$6 Million Paid To Man Wrongfully Imprisoned For 24 Years Is Not Texas Community Property

May 19th, 2014

Is money paid to a wrongfully imprisoned person marital community property under Texas law? Reversing a judgment awarding the prisoner’s ex-wife a share of the $6 million award, the 5th Court of Appeals (not to be confused with the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals) in Texas found that this money was not marital property.

The facts of this case are fascinating:

Phillips spent 24 years in prison before DNA tests connected another man to the rapes and prompted the courts to declare Phillips innocent. In 2009, the state awarded him lump sum payments totaling more than $2 million, and a monthly annuity of more than $11,000. In total, his compensation package for the time he spent in prison is worth nearly $6 million, not including health care and education benefits he is also eligible to receive.

His ex-wife, now Traci Tucker, is arguing that she is entitled to a portion of that money. The two are locked in a legal battle that her lawyers say is the first of its kind in the nation. Tucker sued Phillips, and last year a Dallas County state district judge awarded her about $150,000.

The court rejected this argument:

     A three-judge panel with the 5th District Court of Appeals reversed the award Monday, saying the plain language of the law states the payments is “based solely on the period of wrongful incarceration and is not based on, or related to, any particular exoneree’s economic loss or lost wages while in prison.”     The Monday reversal rejected Tucker’s attempt to liken her ex’s Tim Cole Act payout to a settlement, since exonerees give up their right to sue the state in federal court for compensation.
“As Tucker concedes, however, the act itself does not characterize any portion of the monetary compensation awarded under the act as lost wages,” Justice David Evans wrote for the panel. “On the contrary, all eligible exonerees are entitled to compensation based solely on the number of years wrongfully incarcerated multiplied by $80,000 without regard to the exoneree’s education, work history, earning capacity, or other evidence of the economic losses incurred while wrongfully imprisoned.”
While sympathetic to the suffering of families of exonerees, the appeals court noted the law has a provision for the recovery of unpaid child support. Tucker was paid under this provision, Evans noted.
“But nowhere in the act does the Legislature provide compensation for the spouse of an exoneree,” Evans wrote. “Allowing spouses and former spouses of the wrongfully convicted to sue the exoneree for a portion of their statutory compensation might well require the exoneree to expend a considerable portion of his recovery on extended legal proceedings to defend his award.”

No good deed goes unpunished.