29 Years Since Crowe v. DeGioia

On July 8, 1982, the Supreme Court decided Crowe v. DeGioia, 9o N.J. 126 (1982).  The case has become the standard authority for the criteria for issuing preliminary injunctive relief.  But attorneys and judges rarely have occasion to focus on other legal aspects of the case (such as the Law vs. Chancery issue discussed below), its tangled procedural history, the diametrically opposed views of the same facts at both the Appellate Division and Supreme Court levels, or even the fact that it was one of the first “palimony” cases in New Jersey after Kozlowski v. Kozlowski, 80 N.J. 378 (1979).

Plaintiff Rose Crowe alleged that she met defendant Sergio DeGioia when she was 38 years old and he was 26 years old.  The mother of seven children, she was then separated from her husband, whom she later divorced.   

For twenty years, Crowe and her children lived with DeGioia.  He told her that “he would take care of her and support her for the rest of her life, and that he would share with her his various assets.”  In return, “she acted like his wife:  cooking, cleaning, caring for him when he was ill, helping in his various business ventures, and accompanying him socially.”  Their relationship ended when DeGioia told Crowe that he was leaving her “to marry a woman 22 years his junior.”  Even then, according to Crowe, he promised to give her a “‘good settlement’ so that she would not have to be concerned with her own support.”  When he did not do that, she sued in the Chancery Division, Middlesex County, to enforce that alleged agreement, for compensation for her services, for a share of his assets, and for costs and counsel fees.

Alleging that she was “unskilled, unemployable, and completely dependent on De Gioia for support,” Crowe sought immediate interim relief of various types.  The Chancery judge granted some of that relief, including a “minimal” $125 per week in support, and an order permitting Crowe to remain in DeGioia’s house, requiring DeGioia to pay Crowe’s medical and other bills, prohibiting DeGioia from transferring any of his assets, and awarding Crowe a counsel fee and costs pendente lite.  The Chancery judge also denied DeGioia’s motion to transfer the case to the Law Division.

DeGioia sought leave to appeal, which the Appellate Division granted.  By a 2-1 vote, that court vacated the interim relief.  Crowe v. DeGioia, 179 N.J. Super. 36 (App. Div. 1981).  Since the parties were not married, the majority found that Crowe’s only remedy was for breach of contract, a primarily legal claim that belonged in the Law Division.  The alleged promise of lifetime support was not clear and definite enough to be capable of specific performance in equity, and DeGioia’s papers “suggest[ed] a sharp factual dispute on critical issues which precludes prognostication of the outcome.”  

The dissenting judge agreed that there was no basis to restrain DeGioia from transferring assets or require him to pay counsel fees.  But the dissenter believed that the remaining interim relief was justified by “settled equitable principles” such as preserving the status quo and preventing irreparable harm.  Where the majority had found only a vague oral promise and a “sharp factual dispute,” the dissenter saw Crowe’s detailed and verified complaint and only “an unverified denial” and statements in a brief by DeGioia.  Completing the disagreement with the majority, the dissent viewed this case as appropriate for Chancery, noting that Kozlowski had remanded that case to the Chancery Division, whence it had come.

The Supreme Court granted leave to appeal and reversed the Appellate Division by a 6-1 vote.  Writing for the majority, Justice Pollock first affirmed that Crowe was not entitled to alimony, a purely statutory right that was unavailable outside of marriage.  But that did not preclude temporary relief under “fundamental principles” of equity.  There followed a discussion of the four criteria for which this case is now known: irreparable harm, settled vs. unsettled legal rights, controverted vs. uncontroverted material facts, and balance of hardships.  The majority found that Crowe had satisfied all four criteria.  That was so even though “DeGioia’s answering affidavits cast doubt” on Crowe’s allegation of DeGioia’s promise of lifetime support. 

Finally, the majority found the case appropriate for the Chancery Division on remand.  Since Crowe sought an ultimate order enforcing the alleged support agreement and compelling DeGioia to transfer a share of his property to her, the case “summons the infinite variety and flexibility of equitable remedies.”  Justice Pollock noted that other kinds of cases involving contracts for personal support had been brought in Chancery.  Finally, the fact that “a similarity exists between many of the issues and proofs in this type of case and those in a matrimonial action, the exclusive province of the Chancery Division,” made Chancery the appropriate forum.

As in the Appellate Division, the two opinions in the Supreme Court seem to address completely different cases.  Justice Schreiber, dissenting, did not disagree with the four-pronged test, but found that the “[t]he facts are sharply controverted and plaintiff’s claim for relief is not clear.”  He also thought that Crowe had an adequate remedy at law– “money damages for breach of lifetime support.”  Finally, he complained that the majority had deprived DeGioia of a jury trial by keeping the case in Chancery.

What happened then?  The case was tried in Chancery, and the judge found that a palimony contract had been made.  Crowe won $155,642.63, net of taxes, in monetary damages and an order transferring title of the joint home to her.  She was denied counsel fees and a share of DeGioia’s assets.  Both parties appealed.  Judge (now Justice) Long wrote an opinion for a unanimous panel affirming the Chancery Division in all respects.  Crowe v. DeGioia, 203 N.J. Super. 22 (App. Div. 1985).  The Supreme Court affirmed on the opinion below.  Justice Stein dissented on Crowe’s counsel fee request, which he would have remanded to the Chancery Division for further consideration.  Crowe v. DeGioia, 102 N.J. 50 (1986). 

The saga of Crowe and DeGioia is a strange one.  But the New Jersey judicial system is indebted to those two people, who enabled a landmark decision that has been cited over 800 times in decisions available on Westlaw, and many more times in unpublished rulings.