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Jury’s verdict affirmed in fake divorce lawsuit

The Court of Special Appeals has affirmed a $469,000 verdict for a Perry Hall woman who, according to her attorney, “saw her entire life go up in flames” when she learned that her husband had never divorced his first wife.

Ronald L. Bradley Jr. claimed the damages were essentially for breach of a promise to marry, which Maryland does not recognize as grounds for a lawsuit.

The appellate court, however, said Dara Lawrence Bradley’s causes of action were for misrepresentation, not for a breach of promise to marry.

“[Ronald Bradley’s] claim that he was divorced constituted a false statement, and such statements are actionable in tort,” Judge Stuart R. Berger wrote for the appellate court in an opinion released late Tuesday. “We see no reason to contort this claim into one for breach of a promise to marry.”

Peter T. McDowell, Dara Lawrence Bradley’s attorney, said Wednesday that the opinion “clears up any prior confusion about whether tort claims can arise for misrepresenting one’s marital status.”

“She gave the last five good childbearing years to him,” said McDowell, a Towson solo practitioner. “She saw her entire life go up in flames.”

Francis A. Pommett III, an attorney at Nathanson & Pommett P.C. in Baltimore, represented Ronald Bradley.

“We are disappointed with the court’s ruling,” Pommett said Wednesday.

Pommett said he and his client are reviewing the decision to see whether they will seek review by the Court of Appeals.

The Bradleys met in November 2003 at Kennedy Krieger Institute. Dara Lawrence was a rehabilitation nurse and helped care for Ronald Bradley’s son, so the two had frequent contact. At the time, Ronald Bradley had been married for 20 years and had three children.

In 2004, he told her that he was separated from his wife and had instituted divorce proceedings. The two began dating, and moved in together that fall. Lawrence resigned from Kennedy Krieger, where she was earning $88,000 per year, in part to care for Ronald Bradley’s children.

After years of excuses about the delay, Ronald Bradley announced in September 2006 that his divorce was finalized. He showed her a plaque that contained a “Judgment of Divorce,” which included the circuit’s gold seal, the typed name of Baltimore County Circuit Court Judge Judith C. Ensor and the forged signature of clerk Suzanne Mensh.

The couple married at the Bellagio hotel in Las Vegas in 2007, but their wedded bliss was apparently short-lived. After two incidents of battery, Dara Lawrence Bradley was searching online court records for other complaints against her husband and discovered there was no divorce judgment. She sued for an annulment in May 2008, later adding claims for intentional infliction of emotional distress, misrepresentation claim and battery.

A jury awarded her $287,000 in compensatory damages, adding up the misrepresentation and intentional infliction of emotional distress count in February 2011. The jury also awarded $1,000 for each of the two battery counts and $180,000 in punitive damages.

Baltimore County Circuit Court Judge Kathleen G. Cox granted the annulment and Ronald Bradley’s claim for a marital award.

Separately, Ronald Bradley was criminally charged with forging a public document. In October 2009, he received probation before judgment and was fined $500, according to court records.

Dara Lawrence Bradley pushed Baltimore County prosecutors to charge Ronald Bradley with bigamy, a felony that, under Maryland law, carries a maximum of nine years in prison.

Baltimore County State’s Attorney Scott D. Shellenberger said Wednesday that prosecutors looked into the matter but ultimately decided not to charge Ronald Bradley with bigamy.

Shellenberger said his office believed, then as now, that the civil court was the appropriate place for the bigamy issue to be resolved, and he was happy the Court of Special Appeals affirmed the lower court’s decision.

The court said in Tuesday’s opinion that Dara Lawrence Bradley’s misrepresentation claim arises from Ronald Bradley’s “negligent and/or intentional conduct” in claiming to be divorced when, in fact, he was married.

It cited to the 1979 case of Vance v. Vance, in which the Court of Appeals held that “false statements regarding marital status in a bigamy context are actionable as the tort of misrepresentation.”

Berger said Cox correctly distinguished between breach of promise to marry and tort claims at trial, and on that basis “carefully determined which evidence could be presented to the jury.”

“Accordingly, the trial judge properly interpreted Maryland case law, and did not err by failing to dismiss the misrepresentation claims,” the court said.

WHAT THE COURT HELD

Case:

Ronald L. Bradley, Jr. v. Dara Lawrence Bradley, CSA No. 560, Sept. Term 2011. Reported. Opinion by Berger, J. Argued Oct. 11, 2012. Filed Nov. 27, 2012.

Issue:

Did the Circuit Court err in failing to dismiss a woman’s claims for intentional infliction of emotional distress and intentional and negligent misrepresentation when the man she married falsely claimed he was divorced?

Holding:

No; Under Vance v. Vance, false statements about one’s marital status are actionable as a tort of misrepresentation.

Counsel:

Francis A. Pommett III for appellant. Peter T. McDowell for appellee.

RecordFax #12-1127-03 (21 pages).