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Current Developments in the Commercial Divisions of the
New York State Courts
Posted: March 30, 2018

Plaintiff Prevails on Money Had and Received Claim; Statutory Presumption of Joint Account Ownership Did Not Apply

On March 23, 2018, the Fourth Department issued a decision in Sweetman v. Suhr, 2018 NY Slip Op. 02111, holding that a plaintiff should have prevailed at trial on her claim for money had and received because the statutory presumption of joint account ownership did not apply, explaining:

Here, we conclude that judgment should be rendered in favor of plaintiff, not defendant. Plaintiff’s claim for money had and received sounds in quasi contract and arises when, in the absence of an agreement, one party possesses money that belongs to another and that in equity and good conscience it ought not retain. The evidence at trial establishes that defendant possesses funds that were obtained from plaintiff’s bank account to satisfy John’s debt. The record further establishes, however, that John neither provided nor owned any of the funds in the account. Although John’s name was eventually placed on the account along with plaintiff’s, the uncontradicted evidence establishes that plaintiff added John’s name solely as a matter of convenience, i.e., to allow John to write checks and administer the account on behalf of plaintiff’s granddaughter should tragedy befall plaintiff while she attended the capital murder trial in Texas. It is clear from plaintiff’s actions that she did not intend to grant John a present personal interest in its funds. Thus, the funds in the account belonged solely to plaintiff, and defendant may not, in equity and good conscience, retain such funds in payment of a debt that plaintiff did not owe. Indeed, the equities weigh even stronger in plaintiff’s favor given that the funds constituted life insurance proceeds from the murder of plaintiff’s son, which were being held by plaintiff for the benefit of his fatherless daughter.

Contrary to defendant’s contention, we did not determine in the prior appeal that the evidence was legally insufficient to sustain plaintiff’s burden on her claim for money had and received. Rather, we determined only that there were triable questions of fact with respect to that claim. The trial has now occurred, and the evidence preponderates decidedly in plaintiff’s favor.

Furthermore, and contrary to the court’s determination, the presumption of joint account-ownership found in Banking Law ยง 675 does not apply. In the prior appeal, we explicitly stated that this particular statutory presumption does not apply under these circumstances. That ruling is the law of the case, and the court therefore erred in dismissing the complaint based on the very statutory presumption that we held inapplicable in the prior appeal.

(Internal quotations and citations omitted).

Commercial litigation involves many different types of claims. The claim discussed above–money had and received–is rarely used, but it gives a plaintiff a means of recovering money paid to someone else in error. Contact Schlam Stone & Dolan partner John Lundin at jlundin@schlamstone.com if you or a client have a question regarding one person depriving another of her property, whether that property is tangible or intangible, or even involves a discrete fund of money.

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