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Wessel v. Burritt

October 14, 2008


On appeal from Superior Court of New Jersey, Law Division, Morris County, Docket No. L-2033-05.

Per curiam.


Argued September 10, 2008

Before Judges Stern, A. A. Rodríguez and Lyons.

This case arises out of a suit brought by plaintiff Gloria Wessel (Wessel) against defendant Harold Burritt, Jr. (Burritt), following an eighteen-year relationship between the parties. When the relationship terminated, plaintiff brought suit in the Law Division, alleging she was entitled to palimony; damages arising out of a joint venture or partnership between the parties; the imposition of a resulting trust on assets of defendant; damages for conversion by defendant; damages for fraud; and compensation for defendant's unjust enrichment. The trial court, sitting without a jury, entered a directed verdict in favor of defendant. As part of its findings and conclusions of law, the trial court found that the parties did not cohabitate. Plaintiff appeals, arguing that she had established cohabitation; that the trial court erred when it found that defendant had not committed fraud when he professed his love for plaintiff and promised to care for her; and that the trial court erred when it found that defendant had not been unjustly enriched during the course of the parties' relationship.

The following factual and procedural history is relevant to our consideration of the issues advanced on appeal. Wessel and Burritt met on March 11, 1985, at a church support group for single people. Not long after their initial meeting, Wessel and Burritt began an exclusive romantic relationship that lasted approximately seventeen years. Their relationship finally ended on June 23, 2003,*fn1 when Burritt informed Wessel that their relationship was over.

When Wessel and Burritt met in 1985, Wessel was living with her two young children in Morris Plains in the home she had shared with her husband prior to their separation. Burritt was living in one-half of a duplex that he had owned with his ex-wife and received as part of their property settlement agreement. The duplex is located in Wharton. Burritt rented the other half of his duplex to third parties.

Wessel contends that between 1985 and 1993, Burritt spent an increasing number of nights with her at her home in Morris Plains. According to Wessel, by 1993, Burritt was living "full time" at her home, managing the household's finances, paying bills, making purchases for the home, and doing routine household maintenance, as well as major household repairs and upgrades. Wessel cared for Burritt when he was ill and brought him to her Morris Plains home after he had surgery on his knee.

In contrast, Burritt asserts that he maintained his own home in Wharton for the entire duration of the parties' relationship. Burritt had his mail delivered to the Wharton address, which he picked up daily, registered and insured his truck using his Wharton address, and kept his clothing and other personal items in Wharton. Although he admits to paying the cable bill regularly and making repairs to the Morris Plains house, Burritt claims that he never resided with Wessel and only spent between one and three nights per week at her home, bringing any necessary clothing from Wharton every time he spent the night with Wessel. According to Burritt, the only item he kept at Wessel's home was a toothbrush. Burritt specifically denies being the money manager or paying bills other than Wessel's cable bill.

Wessel claims, and Burritt does not deny, that Burritt had repeatedly professed his love for Wessel and promised to care for her. The parties even discussed combining their financial resources upon retirement and retiring together. Additionally, Wessel and Burritt spent almost all major holidays, birthdays, and significant events together during their relationship. Third parties testified that Wessel and Burritt appeared to be "living together," and seemed more married than some married couples. Burritt continued to profess his love for Wessel until he abruptly ended their relationship, despite his claims that he was dissatisfied for between two and three years.

Unbeknownst to Wessel, Burritt reconnected with his current wife, Jeanne Burritt (Jeanne), his grammar school sweetheart, at his high school reunion while Wessel and Burritt were still in an exclusive relationship. The romance between Burritt and Jeanne was rekindled. Sometime after the reunion, Burritt assured Jeanne that he would end his relationship with Wessel so that they could be together. On June 23, 2003, Burritt asked Wessel to pick him up at the airport following a trip he had taken to Florida. Wessel took Burritt to his Wharton home, where he told her that their relationship was over. Burritt married his current wife Jeanne in October 2003.

Burritt and Wessel remained in contact after the June 23, 2003, breakup and after Burritt's marriage to Jeanne. Burritt continued to give Wessel money. Burritt's monetary contribution to Wessel totaled between $13,000 and $14,000. Initially, Burritt paid Wessel $1,500 by check, but made subsequent payments in cash, putting the cash in an envelope and hiding it on Wessel's front porch during the day while she was at work.

After the parties ended their relationship, Wessel refinanced her home and invested the proceeds in a computer software venture. She eventually sold her home, using the proceeds from the sale to pay bills, including significant therapy bills. Wessel also stopped working after her relationship with Burritt ended. Wessel claims to suffer from severe migraines that make it impossible for her to work. She is currently living in a rented room.

Burritt also sold his home after ending his relationship with Wessel and marrying Jeanne. Burritt used the proceeds of the sale to buy a forty-nine percent interest in a lighting store owned and operated by his current wife, and a fifty percent ownership interest in his current ...

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