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Law School Case Brief

Auten v. Auten - 308 N.Y. 155, 124 N.E.2d 99 (1954)


Under either the "center of gravity" or the "grouping of contacts" theory of the conflict of laws, instead of regarding as conclusive the parties' intention or the place of making or performance, emphasis is upon the law of the place that has the most significant contacts with the matter in dispute.


Margarite Auten and Harold Auten married in England in 1917, and continued to live in that country with their two children until 1931. Harold later deserted Margarite and obtained a Mexican divorce, and proceeded to “marry” another woman. Margarite then went to New york City to see and talk to Harold about adjustment of their differences – this resulted to the separation agreement of June 1933. Under the Agreement, Harold was obligated to pay to a trustee, for the “account of” the wife, who was to return to England, a certain monthly sum for the support of herself and the children. In addition, the agreement provided that the parties were to continue to live separate and apart, that neither should sue “in any action relating to their separation,” and that the wife should not “cause any complaint to be lodged against the husband, in any jurisdiction, by reason of the said alleged divorced or remarriage.” Margarite subsequently returned to England, where she has since lived with her children. Harold failed to live up to his agreement, making but a few payments under it. Consequently, Margarite filed a petition for separation in an English court, charging Harold with adultery. Harold was served in New York; he was then required to pay alimony pendente lite. Nothing resulted from this action; hence, Margarite instituted the present suit to recover the sum of $26,564, which represented the amount allegedly due her under the agreement. In his answer, Harold alleged that Margarite’s institution of the separation suit in England operated as a repudiation of the agreement and effected a forfeiture of her right to any payments under it. The court at Special Term and the Appellate Division, applying New York law, dismissed the complaint, holding that under such law, Margarite’s commencement of the English action and the award of temporary alimony constituted a rescission and repudiation of the separation agreement. Margarite appealed from the judgment of the appellate court, which affirmed the grant of defendant Harold's motion for summary judgment and dismissal of the complaint on the issue of payment of support and maintenance installments to plaintiff under a separation agreement.


  1. Was the New York law applicable in the case at bar?
  2. Was the dismissal of the complaint proper?


1) No. 2) No.


The Court of Appeals of New York held that the examination of the respective contacts with New York and England compelled the conclusion that it was English law which must be applied to determine he impact and effect to be given the wife’s institution of the separation suit. According to the Court, it was England which has all the truly significant contacts, while the State of New York’s sole nexus with the matter in dispute was that it was the place where the agreement was made and where the trustee, to whom the moneys were in the first instance to be paid, had his office. Since, then, the law of England must be applied, and since, at the very least, an issue existed as to whether the courts of that country treat the commencement of a separation action as a repudiation of an earlier-made separation agreement, summary judgment should not have been granted. Thus, the judgment of the Appellate Division and that of Special Term insofar as they dismiss the complaint should be reversed.

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