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Saturday, June 21, 2014

Ind. Decisions - A missed opportunity by our Supreme Court to provide guidance on an important, recurring issue?

On Thursday, May 8th, the Supreme Court heard oral argument in the case of Luttrell v. Luttrell. You may watch the oral argument here. This was a case where the husband had petitioned the Supreme Court to accept jurisdiction over the appeal, i.e. to grant transfer, but the Court had elected to heard oral argument on the request before making a decision. The husband had raised issues relating to spousal maintenance, attorney’s fees, and the division of the marital estate; the Court of Appeals had affirmed in part and reversed in part, in a Sept. 12, 2013 opinion.

On late Friday afternoon, June 20th, an order denying the petition to transfer was posted on the Court's website, the file stamp indicating it had been filed that morning. Page 1 of the order in the case of Luttrell v. Luttrell denies the transfer petition, stating:

The Court has reviewed the decision of the Court of Appeals. Any record on appeal that was submitted has been made available to the Court, along with all briefs filed in the Court of Appeals and all the materials filed in connection with the request to transfer jurisdiction. Also, the Court has heard oral argument on the transfer petition. Each member of the Court has had the opportunity to voice that Justice’s views on the case in conference with the other Justices, and each has voted on the petition to transfer.

Being duly advised, the Court now DENIES the Appellant’s petition to transfer jurisdiction. This appeal is at an end.

The Court DIRECTS the Clerk to certify the Court of Appeals opinion as final and to send copies of this order to all counsel of record.

However, the order, dated June 19th, includes more, a rare, 2-page dissent to the denial of transfer by Justice David, in which Justice Rush joins -- two of the newest members of the Court. Here are some quotes from the dissent:
I respectfully dissent from the denial of transfer. To provide guidance to trial courts, I believe we should address the issue of whether a lump-sum Social Security Disability Insurance payment is a marital asset subject to division upon divorce, or a factor to be considered. * * *

[T]his Court has never formally responded to the issue presented on transfer. Moreover, even if we were to determine that pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 407(a) a lump-sum SSDI payment cannot be divided in divorce proceedings, the SSA does not control whether trial courts can consider the award as part of the total picture when determining how to equitably divide property upon divorce. Although it did not reach this issue, the Court of Appeals pointed to
Stanley v. Stanley, where the Supreme Court of Delaware answered in the affirmative. 956 A.2d 1, 4 (Del. 2008). Luttrell, 994 N.E.2d at 303, n. 4.

As it stands, the potential windfall for the spouse receiving the lump-sum SSDI payment is apparent, particularly where, under most circumstances, the lump sum represents lost income that was compensated for by a combination of the other spouse stepping up and both parties doing without during the period which gave rise to the SSDI qualification. Here, Melinda Luttrell’s lump-sum SSDI payment of $14,430.75 was not factored into the trial court’s division of the Luttrell marital estate, of which the net distribution of approximately $191,000 was split 60/40 in her favor. And in the next case where this issue arises, the lump-sum SSDI payment could be greater in amount and/or percent at stake. At minimum, one party’s receipt of a lump-sum SSDI payment should be a factor for the trial court to consider when awarding attorney’s fees.

Because this Court is passing up an opportunity to resolve a consequential issue likely to reoccur, I respectively dissent from the denial of transfer.

Rush, J., joins.

Posted by Marcia Oddi on June 21, 2014 09:46 AM
Posted to Ind. Sup.Ct. Decisions