(updates article posted on August 4, 2014)
On May 28, 2015, the Florida Supreme Court answered the following rephrased certified question in the negative:
Is a terminable-at-will agreement to pool lottery winnings unenforceable in the absence of an express agreement to continue the agreement for a period of time exceeding one year, when full performance of the agreement is possible within one year from the inception of the agreement?
The facts giving rise to this dispute are fairly straightforward. Howard Browning and Lynn Poirier lived together as a couple between 1991 and 2009. In 1993, the couple orally agreed that they would split the winnings of any lottery tickets purchased by either of them while they remained in a relationship. In 2007, Poirier purchased a winning ticket and received $1 million dollars less taxes. Despite their agreement, Poirier refused to give Browning half of the proceeds. Browning in turn sued for breach of an oral contract and unjust enrichment, seeking half of Poirier’s winnings. Poirier moved for directed verdict on both causes of actions, claiming the statute of frauds as a defense. The trial court granted Poirier’s motion on both counts, entering final judgment in favor of Poirier.
On appeal, the Fifth District affirmed the trial court’s ruling that Poirier was entitled to a directed verdict on the breach of contract claim because the couple’s agreement was voided by the statute of frauds, but reversed the trial court’s ruling on the unjust enrichment claim. Citing the Florida Supreme Court case of Yates v. Ball, the district court explained that an oral contract with no specified date for performance is subject to the statute of frauds if it is clear that the parties intended for it to last longer than one year. The district court highlighted that Browning and Poirier’s lottery agreement was to extend until the couple’s relationship ended. The court stated that any suggestion that the couple had intended for their relationship—and thereby, the lottery agreement—to end within one year was evidenced by their intention for a long-term commitment.
Judges Torpy and Griffin dissented in part. They agreed with the majority that the directed verdict on the unjust enrichment count was error, but disagreed with the majority’s conclusion on the contract claim. They believed that the majority ignored the plain language of the statute, stating that it only considers contracts which clearly cannot—as opposed to likely will not—be performed within one year. To view the Fifth District’s opinion, click here.
In quashing the Fifth District’s decision, the Florida Supreme Court held that the oral agreement between Browning and Poirier fell outside the statute of frauds. Emphasizing the language in the statute of frauds, the Court stated that unenforceable oral contracts are only those which cannot be performed within the one year period. The Court noted that if Browning or Poirier purchased a winning lottery ticket and split the proceeds before the expiration of one year, the agreement would have been fully performed before the expiration of one year. The Court also noted that there was nothing in the terms of the contract to demonstrate that it could not be performed within one year. The Court therefore held that because the oral agreement between Browning and Poirier could have possibly been performed within one year, it falls outside the statute of frauds.