The Wisconsin Supreme Court issued its last decision of 2017 in Sands v. Menard, 2017 WI 110, which involved a Watts v. Watts-type unjust enrichment claim by Debra Sands, the former fiancée of president and CEO of Menard, Inc., John Menard, Jr. In a 5-2 decision authored by Chief Justice Roggensack, the court upheld the court of appeals’ decision dismissing Sands’ claims. Our discussion of the court of appeals decision is available here.
Sands, an attorney and businesswoman, claimed that from 1998 through 2006, she and Menard participated in a joint enterprise intended to further grow and develop Menard’s business for their joint benefit. Asserting that she provided both business and personal contributions to Menard throughout the course of their relationship that resulted in financial gain to his business, Sands sought a portion of Menard’s “net worth or assets, ownership interests in the Menard companies, or any part of the increased value in the Menard Companies.” Id. at ¶ 16.
The court spent an extensive portion of the majority decision discussing Watts and its progeny, highlighting the fact that the Watts Court evaluated the standard factors for an unjust enrichment claim: (1) whether a benefit was conferred on the defendant by the plaintiff; (2) whether the defendant knew and/or appreciated the benefit; and (3) whether it would be inequitable for the defendant to retain the benefit under the circumstances. While Watts involved cohabitating parties, the court noted that it is the joint enterprise, not the romantic relationship, that provides a basis for the unjust enrichment claim.
The court then distinguished Watts from the facts before it, noting that Menard had already established his highly successful business before meeting Sands, both Sands and Menard were educated and involved in business, and both had sufficient financial resources. Further, Sands did not allege that she and Menard comingled any funds, purchased any real estate or personal property jointly or that she had obligated herself on any of Menard’s business or personal debt. Thus, the court concluded that Sands and Menard did not engage in a joint enterprise. Despite making this determination, the court went on to evaluate the unjust enrichment factors, further concluding that Sands could not state a claim under this analysis. Most notably, in evaluating whether it would be inequitable for Menard to accept or retain any benefits conferred by Sands, the court determined Sands could not demonstrate that any benefits she conferred upon Menard during the relationship were not offset by the benefits she received given that she lived a luxurious lifestyle during the relationship.
While not necessary for the disposition of this case, the court nonetheless addressed the additional issue of whether Supreme Court Rule 20:1.8(a) served as an absolute bar to Sands’ unjust enrichment claim. Unlike the court of appeals, the majority determined that Supreme Court Rule 20:1.8(a), which governs Wisconsin lawyers’ involvement in business transactions with clients and financial conflicts of interest, did not create an absolute bar to Sands’ claims. Citing the preamble to the Supreme Court Rules, the court explained that the rules assist the courts in determining whether lawyers have met the standards of care applicable in each case. The court explained that Rule 20:1.8(a) was not determinative on the viability of Sands’ unjust enrichment claim because Sands was not engaged in “the practice of law in Wisconsin” during the time period at issue.
After fully evaluating the unjust enrichment claims, the court also upheld the court of appeals’ decision to dismiss Menard’s, Inc.’s counterclaim against Sands for breach of fiduciary duty. The purported claim arose from the closing of a 2005 transaction in which Sands was involved; however, the claim was not asserted until after Sands sued Menard years later. The court determined that Menard – a very experienced businessman – knew or should have known that he needed to investigate Sands’ role in the transaction sooner, and thus, the statute of limitations barred his claim. Finally, the court upheld the dismissal of claims by Sands against Menard Trustees on the grounds that Watts does not support an unjust enrichment claim against a third party, because such a claim would lack the necessary joint enterprise.
Justice Abrahamson concurred in part and dissented in part, and was joined by Justice Ann Walsh Bradley. The dissent opined that Sands did state an adequate claim for unjust enrichment such that the claim should proceed, taking particular issue with the majority’s comparison of the facts in Watts and its progeny to the facts in this case.
This case highlights the importance of clear agreements between business partners and cohabitating partners to avoid confusion and potential litigation. Even the most experienced business people and attorneys can become involved in litigation when the parties’ relationship terms are unclear.