Court Preempted on Divorce Issue : Case of Orange County Woman Who Helped Mate Through Medical School

Times Staff Writer

After deliberating for more than two years on whether a wife who helped her husband through medical school should be awarded a share of his future earnings in a divorce settlement, the state Supreme Court Monday found itself preempted by a new law.

The high court unanimously returned to an Orange County judge the highly publicized case of Janet and Mark Sullivan, who ended a 10-year marriage after he had received a medical degree and established a lucrative urology practice in Laguna Hills.

In October, 1982, when the court agreed to hear the Sullivan case, it stood to dramatically change the status of the state’s divorce law. The issue was whether an education, like a house, could be counted as community property.

Estimate of Value

If it was deemed to be property, under California law the degree’s value would have been split in half. In this case, Janet Sullivan’s lawyers had estimated that Mark Sullivan’s degree over the years would be worth $660,000.

But while the court deliberated, the Legislature passed the so-called Sullivan Law, which becomes effective today.


Under the new law, if family income contributed to education that enhanced one spouse’s earning power, the other spouse can be reimbursed for half of the contribution, plus interest.

The law does not, however, consider education to be property and does not provide for a sharing of future income. It merely says that a judge can consider the potential of future income when awarding alimony.

In an unusually brief 11-page ruling written by Chief Justice Rose Elizabeth Bird, the court said the case must be resolved by a trial court in accordance with the new law. The ruling did not detail how any additional compensation should be determined, beyond citing the legislation. (In re Marriage of Sullivan, L.A. 31653.)

The amount to be reimbursed could be small in the Sullivans’ case. Mark Sullivan attended medical school at UC Irvine, where tuition was a few hundred dollars a year. Under the law, Janet Sullivan would be entitled to half the cost, plus other educational expenses.

‘Akin to Slavery’

Assemblyman Elihu Harris (D-Oakland), the bill’s author, said the legislation was aimed at reimbursing spouses for “out-of-pocket expenses or for forgoing their own education.”

“Those things should be reimbursed,” Harris said. “But there should be no continuing interest in someone’s education . . . . That to me is akin to slavery.”

Harris said the bill was prompted by the Sullivan case and came about, in part, because of the length of time that the case was before the high court.

“I don’t believe the issue will go away,” said Morris J. Sorenson, Mark Sullivan’s lawyer, noting that the court evidently viewed the Sullivan case to be moot because of the new law. “The underlying issue is quite alive, and I’m sure it will be presented again,” Sorenson added.

Patricia Herzog, Janet Sullivan’s lawyer, said that although the bill is a step in the right direction, it is a “less-than-perfect remedy.” She added that she believes the legislation was “intended to head the (potential) Sullivan decision off at the pass.”

There apparently was some disagreement over the issue, judging from the length of time that the case was pending. The opinion reflected some of that disagreement. In writing the majority opinion, Bird said the case involves “compensation” for one spouse aiding in another spouse’s education.

Question Over Term

Justice Stanley Mosk pointed out that Harris’ legislation says merely that a spouse should be “reimbursed"--a term that implies simple repayment.

“Compensation, on the other hand, may be payment in any sum for any lawful purpose,” Mosk wrote, calling it “curious that the majority chose to employ that term.”

The majority opinion did not explain why it used the term compensation and not reimbursement , as stated in the law.

The Sullivan case drew attention from doctors’ groups and feminist groups and attracted wide attention in the media and legal journals.

Dubbed the “medical student syndrome” by some divorce lawyers, the issue has been argued in divorce courts across the country. But although courts in some states have ruled on the question, California’s Sullivan case had been considered pivotal because this court’s decisions traditionally have carried weight with courts elsewhere, particularly in divorce law.

Janet Sullivan, who graduated from college in 1969, held jobs throughout the marriage, except for two years during which she cared for the couple’s daughter, who was born in 1974.

Furniture and Cars

At the time of the divorce trial in 1980, the Sullivans’ property included used furniture and two used cars. Janet Sullivan, who earned $26,400 as an accountant at the time of the trial, contended that Mark Sullivan’s medical degree and practice should be treated like other community property.

The trial court concluded that the education of her former husband was not property, prompting her challenge to the longstanding doctrine that education is not property because it cannot be owned or transferred.

The case made headlines in January, 1982, when a state Court of Appeal ruled that Mark Sullivan’s education was property and that Janet Sullivan was entitled to a part of his future earnings. The appellate court reversed itself in August of that year, prompting the high court to grant review.

Janet Sullivan, now a hospital financial manager in Orange County, said Monday that she had “pretty much expected” the court to defer to the new legislation.

“I really can’t have a real positive or negative reaction until it’s decided for me personally,” she said, adding, however, that the change in law “is a step forward for California--certainly better than the way it was.”

Would Bring Support

Mark Sullivan could not be reached for comment, but his attorney, Sorenson, said that the new legislation ensures that his client and other similarly situated men and women will be ordered to pay spousal support that they would not have been forced to pay under the old law.

The legislation, he said, “means that a trial judge, if he wished, can award more spousal support” than possible before the change in the law. But Sorenson predicted there would be great disparities in the awards.

“You could put the same case in front of 20 judges and not one of them will be even close to the other,” Sorenson said.

In a second case, the Supreme Court ruled that a preliminary hearing in a criminal case must be closed to the public if it is reasonably likely that an open hearing would harm the defendant’s right to a fair trial.

The 6-1 ruling by Justice Allen Broussard came in a challenge by the Riverside Press-Enterprise (Press-Enterprise Co. v. Superior Court, Riverside, L.A. 31876) to the closure of a preliminary hearing of nurse Robert Diaz, who since has been convicted of murdering 12 hospital patients by giving them overdoses of a heart medication.

Press-Enterprise lawyer James D. Ward had argued for a narrower standard for closing the often-crucial pretrial hearings. He said Monday that he fears that Monday’s ruling is an “invitation to mass closures of preliminary hearings.”

It was the court’s first interpretation of a new state law requiring preliminary hearings to be open to the public unless closure is “necessary” to preserve the right to a fair trial. The previous law had required closure at the defendant’s request.