In November 2014, Harold Hamm, the CEO of Continental Resources, was ordered to pay his ex-wife Sue Ann $995.5 million in what was described as one of the biggest divorce settlements in history. With the award representing only a fraction of Mr Hamm’s estimated $18 billion empire, Sue Ann appealed, claiming that she should be entitled to a much heftier settlement due to her significant contributions during their 26-year marriage. Conversely, Harold made his own appeal, arguing that the almost $1 billion figure was excessive.
On 28/04/15, the Oklahoma Supreme Court dismissed Sue Ann’s appeal in a 7-2 decision, stating that she had forfeited her right to appeal in January, when she took possession of the marital property that had been awarded to her and cashed a cheque for $975 million. The Supreme Court did not dismiss Harold’s appeal.
The two dissenting judges branded the above decision ‘old fashioned’ and ‘draconian’. They suggested that if the only way to maintain the right to appeal was to reject the tendered cheque, this would allow the husband absolute and unfettered control over the marital property during the pendency of what could be a lengthy appeal. Not only would this provide Harold with the opportunity to deplete the marital property (admittedly a rather onerous task considering the extent of his wealth), but it would also leave Sue Ann, and other women in such a position, potentially unable to afford the cost of living in the interim period between the court ruling and the appeal. Surely it is inequitable for those who are unhappy with a court decision to have to choose between affording to live and appealing a ruling?
Not only does the Supreme Court’s ruling seem outdated, but more importantly it appears to be bias towards Harold. For if the court thinks that accepting the tendered cheque removes the right to appeal for the wife, then surely, using the same logic, writing the cheque should also remove the right for the husband. Using the basic concept of offer and acceptance, it could be argued that if there is a ‘no returns’ policy for Sue Ann, then there equally shouldn’t be room for Harold to recall the cheque that he presented to his ex-wife. It is potentially inequitable and inconsistent of the court to draw a distinction between the party’s actions.
Ironically, Oklahoma is an equitable distribution state, which means that divorce settlements must be just and reasonable. One of the big considerations for judges dealing with such disputes is what each spouse needs in order to move forward following their separation. Understandably, the judges who reviewed Sue Ann’s appeal would have found it very difficult to sympathise with an argument, claiming a life with only $1 billion is not worth living; however, they should have also considered factors such as her contributions during the marriage, as well as providing a more impressive basis for dismissing her appeal.
Craig Box, one of Mr Hamm’s attorneys, has said that it is too early to comment on whether or not Harold will appeal. However, the likelihood is that he will not and that, instead, he will be delighted with the dismissal of his ex-wife’s appeal. There is even room to suggest that Harold was content with the initial ruling in November, and appealed against it himself simply to highlight his disdain for Sue Ann’s appeal. After all, although $995.5 million is more money than most people could ever dream of earning, it is only a minute fraction of his overall wealth and therefore he could well have been relieved with the county court’s decision.
One thing that has been made very clear by the Supreme Court’s ruling is that the Oklahoma state does not believe equity necessarily requires equality. Whereas the UK has gained a reputation for being the ‘divorce capital of the world’ due to its generous divorce settlements that often entail a 50/50 split of assets, the Oklahoma courts clearly do not mirror this approach.