Can Social Abandonment By A Spouse Be Sufficient As Grounds For Divorce?

While New York continues to be the last state that insists upon fault-based divorce, that has not stopped various attempts to broaden present grounds for divorce available under the Domestic  Relations Law.  In a recent decision, Davis v. Davis, 2009 N.Y. Slip. Op. 08579 (2nd Dept. 2009), the Appellate Division, Second Department, held that “social abandonment” of one spouse by the other, does not meet the definition of constructive abandonment, and can not be used as grounds for divorce.  This case demonstrates why divorce lawyers and their clients, here in Rochester and elsewhere in New York, can be in situation where they cannot get their clients divorced, despite significant breakdowns in marital relationships.

In Davis, the wife alleged that the husband refused to engage in social interaction with the wife by:

refusing to celebrate with her or acknowledge Valentine’s Day, Christmas, Thanksgiving, and the wife’s birthday, by refusing to eat meals together, by refusing to attend family functions or accompany the wife to movies, shopping, restaurants, and church services, by leaving her once at a hospital emergency room, by removing the wife’s belongings from the marital bedroom, and by otherwise ignoring her.  The parties have been married for 41 years and they reside at the same address.

The above claims were included as a part of the wife’s cause of action for constructive abandonment.  The husband filed a pre-answer motion pursuant to CPLR §3211(a)(7) to dismiss the constructive abandonment cause of action and, alternatively, moved for summary judgment dismissing that cause of action. The husband, while contesting many of the wife’s factual allegations of “social abandonment,” argued that the complaint fails to state a cause of action for a divorce based on “constructive abandonment.”

Domestic Relations Law §170 sets forth six statutory grounds on which a spouse may seek to divorce another. The abandonment ground for divorce, set forth in Domestic Relations Law §170(2), provides that an action for a divorce may be maintained based upon “[t]he abandonment of the plaintiff by the defendant for a period of one or more years.”   The essence of abandonment is the refusal of one spouse to fulfill “basic obligations springing from the marriage contract”.  The court noted that a viable cause of action under Domestic Relations Law §170(2) has been recognized in three different factual forms: (1)  a defendant spouse’s actual physical departure from the marital residence that is unjustified, voluntary, without consent of the plaintiff spouse, and with the intention of the departing spouse not to return; (2) the defendant spouse locks the plaintiff spouse out of the marital residence, absent justification or consent;  (3) “constructive abandonment,” which has been defined as the refusal by a defendant spouse to engage in sexual relations with the plaintiff spouse for one or more years prior to the commencement of the action, when such refusal is unjustified, willful, and continual, and despite repeated requests for the resumption of sexual relations.

the complaint alleges that the husband refused to engage in social interaction with the wife by refusing to celebrate with her or acknowledge Valentine’s Day, Christmas, Thanksgiving, and the wife’s birthday, by refusing to eat meals together, by refusing to attend family functions or accompany the wife to movies, shopping, restaurants, and church services, by leaving her once at a hospital emergency room, by removing the wife’s belongings from the marital bedroom, and by otherwise ignoring her. The parties have been married for 41 years and they reside at the same address.
The husband filed a pre-answer motion pursuant to CPLR 3211(a)(7) to dismiss the constructive abandonment cause of action and, alternatively, moved for summary judgment dismissing that cause of action pursuant to CPLR 3212. The husband, while contesting many of the wife’s factual allegations of “social abandonment,” argued that the complaint fails to state a cause of action for a divorce based on “constructive abandonment.” The wife opposed dismissal arguing, [*2]inter alia, that social abandonment has been recognized as a ground for divorce in fairly recent trial-level decisions rendered by the Supreme Courts in Nassau, Queens, and Westchester Counties.

After analyzing the applicable case law and plain language of the statute, the Appellate Division concluded that the plaintiff’s allegations of social abandonment may appropriately be viewed as merely another way of claiming “irreconcilable differences” between spouses, that do not constitute a cognizable ground for divorce. The plaintiff’s allegations of a “social abandonment,” designed to mimic the abandonment language of Domestic Relations Law §170(2), “elevated the artificial title of the claim over the substance of the causes of action that are statutorily recognized and understood.”

The Appellate Division further noted that there are several reasons why the courts have not recognized social abandonment as a cognizable ground for divorce, including the longevity of the current definitional understanding of constructive abandonment; its concern for a judicial usurpation of legislative authority; the fact that a social abandonment of one spouse by another is a provision of the marriage contract that necessarily equates with a spouse’s refusal to engage in sexual relations.; and the practical difficulties associated with trying to define a social abandonment cause of action, and of how courts might conceptualize the cause as separate and distinct from traditional notions of constructive abandonment.  In court’s view, “social abandonment” cannot be easily defined and therefore defies consistent and easily applied definitional interpretation, resulting in the courts examining the conduct of couples on a case-by-case basis, and presenting significant variations as to “the degree of social interaction involving family events, meals, holidays, religious activities, spousal expectations, cultural differences, and communications.”

The Davis case is just one more illustration of the fact that New York needs to abandon its fault-based grounds for divorce.  No-fault divorce would significantly reduce divorce litigation and make clients’, and attorneys’, lives less frustrating.  Unfortunately, the New York Legislature has not shown much interest in this issue over the years.  What is also interesting, is that the Second Department’s position in Davis appears to be contrary to the Third Department’s position in Dunne v. Dunne, 47 A.D.3d 1056 (3rd Dept. 2008), discussed in an earlier post, which held constructive abandonment has taken place in a situation where one spouse took an uncompromising position that plaintiff choose to either adhere to the advice of his treating physicians or cease taking his anxiety medication in order to return to the marital residence, thereby risking his well-being. If forcing a party to choose between taking a medication and returning to the marital residence amounted to “an unreasonable condition as a term of their relationship,” which violated marital obligation to the husband, I believe that a refusal to participate in various activities with the spouse represents a similar violation of marital obligation.

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