When Ryan Strasser, then an associate at Hogan Lovells in Washington, D.C., got down on one knee and asked Sarah Jones Dickens to marry him, he knew one thing: She’d like the ring.
It was 4.06 carats, a near-colorless, old European cut brilliant diamond, mounted in platinum with 14 diamond accents. And it fit what he says were her must-have requirements: 3.5 to 5 carats with an inclusion rating of no “worse” than VS2 and a color rating of no “worse” than G, and with no fluorescence.
The price? $100,000.
And then, 11 months later…they broke up.
According to Strasser, now an associate at Troutman Sanders in Richmond, Virginia, Dickens won’t return the ring—which he’s stuck paying off until 2020.
On Monday, he sued his ex-fiancée in U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia to force her to give it back.
Every lawsuit is a fight. Every lawsuit tells a story. But this one is a soap opera, a country-western song—and a cautionary tale of a big firm litigator who was seemingly taken to the cleaners by an art history student.
The key legal issue is fairly straightforward. Strasser, who is represented by Sheppard Mullin Richter & Hampton partner Steven Hollman (who overlapped with Strasser at Hogan Lovells for five years), argues that the engagement ring was a conditional gift that must be returned if the marriage fails to occur.
And in rich, painful (and possibly unnecessary) detail, Strasser lays out his version of how he was wronged.
The pair met in 2004 as college classmates at Duke. After graduation, she went off to study art history in Cambodia, and then enrolled in a Ph.D. program at Duke. He went to law school and also got a master’s degree in public administration.
(In court papers, he listed his degrees in his personal email signature block. As in: “Ryan J. Strasser, Esq.; University of Pennsylvania, M.P.A. ’11; Cornell Law School, J.D. ’10; Duke University, B.A. ’07.” )
They began dating in early November of 2015. She and her dog moved into his one-bedroom condo in Arlington, Virginia, where he lived with his two dogs. But the space felt a bit small and he said she convinced him to move. “Mr. Strasser was initially reluctant but succumbed to considering an alternative residency at defendant’s repeated behest.”
They rented a five-bedroom house in a ritzy part of Washington, D.C.—or rather, Strasser rented it. He was the only one on the lease and paid all the bills, since Dickens was working on her dissertation and made no money.
According to Strasser, Dickens informed him that “she expected Mr. Strasser to propose to her with an engagement ring within one year of the start of their relationship.”
Dickens did not respond to requests for comment.
Strasser budgeted $40,000 for a ring—a bit less than the two-months-of-your-salary rule of thumb, but certainly enough for something nice.
Dickens allegedly wanted more. “Defendant insisted that she deserved a ‘large’ engagement ring because she did not believe in ‘wasting’ money on a wedding and so the parties should instead spend ‘extra’ on an engagement ring, something she would enjoy daily for the rest of her married life,” according to the complaint.
She found her dream ring at a store in Greenwich, Connecticut. “Although he repeatedly told [Dickens] that the price far exceeded his budget, Mr. Strasser eventually acceded and undertook to negotiate for the ring.”
He paid for it with his savings, two credit cards and a $30,000 personal loan which still costs him $912.71 a month in installments. Insurance on the ring is another $87.58 a month.
Strasser popped the question on February 9, 2017, and they did some preliminary wedding planning (the Park Hyatt in Beaver Creek, Colorado, or perhaps a ski chalet at Vail). They took engagement photos (birch trees, snow, mountains—see Exhibits 11 and 12. You know you want to look) and registered for gifts.
The complaint, alas, is silent on what exactly went wrong. “Eventually, the parties’ relationship soured,” it states. On January 7, 2018, the bottom dropped out. Strasser reports that Dickens called his parents in New Jersey, telling them that he would “not stop crying,” and asked them to come and get him out of the house.
His parents came, her parents came, and the dads allegedly worked out a deal. She’d stay in the house a few months longer to finish her dissertation, and give the ring back when she moved out.
But then Dickens “abruptly proclaimed that she had changed her mind, that in her and her mother’s view the engagement ring ‘belonged to her’ forever, that she would ‘never give it back,’ that the ‘deal was off,’” the complaint states.
Strasser moved out with only a few armfuls of clothing. After about two months, she let him into the garage to get some—but not all—of his belongings. The appendix has a sad list of what he says he is still missing, including his laptop, an All-Clad oversized soup pot and an autographed Christian Laettner photograph.
Meanwhile, Strasser kept paying the rent on the house. When Dickens did finally move out, she didn’t tell him—and left meat in the refrigerator, which was turned off. (Check out Exhibit 14 – there’s a nasty photo). The smell was so bad that the landlord had to replace the appliance.
No doubt Dickens has a very different view of what happened and who was at fault—and may argue that if Strasser in fact dumped her, she should get to keep the ring.
Most courts have held that it doesn’t matter who is at fault, and that an engagement ring is a conditional gift that must be returned if the marriage doesn’t happen.
Still, the D.C. case that Strasser cites to support his argument isn’t exactly on point—though he points to one from Maryland that is.
Which means we may not have heard the end of this fight yet.
Strasser’s complaint is posted below:
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