Doing Really Hard Time
Published in Chicago Lawyer Magazine, December 2016
by Daniel R. Stefani
What does the divorce court do with proceeds from a lawsuit for a wrongful conviction when the conviction occurred before the marriage and was reversed during the marriage? In a recent decision of In re Marriage of Rivera, 2016 Ill. App. (1st) 160552, Petitioner was convicted for murder in 1993 and was incarcerated from the time he was arrested in 1992 until January 2012. In January 2012, his conviction was reversed by the Appellate Court. While Petitioner was incarcerated, he and Respondent got married on October 31, 2000. Petitioner filed a Petition for Dissolution of Marriage in 2014 and in March 2015, he settled a lawsuit for wrongful conviction and received a net amount of $11.36 million.
The Trial Court granted Petitioner’s Motion for Partial Summary Judgment, finding that the proceeds were his non-marital property. The Trial Court found that no cases presented the exact factual situation and therefore, analogized these proceeds to those received from personal injury claims. Specifically, the Trial Court stated that for purposes of property characterization, the Court regarded the lawsuit and settlement proceeds as no different than a personal injury lawsuits involving injuries that occurred before the marriage. The Court further stated that the date of injury controls which here was the initial incarceration. The Court did note that this situation was different than the traditional personal injury lawsuit because there was a difference here between the accrual of the cause of action and the injury which in traditional cases is simultaneous, but here is more than 20 years apart.
For that reason, the Court granted Respondent’s request for an interlocutory appeal whereby the Appellate Court considered the following certified question “Whether the settlement proceeds received from the wrongful conviction action are marital property when (a) the coerced confession and initial conviction occurred before the marriage, and (b) the conviction was reversed during the marriage.”
The Appellate Court reversed finding that the proceeds were marital property. Respondent argued that Petitioner’s Section 1983 cause of action did not exist (and therefore did not accrue) until his conviction was reversed during the marriage. Illinois law is clear that a cause of action that accrues during the marriage is marital property. Additionally, prior to the conviction being vacated, the cause of action was not a present property interest but a mere expectancy and therefore it was not property for purposes of the Illinois Marriage and Dissolution of Marriage Act. Further, because the cause of action came into existence during the marriage, when Petitioner’s wrongful conviction was vacated, it was only then when it became property acquired during the marriage.
Petitioner argued that if a tort occurs where the injury occurs at one point in time and the accrual of the cause of action at another point in time, then the relevant inquiry for purposes of characterizing the cause of action as marital or non-marital is the time of the injury (which here predated the marriage). Specifically, Petitioner argued that the classification of the cause of action is controlled by the date of the actual injury giving rise to the civil rights claim. Petitioner cited several cases where the date of injury controlled where the causes of action were personal injury and worker’s compensation claims.
The Appellate Court acknowledged that although most of the facts giving rise to Petitioner’s claim arose prior to the marriage, one key fact prevented him from maintaining his lawsuit, namely, the reversal of his conviction. The Court specifically stated that there was no support for Petitioner’s argument that the time of the injury determines the character of the cause of action as marital or non-marital property. Rather, the black letter law was when the cause of action accrued.
The fact that the cases cited by both sides had the time of the injury the same as the accrual of the cause of action did distinguish this case. Rather, the rationale behind those cases was applicable, in that, the date of accrual determines the character of the cause of action as marital or non-marital property. Therefore, the Court reversed holding that Petitioner’s lawsuit accrued in 2012 when the conviction was reversed and therefore was marital property.