June 11, 2018

Jenner & Block Partner Adam G. Unikowsky won his seventh case before the US Supreme Court with an 8-1 opinion in Sveen v. Melin.

Sveen v. Melin concerns “revocation-upon-divorce” statutes and whether the Constitution’s Contracts Clause permits such statutes to be applied to life insurance policies that were purchased before the statutes were passed.  Those statutes provide that if a person names his or her spouse as a life insurance beneficiary and then divorces, the divorce automatically revokes the beneficiary designation; if the holder intends for the ex-spouse to remain the beneficiary, the ex-spouse must be re-designated as such.

The case arose out of a dispute over the insurance policy of Mark Sveen and respondent Kaye Melin.  They were married in 1997.  The next year, Mr. Sveen purchased a life insurance policy and named Ms. Melin as the primary beneficiary.  He designated his two children from a previous marriage, petitioners Ashley and Antone Sveen, as contingent beneficiaries.  The Sveen-Melin marriage ended in 2007, but the divorce decree made no mention of the insurance policy, and Mr. Sveen took no action to revise his beneficiary designations.  After Mr. Sveen died in 2011, Ms. Melin and the Sveen children made competing claims to the insurance proceeds.

On behalf of the Sveens, Mr. Unikowsky argued that that the statutes can be applied retroactively.  Under Minnesota’s revocation-on-divorce law, he argued, their father’s divorce canceled the beneficiary designation, leaving the children as the rightful recipients.

The Court’s opinion noted that the district court awarded the insurance money to the Sveens, but the Eighth Circuit reversed, holding that the retroactive application of Minnesota’s law violates the Contracts Clause.  The Supreme Court reversed the Eighth Circuit, holding: “The retroactive application of Minnesota’s statute does not violate the Contracts Clause.  That Clause restricts the power of States to disrupt contractual arrangements, but it does not prohibit all laws affecting pre-existing contracts.”

“Filing a change-of-beneficiary form is as easy as satisfying the paperwork requirements that this Court’s prior cases approved,” the opinion reads.  “And if an insured wants his ex-spouse to stay as beneficiary but does not send in his form, the result is only that the insurance money is redirected to his contingent beneficiaries, not that his contractual rights are extinguished.”

In addition to Sveen, the firm this term won three other cases.  Those cases -- Artis v. District of Columbia; Marinello v. United States and Class vs. United States – were on behalf of pro bono clients.

Mr. Unikowsky argued Artis.  In the previous term, he argued three cases on behalf of pro bono clients in a 28-day span and won them all:  Howell v. Howell; Honeycutt v. US; and Kokesh v. SEC.  In the 2015-2016 term, he won Puerto Rico v. Sanchez Valle and V.L. v. E.L.