiff thereafter paid half of the mortgage payments, taxes, and living expenses during the cohabitation. He used various places in the home as his office for his contracting business.

         In 1994, the parties constructed an addition to the living room. Between 1993 and 1998, the plaintiff spent $74, 068.94 on improvements and maintenance of the home, which included the addition, as well as a new furnace, windows, a gas stove, and a new basement floor. The plaintiff spent "countless hours" performing the "overwhelming majority" of the work. The defendant spent $35, 544.17 on improvements and maintenance during this period.

         The parties were engaged on Christmas Eve, 1999. Around this time, the parties extended the kitchen to make a better passageway to a room that the plaintiff planned to use as his office. While this work was being performed, the parties decided to build a second floor above the office. From 1999 to 2004, the plaintiff spent approximately $98, 352.02 on improvements to the home, most of which went toward materials to construct the addition and the second floor, such as roofing, siding, flooring, and electrical and plumbing work. The defendant spent $46, 532.99.

         In 2005, the plaintiff contributed approximately $17, 967.32 for a new septic system. From 2006 to 2008, the plaintiff contributed an additional $3, 572.24 for repairs and maintenance. The defendant's contributions during this time were minimal.

         Shortly thereafter, the relationship deteriorated, and the plaintiff moved out in February, 2009. By this time, the plaintiff had contributed $93, 744.94 towards the monthly mortgage payments, which represented approximately one-half of the payments due during the sixteen years that he lived in the home. The plaintiff then brought this action seeking restitution for his contributions to the home under an unjust enrichment theory.[1] The trial judge found that the "majority" of the plaintiff's costs reflected materials to construct the three additions, including lumber, cement, insulation, piping, and flooring, as well as other items that became permanent fixtures of the home, including windows, doors, appliances, the septic system, and the furnace. The judge deducted the plaintiff's costs for maintenance of the home, such as fence painting and lawn mowing, as well as those related to "short-term benefits, " such as extension cords, light bulbs, and log splitting; the judge found that the plaintiff had received the benefit of those items. After deducting those latter amounts, the judge awarded the plaintiff $156, 913.07 in restitution, which represented his costs to purchase the materials and the fixtures to improve the home.

         Discussion. 1. Unmarried cohabitants ...


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