There is an interesting ruling out of Illinois this week. Juan Rivera served 20 years for a 1992 murder that he did not commit. While in prison, he married Melissa Sanders-Rivera. The marriage in 2000 lasted 14 years. However, he divorced his wife in 2014 — two years after his release. After his award of $20 million for his long incarceration, Melissa Sanders-Rivera moved to get her share of the money as his former spouse. The Illinois Court of Appeals ruled that the wife could claim award as marital property.
Rivera was cleared by DNA in the murder of 11-year-old Holly Staker. He argued that the award was not marital property because it concerned conduct preceding their marriage on Halloween in 2000. He argued that the underlying conduct was in 1992, long before the marriage. He could not sue over the wrongful conviction until after his conviction was reversed on appeal in 2011. On the equities, he argued that this was for his long incarceration and a torture-derived confession and that Sanders-Rivera did not deserve the award, which amounts to $11.4 million after taxes. After all, he did the time and only lived with Sanders-Rivera for roughly two years. The Court summed up his position:
“Under this principle, the operative facts and circumstances that gave rise
to [petitioner’s] cause of action occurred in 1992 and 1993. The ‘property’ at issue here is not the lawsuit, but rather the property is the wrongful conduct and resulting injury themselves (indisputably occurring prior to the marriage), which ultimately resulted in the settlement proceeds. Accordingly, [petitioner’s] property interest in that cause of action, i.e., the right to a legal remedy for the injuries he suffered from the wrongful conduct, was also acquired prior to the marriage.”
Sanders-Rivera however insisted that the filing occurred and the award was made during their marriage. The Court agreed:
We do not dispute that petitioner suffered injury in 1992 and 1993 at the hand of the defendants to his lawsuit. However, for purposes of petitioner’s lawsuit, petitioner had no damages until the appellate court vacated his conviction. The “essence” of the malicious prosecution for purposes of determining whether an insurer intended to cover a loss when issuing an insurance policy—which is all the Muller Fuel court found—is not determinative of when a party obtained a property interest for determining whether that property is marital or nonmarital. What is determinative of when property, in the form of a cause of action, is obtained (and thus marital or nonmarital) is when the cause of action accrues. . . . Petitioner did not have a property interest in his lawsuit (or stated differently no lawsuit existed) until the appellate court vacated his conviction in 2011. If there was no lawsuit, or property, in 1992 and 1993, there are no grounds for finding the lawsuit is nonmarital property. Because the lawsuit accrued in 2011, during the marriage, it is marital property subject to distribution pursuant to the factors set forth in section 503 of the Dissolution Act.
That is a rough result for a man who will a substantial portion of the damages for his abusive treatment and long confinement.
Here is the decision: Rivera Opinion