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Champagne v. Higgins

Superior Court of Rhode Island, Kent

December 16, 2016


          For Plaintiff: Eric Eaton Renner, Esq.

          For Defendant: Joshua Carlin, Esq.


          RUBINE, J.

         This action was filed by Alexander M. Champagne (Champagne or Plaintiff) against Kelley F. Higgins (Higgins or Defendant) seeking Declaratory and Injunctive Relief with respect to the issue of which party has a superior claim to ownership/possession of a pet Border Collie named Hector. Defendant filed a counterclaim for the same relief.

         While the Court does not profess to have the Wisdom of Solomon, the Court believes its resolution of this dilemma is more humane than that employed by King Solomon.[1]

         After a bench trial on the merits, the Court makes the following findings of fact and conclusions of law.


         Champagne and Higgins travelled together to the Republic of China. They began their overseas journey on or about August 2010. Champagne at that time began graduate studies at a University in China. Higgins accompanied him, as they were dating at the time of his departure. After arriving in China, Higgins found employment. They resided together in China from August 2010 to April 2012. On or about December 5, 2010, the couple mutually decided to acquire a dog for companionship.[2] From the time Hector was purchased he lived with Champagne and Higgins at their residence in China. After the dog began living with the parties, both parties paid for the dog's maintenance and care. Hector received necessary inoculations in China. The records of inoculations were introduced as part of the so-called "blue book"-a document prepared in China purportedly containing records of the dog's birth, ownership, registration, and proof of vaccinations (Pl.'s Ex. 1 for identification); they were written in Chinese, with bar codes, and without translation. These records, therefore, had no evidentiary value for the Court in resolving who paid the cost of vaccinators, who purchased the dog, or proof of payment for vaccinations in China. (Ex. 1 was never accepted as a full exhibit). At various times while in China, each paid for such items as food, visits to the veterinarian, and other incidentals concerning Hector's care and maintenance. The dog clearly served as a loyal companion to both Champagne and Higgins in China where Hector remained with the couple until April 2012. On or about that date, Higgins' visa expired; however, Champagne's graduate program was not yet completed. After discussion with Champagne and with his complete agreement and encouragement, Higgins was to leave China with Hector, and she completed the necessary paperwork for Hector's journey to the United States with her. She purchased a crate to ensure his safety during the flight. After discussion and permission from Champagne, Higgins returned to the United States with Hector. She also paid the expenses of Hector's return to the United States.

         Upon arriving in the United States, Higgins and Hector moved in with Higgins' parents in Brewster, New York. Champagne remained in China until June 2012, at which time his graduate studies were complete. He returned from China and joined Higgins and Hector in New York. From April 2012 to May 2013, Hector resided with both Champagne and Higgins at the home of Higgins' parents. Higgins and Champagne remained in a romantic relationship at that time and continued enjoying the companionship of Hector together. The parties also shared responsibility for the care and maintenance of Hector at this time. In or about May 2013, the couple left Brewster, New York and moved with Hector to East Greenwich, Rhode, Island. They moved in with Champagne's parents, where the couple continued to enjoy the mutual companionship of the dog and jointly paid certain bills to attend to his care and maintenance. At no time, either when living in China or after his return to the United States, did Plaintiff ever have sole possession of Hector. Plaintiff fully consented to Defendant's sole possession to facilitate the dog's return to the United States. Higgins continued in sole possession from the time she left China until Champagne joined her in Brewster. Neither party acted in a manner inconsistent with joint ownership.

         Throughout all the moves and changes in residence, Higgins remained the only constant in Hector's life. In fact, Defendant had sole possession and personally attended to Hector's care and maintenance while Plaintiff was still abroad. Higgins had sole possession of Hector from the time she returned from China to the time Plaintiff returned (April 2012 until May 2013). In June 2015, the couple discontinued their romantic relationship. At the time of the break-up, the couple resided in separate locations (Plaintiff in East Greenwich, Defendant in Providence). Hector accompanied Higgins when she moved from East Greenwich to Providence. In Providence, she and Champagne discussed the future of Hector after the break-up. At the time of the discussions, she had sole possession of Hector and was his primary caretaker. Higgins testified that Champagne acknowledged her status at that time and indicated to Higgins that she could have exclusive possession of Hector, which was originally necessitated by the decision for Hector to return to the United States with her. The Plaintiff denies making such a statement. His participation in the decision for Higgins to take Hector home with her stands as tacit recognition by Champagne that she was to have exclusive possession of the dog, at least until he returned from China. This is not inconsistent with Champagne's testimony that he never intended Higgins' possession to be permanent. He did concede that after the break-up, Higgins was the dog's primary caretaker. Defendant recalls specifically that they never reached a final agreement with respect to Hector. Defendant believed there was an agreement that she and Hector would remain together after her return from China. There was discussion at the time that Higgins was to reduce their agreement to writing, but their arrangement was never written or agreed to in writing. After their discussions, Higgins sent an e-mail to Champagne stating that she never agreed to a 50/50 arrangement. She did, however, allow Hector to return to East Greenwich to stay with Champagne on occasion, but such visits were sporadic and never formalized and occurred only on occasions when the couples' schedules allowed. At any time before or after litigation ensued, the couple could have reached an agreement. However, without such an agreement, the Court is left to decide whether Plaintiff or Defendant have proven their entitlement to sole possession.[3]

