Unjust Enrichment

In order to state a claim for unjust enrichment a plaintiff must prove: (1) a benefit conferred upon the defendant by the plaintiff; (2) an appreciation or knowledge by the defendant of the benefit; and (3) acceptance or retention by the defendant of the benefit under the circumstances would be inequitable without payment for its value.  Mass. Eye & Ear Infirmary v. QLT Phototherapeutics, Inc. (citing 26 Samuel Williston & Richard A. Lord, A Treatise on the Law of Contracts § 68:5 (4th ed.1993)).

“A person who has been unjustly enriched at the expense of another is required to make restitution to the other.” Salamon v. Terra, quoting, Restatement of Restitution § 1 (1937).  But, a “claim for restitution is governed by the general principle that, in the absence of fraud or mistake of fact, one may not recover money paid under a claim of right unless the payment has been exacted under conditions amounting to duress.”  Hull v. County Commrs. Of Plymouth,  and cases cited.

The facts here show the operation of all three exceptions to the “voluntary payment” doctrine: fraud, mistake of fact, and duress.  Although motorists pay the $50 assessment and surcharges, they only do so under a mistake of fact that the fraudulent speed limit sign was duly established.  They do so also under duress in order to avoid the Registrar’s threatened automatic suspension of their driver’s license, and the denial of their right to renew their registration, by operation of law and without further notice or hearing.  See G.L. c. 90C, § 3; compare Carey v. Fitzpatrick, and cases cited (“A coercive effect of such threatened action cannot be inferred unless there is “evidence of some probable consequences of it to person or property for which the remedy afforded by the courts is inadequate.’”).

In light of these circumstances and the amounts involved (e.g., $100), anyone’s choice to pay the assessment and surcharge instead of further appealing the CMVI is hardly unreasonable.  See Lepage v. Bumila (paying traffic citation is a commonplace matter of expedience).  It therefore follows that these payments were not voluntary, and they are entitled to restitution from the Selectmen in the amount they were unjustly enriched thereby.