State/Prov.  : Oklahoma

Case name    : Hamm v. Hamm

Case #          : 2015 OK 27

Court             : Oklahoma Supreme Court

Reviewed by : David Echols

Main issue     : Appeals – Marital Property

The Oklahoma Supreme Court dismisses Mrs. Hamm’s (Petitioner) appeal of the Trial Court’s ruling, without consideration of the merits. The lengthy record of the Trial Court had not been completed and the dismissal was based solely on the following limited facts:

On November 10, 2014, the Trial Court entered a Decree of Divorce and awarded the Petitioner three (3) pieces of real property and the properties’ contents; Petitioner’s Continental Resources, Inc. 401(k), certain bank accounts, a note from Olan Amall; and property division alimony in the amount of $995,481,842.00, minus the $22,750,000.00 from interim distributions while the divorce was pending. The Trial Court ordered Mr. Hamm (Respondent) to convey all property within five (5) days of the order and pay a designated portion of the property division alimony by the last day of 2014 (the amount of which is not disclosed by Supreme Court), then $7,000,000.00 per month, plus accrued interest, until paid in full. Instead of following the Trial Court’s payout provisions, the Respondent, by January 5, 2015, paid a check for the entire sum of the property division alimony, and he conveyed to her all court-ordered marital assets awarded to the Petitioner. Petitioner deposited the check and took possession of the marital property awarded to her.

The Petitioner appealed the Trial Court’s decision, and the Respondent counter appealed in December 2014. In January 2015, shortly after the Petitioner cashed the property division alimony check and took possession of the assets awarded to her, the Respondent filed in the Supreme Court to dismiss Petitioner’s appeal.

It was upon these facts alone, without consideration of the merits of either the Petitioner’s or Respondent’s appeal, that the Supreme Court granted the Respondent’s Motion to Dismiss and dismissed the Petitioner’s appeal, while the Respondent’s appeal remained pending.

The majority opinion relies upon what was stated to be the general “black-letter rule of law applicable” – that a party who voluntarily accepts from the adversary the benefits accruing to the party under a judgment cannot question the validity of such judgment on appeal. Citing 1921 and 1974 Supreme Court decisions, neither of which were appeals from a divorce judgment: “The record before us compels us to conclude that Petitioner voluntarily accepted the benefit of the Judgment.”

The majority rejected the Petitioner’s argument that Stokes v. Stokes, 1987 OK 56, 738 P.2d 1346, which allowed an appeal to proceed where a party accepted the benefits of the judgment when the judgment accepted, “is necessary for the support and maintenance of the receiving spouse and minor children.” While the Supreme Court in Stokes stated that this exception “flows from enlightened public policy,” the Supreme Court found that the Stokes exception to the general rule – that accepting the benefits of the judgment waives a party’s right to appeal – is “a narrow one.” It applies to situations when a spouse “must choose between food and the right to appeal.” Five of the nine Supreme Court Justices concurred. Two Justices, Justices Combs and Winchester, “concurred specially” by separate writing. These specially concurring opinions, while not disagreeing with the majority’s opinion that the Petitioner’s appeal should be dismissed, expressed concern inherent in dismissing Petitioner’s appeal while allowing the Respondent’s own appeal to proceed, with one of the concurring opinions stating that “if Petitioner’s appeal is to be dismissed because she accepted the benefits of the Trial Court’s decision, Respondent’s counter appeal should be dismissed as well.”

Justice Watt, concurring specially, provides some insights into the majority’s opinion and perhaps explains why the majority applied the “acceptance of benefit doctrine” to the facts of this case, when it would seem to blatantly unjust to dismiss Petitioner’s appeal while allowing the Respondent’s to proceed. “The appellant, in negotiating the appellee’s check made payable to her for slightly under ONE BILLION DOLLARS, gave to the appellant everything the trial court ordered that she receive,” Justice Watt stated. “This domestic relations case is unlike any other in this jurisdiction that I have seen in over 40 years as a former trial lawyer and trial court Judge.”

Justice Watt adds his belief that the counter-appeal of the Respondent will “GO AWAY” by “whatever procedure Appellee’s counsel may take.”

“The parties hereto have spent millions in dissolving this marital relationship and resolving an equitable division of the martial estate. The appellee by paying almost one billion dollars to the appellant, and her acceptance and negotiation of it, have obviated the necessity of each party paying millions more to proceed further with an appeal,” stated Watt.

The two Justices dissenting stated that the “resolution of this issue in the pre-decisional stage of appellate proceedings is inequitable and contrary to current notions of domestic relations law. Rigid application of the acceptance of benefits rule is no longer consistent with fundamental jurisprudence in marital dissolution appeals.”

“The result of the majority’s opinion is unacceptable, in that under the majority’s logic there is no problem with Husband enjoying his share of the marital estate, while Wife cannot maintain control of the marital estate she was awarded,” Justices Gurish and Edmondson dissented.

David Echols is a senior attorney at Echols & Associates in Oklahoma City. Practicing matrimonial law in 1978, he is an expert in family law, divorce, and child custody issues.