         When Higgins and Hector arrived in the United States, they moved to Brewster, New York and then to East Greenwich, Rhode Island where they lived with Hector at the home of Champagne's parents in East Greenwich. At no time, either in China or after his return to the United States, did Champagne have sole possession of Hector. While living together in China, New York and Rhode Island, Hector lived with the couple and they shared his companionship, as well as sharing the costs and labor associated with Hector's care and maintenance. Defendant had sole possession of Hector from the time she returned from China until Champagne returned, at which time their joint possession resumed. The couple discontinued their romantic relationship on or about June 2015. It was only after the breakup that the couple discussed possession of Hector. According to Higgins, at that time they had a face-to-face discussion where Champagne disclosed his belief that Higgins was Hector's caretaker and that from that point moving forward, Hector was better off with Higgins. Champagne disputes that he ever made such a statement, but it is clear, that in light of their breakup, some discussion ensued about the ownership and possession of Hector.

         On or about December 28, 2010, Higgins wrote both her name and Champagne's name as the co-owners in what they referred to as the "red book."[4] The documentation prepared in China displayed Higgins' perception of co-ownership and joint possession in her insertion of both names in the blank area reflecting joint ownership. This Court believes that as of the time Hector joined them in their Chinese residence until Higgins transported the dog to the United States, co-ownership and equal right to possession remained the status of Hector. The couple shared in the possession of Hector, both when the couple initially lived with Higgins' parents in New York, and thereafter when they moved to Rhode Island and lived together with Hector at the home of Champagne's parents in East Greenwich. In June 2015, the couple ended their romantic relationship, and Higgins moved into her own apartment in Providence with Hector. It was only at that time serious discussions took place concerning Hector's status after the break up. Both parties acknowledged such discussions having taken place in Providence at Higgins' apartment. Defendant recalls that at that time she was the primary caretaker of Hector. The parties are not in agreement that they reached an understanding of the future status of the dog. Plaintiff believes he has met his burden of proving sole ownership from the moment the dog was purchased until today, since right to possession typically follows ownership. See Terrien v. Joseph, 73 R.I. 112, 115 (1947). Plaintiff believes he is entitled to exclusive possession. Defendant on the other hand believes that ownership was joint, and that the couple reached an agreement that Hector would remain in Higgins' exclusive possession (not a 50/50 arrangement), but that she was willing to have Hector stay with Champagne occasionally.

         Since no written agreement was ever prepared, and no party introduced such an agreement, the Court concludes that the status of Hector after the break up was never resolved consensually. Based upon these facts, the Court believes that both the Plaintiff and Defendant owned Hector jointly and that neither party met their respective burden of proving by a preponderance of the evidence exclusive ownership and right to possession from 2010 to the present. Therefore, neither party sustained their burden under a pure common law property analysis as to either the complaint or counterclaim for replevin or declaratory/injunctive relief. The Court finds that from 2010 until the couple broke up in June 2015, the parties were both joint owners and shared the right to possession of Hector. The Court finds the more credible testimony to establish that the dog was jointly purchased and owned jointly by the couple, and served as their mutual companion during their stay in China and upon their return to the United States, both in New York and Rhode Island, until their romantic relationship ended. The main issue in this case is whether either party has the exclusive right to possession after their break up in June 2015.

         The Court must determine which party is entitled to exclusive possession, after previously sharing the role as joint owners and sharing possession when they lived together in China, New York, and Rhode Island. At this time, Hector resides with Higgins in her home, either in Providence or Portsmouth.[5] Although Champagne has possession for short periods of time as both party's schedules would ...

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