Illinois Court: $20 Million Wrongful-Conviction Settlement Is Part Of Marital Property In Divorce

melissa-sanders-rivera-and-juan-rivera-after-his-release_facebook_photoThere 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

39 thoughts on “Illinois Court: $20 Million Wrongful-Conviction Settlement Is Part Of Marital Property In Divorce”

  1. Juan Rivera’s mistake was that he should have delayed the settlement of his lawsuit until the marriage was dissolved. Then, Mellisa Sanders-Rivera would have received nothing.

    Here are the acknowledged facts: “After his [Juan Rivera’s ]release from prison in 2012, petitioner filed a petition for dissolution of marriage from respondent [Melissa Sanders-Rivera] in 2014. In March 2015, petitioner settled his lawsuit for $20 million, of which petitioner will receive approximately $11.36 million.” So the marriage was not dissolved prior to the settlement award. That’s the vital fact pertinent to the applicable law.

    Now the law in Illinois: “As a general statement, all property acquired by either spouse during the marriage is marital property and is subject to equitable division upon dissolution of marriage. It makes no difference how title to the property is held. If it is marital property, it will be divided in [the] divorce.”

    The key to the law is that only “property acquired . . . during the marriage is marital property.” So if Juan was still married to Mellisa at the time of the settlement award, the award constitutes marital property because the award was made during the marriage. On the other hand, if the divorce were finalized prior to the March 2015 settlement, then Mellisa would not have been entitled to any portion of the award.

    1. I am not sure how Illinois law works, but I suspect that the potential proceeds from the lawsuit would have considered as some form of intangible asset, or inchoate asset. Her lawyer would have probably asked for a pre-settlement division (Quadro, or qualified domestic relations order), and filed a lien, and required him to sign an agreement to allow her to proceed as an heir in case he died pre-settlement.

      Often, the judge in the divorce maintains jurisdiction over the property settlement to handle post divorce problems. Again, I don’t have a clue how Illinois law operates, sooo take this with a huge grain of salt.

      Squeeky Fromm
      Girl Reporter

    2. As the legal determination that it was marital property was based on the analysis that characterization of the property was determined by referring to the date when the last element of the cause of action was satisfied (his conviction being set aside), the date of divorce would not be relevant to whether the cause of action/settlement money was marital or separate property.

  2. Considering the number of attorneys on this blog, somewhat surprised by the lack of awareness of what it is like to have a loved one in prison. Lots of assumptions and cynicism. People live their lives behind bars or outside. They look for love and connection no matter their social class and circumstances. Here are two damaged people who found a touch of happiness together and married. She probably talked to him for years, multiple times a day, paid some bills, wrote to him and sent him books, food and supplies. A single visit takes extensive planning and expense. A visit or call could be cancelled with little or no notice nor explanation. Good luck figuring out if she deserves half of this settlement but I would bet she deserves at least that for keeping him sane in a cruel, unforgiving system.

    1. Why is it that people like you always believe that men should pay for every scrap of affection from women? Sending someone a book hardly rises to the same value as 20 years of suffering incarceration. And if it was you who had been incarcerated, would you willingly turn over half of your award to an ex-spouse who had dumped you because you hadn’t been intimately fulfilling enough, only to finally realize that you had been used only to satisfy a creepy virtual relationship?

      1. Wtf are you talking about? 😂 He left her for another woman after 15+ years of her not living her life but fighting for his freedom!

  3. This seems patently unfair, however legal.

    He was owed that money for his wrongful conviction that preceded their marriage. It is restitution due to him, and not to her. It should have been handled separately. Wouldn’t this have been considered in the same light as an inheritance, given to him, and not community property?

    She was wrong to even seek it.

    I understand the logic, but disagree with the premise, that this situation is similar to the retirement benefits of someone who served in the military. Retirement benefits are typically awarded as part of a divorce, but if they cannot be determined at the time of separation because of changing laws affecting the future benefit, then it must be decided upon at a later date. This was restitution benefits awarded to him for an action that preceded the marriage. It was to in some small measure compensate him for his suffering, and for the immeasurable impact this incarceration had on the rest of his life. He lost 20 years building a career. Will suffer notoriety for his incarceration forever. May have difficulty getting a job, PTSD, lost relationships with friends and loved ones…and most of all, he lost time.

Comments are closed.