Judges may invoke specific performance remedy, appeals panel says
By Mary Pat Gallagher
New Jersey Law Journal
March 10, 2009
When couples break up, judges can decide who gets custody of pets based on their unique sentimental value, a New Jersey appeals court ruled Tuesday, setting a precedent in the state.
The published opinion in Houseman v. Dare, A-2415-07, reverses a trial court’s finding that pets differ from personal property like heirlooms, family treasures and works of art and therefore that the equitable remedy of specific performance is not available.
Appellate Division Judges Jane Grall, Stephen Skillman and Ronald Graves found that determination erroneous as a matter of law and remanded for further proceedings.
“There is no reason for a court of equity to be more wary in resolving competing claims for possession of a pet, based on one party’s sincere affection for and attachment to it than in resolving competing claims based on one party’s sincere sentiment for an inanimate object based on a relationship with the donor,” Grall wrote.
The case arose out of the broken engagement of Doreen Houseman and Eric Dane. The couple started dating in 1993, bought a house together in Williamstown in 1999 and became engaged in 2000. In 2003, they paid $1,500 for a pug named Dexter.
Dane broke off the engagement in May 2006 and when Houseman moved out two months later, she took Dexter with her, along with what Grall described as his “paraphernalia.” After that, Dexter lived with Houseman, who allowed Dane to take the dog for visits.
In late February 2007, Houseman went on vacation and left Dexter with Dane, but he refused to surrender the dog when she returned on March 4.