ALBANY – Since a man’s promise to pay a woman friend $500,000 after their relationship soured is not a binding contract, the woman must pay his attorney’s fees and her lawyer must pay a $2,500 sanction for the frivolous pursuit of the claim, a judge determined.
Acting Rockland County Supreme Court Justice Victor Alfieri Jr. (See Profile) agreed with plaintiff Youcheng Wu that the letter drafted by his one-time friend Jian Xu and signed by Wu in August 2012 did not represent a valid contract.
Wu’s letter apologized to Xu for hurting her and promised to pay her $500,000 in the future, according to the court.
Alfieri noted in Wu v. Xu, 031636/2013, that Wu made two payments totaling $47,020 to the woman in August and September 2012, but commenced an action in March 2013 for a judgment declaring his letter to be unenforceable and void as a matter of law. That same month, Wu received a letter from the woman’s attorney, David Lira of Giuttari & Mertz, stating that Wu’s promise was legally binding and threatening legal action if he did not comply with its terms.
Alfieri, in a ruling favorable to Wu, cited a 1906 New York Court of Appeals decision in Platt v. Elias, 186 NY 374, holding that courts should not countenance agreements such as the one between Xu and Wu.
“Generally, contracts tending to impair familial relationships are found to be against public policy,” Alfieri wrote from New City. “Although the August 2012 letter is not an express agreement to marry or to encourage a divorce, it does involve the institution of marriage and the well-being of the familiar relationship of Plaintiff and his wife to the extent that this Court finds is against public policy.”
“As such,” Alfieri added, “the Court finds that the letter is not a valid, enforceable contract.”
Alfieri noted that Wu was not seeking the return of the $47,020 he had already paid Xu, just a declaration that his promise did not constitute a binding contract.
In addition, Alfieri imposed a $2,500 sanction on attorney Lira for pressing the case.
First, Alfieri wrote, the letter asserting the binding nature of the contract and threatening legal action on Xu’s part was “frivolous” under 22 NYCRR §130-1.1(a) because it was “completely without merit and cannot be supported by a reasonable argument for an extension, modification or reversal of existing law.”
It was in response to that letter that Wu commenced his legal action, thus causing Wu to incur “expenses resulting from frivolous conduct.”
In responding to Wu’s complaint, Lira denied all the allegations but failed to address the legal issues raised by the plaintiff over the enforceability of the letter as a contract, the judge said.
“As such, this Court finds that Plaintiff should be reimbursed for actual expenses reasonably incurred and reasonable attorney’s fees expended resulting from defendant’s attorney’s frivolous conduct,” Alfieri concluded.
The judge ordered Lira to pay the $2,500 to the Lawyers Fund for Client Protection.
Alfieri also invited Wu’s attorney, Anthony Pruzinsky of Hill Rivkins in Manhattan, to file an invoice of costs and attorney’s fees to determine a reasonable award.
Pruzinsky declined comment. Giuttari & Mertz did not respond to requests for comment.
The nature of the relationship between Wu and Xu is not precisely clear, Alfieri acknowledged in his ruling.
Wu is married with a college-aged daughter and Xu is single. The parties walked in the park, went out to dinner and otherwise spent time together as a “relationship of sorts” developed.
Xu said Wu promised that he would divorce his wife, leave his family and marry her. Wu denies making those promises.
“The nature of the relationship is disputed by the parties but it is clear that the parties were ‘involved’ to a certain extent,” the judge said.
The case cited by Alfieri, Platt v. Elias, caused a sensation in New York in the early 20th century.
Platt, a millionaire glass manufacturer, sought to have his mistress Hannah Elias, who was black, repay him the $685,385 he said he spent on her between 1896 and 1904. Platt, 86 in 1906, claimed Elias had threatened extortion or blackmail by revealing their long-time affair unless he continued to maintain her affluent lifestyle.
The Court of Appeals ruled that it could not order Elias to return money to Platt given through an arrangement that was contrary to morality and public policy and that the courts could not enforce the arrangement Elias claimed to have with Platt.
“The law will not afford relief to either party, in pari causa turpitudinis; but leaves them just where they have placed themselves,” Judge Willard Bartlett wrote for the court in 1906.
@|Joel Stashenko can be reached at email@example.com.