Palimony Persists in California
Last year, my associate, Steven K. Yoda, and I successfully defended a multimillion dollar palimony suit (aka Marvin action) in federal court. Our client (“Phil”) died under mysterious circumstances at his home in Pacific Palisades, California. Phil’s girlfriend (“Trina”) of 3 – 4 years initially filed suit in Los Angeles County Superior Court, but, because our client had been a foreign national (and was not a permanent resident of the United States), we successfully removed the case to the United States District Court for the Central District of California.
Trina, a former felon, and 15 years Phil’s junior, claimed that Phil “promised” to support her forever. She had a handwritten love note, scribbled on hotel stationery, which, she believed, memorialized that promise. Although she had been unemployed for 20 years, she also claimed that she relied on Phil’s purported “promise” and forewent valuable employment opportunities during the course of their relationship.
As an aside, it should be noted that California marital law does not apply in cases like this.
California spousal support guidelines, for example, are not used in this case (because a girlfriend is not a spouse).
The law underlying Trina’s claim arises from the 1976 California Supreme Court case, Marvin v. Marvin, 18 Cal. 3d 660 (1976), wherein actor Lee Marvin was sued by his ex-girlfriend Michelle Triola Marvin for support under various theories. Although the California Supreme Court held that cohabiting significant others can sue each other for support under contract theories, Michelle Marvin ultimately lost her case because she could not prove the existence of her purported contract with Lee Marvin.
Faced with similarly vague assertions that Phil and Trina had entered into a “contract” for support, we sifted through 33,000 emails and numerous social media posts for evidence of the parties’ purported contract. To help us, we hired Epiq Systems (http://www.epiqsystems.com/about-epiq) to forensically collect and manage the data. We also hired contract attorney (now associate) Ed Lyman to help us search and review the data.
Through the course of our review, we realized that there was significant evidence pointing to a little-recognized Marvin defense- namely, that the parties’ relationship was “meretricious” (i.e., one primarily based on sex).
Trina, for example, had an online sexual fetish profile and she had met Phil through that profile. Photographic and documentary evidence confirmed that Phil and Trina’s relationship centered around their sexual fetish and that, at one point, Phil even presented Trina with a sexual master-slave contract. Phil, in turn, transferred hundreds of thousands of dollars to Trina. Needless to say, there was sufficient evidence to call into question the merits of Trina’s claim.
We tackled these issues in a series of discovery requests that Trina was either unwilling or unable to answer. It also became clear during discovery that Trina had destroyed key evidence. Among other things, she accessed and deleted Phil’s e-mails after his death, she deleted her online profile, and she dismantled and sold off equipment from her sex “dungeon.” We filed a motion for terminating sanctions based upon her spoliation of evidence, and the case settled on the eve of that hearing. Trina made some careless mistakes that jeopardized her case at an early stage.
We leave it to another day to find out whether the meretricious defense is alive and well or whether a jury will enforce a purported contract memorialized by vague love notes. For more information on Marvin claims and palimony issues, email Peter at firstname.lastname@example.org