From the Texas Lawyer:
Steven Phillips spent 25 years in a Texas prison for a crime he did not commit, a miscarriage of justice for which the state of Texas compensated him with millions of dollars under the Tim Cole Act. And he won’t have to pay $114,459.50 of that money to his ex-wife, thanks to a recent ruling that his attorney Randy Turner won before Dallas’ Fifth Court of Appeals.
The background to the Fifth Court’s May 12 ruling in Steven Phillips v. Traci Tucker is as follows. Steven Phillips and Traci Tucker were married in 1980. Two years later, Phillips was arrested and subsequently incarcerated for certain criminal offenses. The couple divorced in 1992 while Phillips was still in prison. Fifteen years later, Phillips was released from prison after spending 25 years behind bars. Sixteen years after the divorce, DNA testing exonerated Phillips. He applied for and received compensation from the state under the Tim Cole Act, according to the decision.
In 2010, Tucker sued Phillips for a portion of the compensation that he received under the act, alleging that the amount included lost wages related to Phillips’ first nine-and-three-quarters years in prison before their divorce. A trial court agreed with Tucker’s argument that any recovery for lost wages during their marriage was community or marital property rather than Phillips’ separate property. The trial court awarded Tucker $114,459.50, according to the decision.
Phillips appealed the ruling to the Fifth Court, arguing that the trial court erred as a matter of law by awarding a portion of his statutory compensation to Tucker. Specifically, he argued that the statutory formula used to calculate his compensation under the act did not include any amount of money for lost wages.
“Thus, according to the plain language of the statute, the lump-sum compensation awarded under the act’s administrative remedy 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,” wrote Justice David Evans in an opinion joined by Justices Kerry FitzGerald and Robert Fillmore. The decision reverses the trial court’s judgment and renders that Tucker take nothing on her claims.
Turner, a trial lawyer in Fort Worth’s Bailey & Galyen, who represents Phillips, said that the decision is not only important to his client but also for numerous other exonerees freed from Texas prison in recent years—many of them from Dallas County. “If the court had ruled for the ex-wife, it would have opened the floodgates to litigation by ex-spouses. I made this argument at the appellate court: If they ruled for the ex-wife, then every exoneree’s first stop when he gets out of prison is at a lawyer’s office for an inevitable lawsuit,” Turner said.
Matthew Kita, a Dallas solo who represents Tucker, said, “My hat’s off to Randy. He is an excellent attorney who represented his client with nothing but class and professionalism. “My concern with the court of appeals’ opinion is that it looked only to the language of the statute but did not address the practical effect of its implementation,” said Kita.
“To accept the state’s lump-sum compensation offer, Steven was required to waive his and Traci’s right to file a civil rights lawsuit against the municipalities and the agents of the state,” Kita said. “But it cannot be disputed that the state’s wrongful action also caused her to suffer damages, specifically, the loss of her community interest in husband’s income while he was wrongfully incarcerated. Traci only pursued these funds from Steven because the statute left her without any other remedy.”