12/5/2013 3:49:00 PM,
Jeff D. Gorman
(CN) - A Georgia man who left his fiancee for another woman must pay $50,000 for breaching his promise to marry her, the state appeals court ruled.
Melissa Cooper lived with Christopher Ned Kelley in 2000 and the couple had a child together. In 2004, Kelley proposed and gave her a ring valued at approximately $10,000.
When Cooper later discovered that Kelley had been seeing another woman, however, dating back to before the proposal, Kelley pledged to end the relationship and marry Cooper.
Cooper then learned of Kelley's relationship with yet another woman in 2011. Kelly told Cooper to move out along with their child and another child from Cooper's previous relationship.
Cooper sued Kelley for a variety of claims. After the issues of paternity and child support were settled, she continued with her claims of fraud and breach of promise to marry. The trial court ruled in Cooper's favor, awarding damages and attorneys' fees totaling $50,000.
Kelley based his subsequent appeal on precedent from the Georgia Supreme Court that an unmarried couple living together in a sexual union is part of a meretricious relationship.
He said the promise to marry was part of a meretricious relationship and was unenforceable.
Merriam Webster defines meretricious as "having the nature of prostitution."
The state Court of Appeals noted on Nov. 22 that "the meretricious relationship defense typically is asserted as a defense to a claim of breach of a financial agreement or arrangement between two parties when the agreement is seen as being in exchange for one party's agreement to cohabit with the other party and provide sexual relations."
Such a defense has been held inapplicable, however, "where the object
of the contract is not illegal or against public policy, but where the illegality or immorality is only collateral or remotely connected to the contract," precedent states.
The court's divided seven-judge panel affirmed the ruling for Cooper.
"The object of such a promise is not illegal or against public policy. In Georgia, the legislature has specifically announced that 'marriage is encouraged by the law,'" Judge Elizabeth Branch wrote for the majority.
"Kelley has not cited any cases, nor has our research uncovered one, where the meretricious relationship defense was asserted or upheld in response to a claim of breach of promise to marry," she added. "We therefore conclude that the fact that the parties lived together both before and after the marriage proposal is only collateral to the promise to marry."
On the issue of fraud, the panel emphasized Kelley's admission: "I never initiated the concept of marriage with her, outside of giving her that ring" and "I never said the words 'will you marry me' to her."
"This testimony, when juxtaposed with Cooper's testimony about the proposal and her acceptance, can be construed as an admission that Kelley never intended to marry Cooper," Branch wrote.
The majority also upheld the amount of damages.
"Cooper testified that she was devastated by Kelley's fraud and breach of promise to marry and that she quit her job to raise the couple's children in reliance on the promise," Branch wrote.
Chief Judge Herbert Phipps delivered a partially dissenting opinion, joined by Judge John Ellington.
"The evidence did not show that Kelley lacked the intent to perform at the time he proposed to Cooper," Phipps wrote. "Notably, Cooper admitted that there was a time after the proposal when she too had a 'relationship' with someone else. A finding of fraud cannot be sustained upon these facts, and in my view, Kelley is entitled to a new trial on that claim."