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Harvey v. Dow

Citation. Maine Sup. Ct., 962 A.2d 322 (2008). Appeal after remand. 11 A.3d 308 (2011)
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Brief Fact Summary.

Dows’ (D) daughter, Harvey (P), contended that the Dows’ (D) general promises was to transfer some of their land to her and that the actions of her father, Jeffery Sr. (D), which included the approval of the site of her house, obtaining a building permit for it and building a substantial part of it himself at the same location supported a claim for promissory estoppel which points to the fact that the Dows (D) were promissorily estopped from conveying a deed to a parcel of land on which she had built a house.

Synopsis of Rule of Law.

The court must consider the alleged promisor’s conduct as well as any generalized promises the promisor has made when considering a claim of promissory estoppel, in determining if all of the promisor’s actions, taken together, constitute a “promise” to the claimant.


Harvey (P) and her husband decided to build a house on the Dows’ (D) property. The land on which they built their house had been promised to Harvey (P) and her brother by the Dows’ (D) ever since they were kids that at some point in the future, all or some of the 125 acres of land would be transferred to them. The decision to build this house was however made after Dows (D) granted them permission to do so. The plan of financing the building of the house was initially to utilize the Dows’ (D) home equity line of credit but after the unfortunate death of Harvey’s (P) husband in an accident, Harvey (P) decided to use her late husband’s life insurance proceeds to finance the building of the house.

Harvey’s father, Jeffery Sr (D) approved the site of the new house, obtained a building permit for his daughter and eventually built a substantial of it himself at that location. Shortly after, father-daughter relationship began to nosedive. The house was completed and Harvey (P) moved in with a cost of $200,000 on her neck. She then sought the deed from Jeffery Sr. (D) so that she would be able to get mortgage and be able to finance other pressing projects. So Harvey (P) brought a suit against the Dows (D) when it became clear that they were not going to execute a deed even after a period of discussion. The suit was to compel the conveyance of unspecified real property to her or for damages, including her claims.

She based her theory of her recovery on promissory estoppel which the Dows (D) kicked against with a counterclaim for a declaratory judgment that Harvey (P) had no rights in their property. However, when the case came to trial, there was conflicting evidence as to whether either of the Dows (D) had at one time or the other promised to deed any of their land to their daughter. The trial court found that the Dows (D) statements were not promises that could be enforced even if they were the issue of detrimental reliance, as the promise were without a timeframe and there was no consonance on the primary elements such as the boundaries or size of the property involved. Moreover, Harvey (P) did not state a claim to the promissory estoppel. The state’s highest court however granted a review after Harvey (P) appealed on the ground that the trial court erred by failing to broaden its perspective beyond the Dows (D) generalized statements to determine whether she had made out a promissory estoppel claim.


does the court considers the alleged promisor’s conduct as well as any generalized promises the promisor had made when considering a claim of promissory estoppel, in determining if all of the promisor’s actions, taken together, constitute a “promise” to the claimant?


(Mead, J.) Yes. The court must consider the alleged promisor’s conduct as well as any generalized promises the promisor has made when considering a claim of promissory estoppel, in determining if all of the promisor’s actions, taken together, constitute a “promise” to the claimant. Promissory estoppel is applicable to promises which are otherwise not binding and is used to enforce such promises to avoid injustice. So, a promise can be deduced to be the prerequisite of a promissory estoppel. On this premise, the court had not erred in ruling that Dows (D) made only generalized promises to Harvey (P) to convey land to her, and that those promises were not binding express promises due to the indefinites as to the primary terms such as identification of a specific parcel size, boundaries and so on. If these were the only action of the Dows (D) then the trial court would have been right in coming to the conclusion that Harvey’s (P) promissory estoppel claim to fail. But this was not the case.

The Dows (D) actually went beyond their generalized promises to acquiesce, support and encouraged Harvey (P) in the construction on the house on their property. Harvey’s (P) father also agreed with the location of the house. He even obtained the building permit to allow construction of the site to commence and not only was he aware the house was being built; he actually supported his daughter in building large portion of the house himself. Under a promissory estoppel analysis, what is important is the implied conduct of the promissor and not for the promise relied on been express. In this scenario, the promise could be implied from the conduct of Jeffery Sr. (D).

The refusal to enforce the promise would work as an injustice on Harvey (P), because she had relied on the promise, if proved, and she owed an immobile $200,000 asset on the Dows (D) land. This promise can be binding despite the lack of consideration. This position is supported by the Restatement (Second) of Contracts which defines a promise as “a manifestation of intention to act or refrain from acting in a specified way,” where the promisee’s comprehension is justified by the manifestation that the promissor has a certain commitment. The circumstance surrounding the construction of the house reveals that Jeffery Sr. (D) manifested his intent to confirm his general promise to convey land to Harvey (P) and to direct it to that specific parcel.

The Restatement provides that promise made as a gift, are binding only on the occasion where it is foreseeable and reasonable that the promise will rely on the promise. So given the conduct, actions and generalized statement of the Dows (D), it was absolutely reasonable for Harvey (P) to have relied on their manifested intentions. Therefore, it can be determined from the analysis above that the trial court erred by failing to take into cognizance, Dows (D) actions in conjunction with their generalized statements, in determining whether the existence of promissory estoppel was formed on these facts.  This case was therefore remanded to the trial court to make such consideration. In summary, this case was vacated and remanded.


The trial court again found for the Dows (D) when the case was remanded. New findings were not made by the trial court but came to the conclusion that the actions of the Dows (D), including their generalized promises, were not sufficient to support a claim of promissory estoppel. The state’s high court while considering the appeal of Harvey (P) again concluded that the trial court had all the facts it needed for a proper promissory estoppel analysis that the trial court erred in its legal conclusion.

As a matter of law, the court held that the support, acquiescence and encouragement which Dows (D) gave to the construction of Harvey’s (P) house of a parcel of their land, summarily pointed to their intention to make a present conveyance of the property. The court thereby vacated the trial court’s ruling and remanded for entry of a judgment which was in favor of Harvey (P), but the determination for an appropriate remedy was remanded, admonishing the trial court to keep in mind that a promise is enforceable under the promissory estoppel is a contract and total enforcement by normal remedies is often appropriate.

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