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Some attorneys spend their whole careers dreaming of a case like the one that landed in Ricardo Aguirre’s lap six months ago. The matrimonial matter of an estranged Queens couple living on the edge of poverty may not sound promising, unless that couple has just won the lottery. Ten days after Juan Rodriguez won $149 million in the Mega Millions lottery, his wife of 17 years, Iris, filed for divorce. Iris Rodriguez had hired Aguirre, presenting the novice attorney with his case of a lifetime. Aguirre, 49, had been a Bronx police officer for several years when he started night classes at Fordham Law School in 1991. He said the law offered an interesting new career and the chance to help fulfill a need for quality legal representation in the Latino and black communities. Aguirre’s commitment to the Latino community runs deep. He grew up in the East Bronx and interned with United Bronx Parents, a bilingual South Bronx advocacy group for Hispanic families, when he was still in high school. He graduated from Fordham in 1995 and stayed with the police department for eight more years, first in the Department Advocate’s Office and then in the intelligence division. In 2004, Aguirre retired from the police department and leased office space for a solo practice. But after a few months he joined the newly incorporated, five-attorney Bronx firm now called Codelia, Aguirre & Socorro. It is a “quasi-general practice,” he said, with a focus on commercial, real estate, matrimonial and personal injury. Many clients are local bodega owners. The office has a humble, narrow spot on the second floor of Bruckner Plaza, a strip mall halfway between the Bronx Expressway and the East River. “You could say it’s the little Puerto Rican firm in the Bronx that roared,” Aguirre said. A mutual family acquaintance put Iris Rodriguez in touch with Aguirre last November. The Rodriguezes had been separated and recently reconciled, but it did not last. Ten days after the announcement of her husband’s Lottery win, she filed for divorce. For Aguirre, it was the fourth matrimonial case of his young legal career. To handle it, he did not hesitate to rely on experienced colleagues. On the day he went to Queens to file Rodriguez’s order to show cause, he bumped into Annette Soriano-Rodriguez in the courthouse hallway. Soriano-Rodriguez, a Queens matrimonial practitioner (no relation to the parties), also grew up in the Bronx, where her mother was a community activist. “I knew Annette to be a stand-up divorce and family law lawyer,” said Aguirre. Soriano-Rodriguez, while retained on an hourly basis, worked on all aspects of the case with Aguirre and his partners. “It was a family atmosphere: a lot of laughing, a lot of screaming,” Aguirre recalled. Screaming? “You know, when legal minds get together,” he said. “That’s what’s great about this Latino community, is that you bring another person home and they become a sibling,” Aguirre said. GROUP EFFORT Everyone at the firm worked on the case. Ernest Codelia, partner, raised probing practical questions; William Tauber, an associate, researched the issues and Peter Shipman, senior litigator, drafted a temporary restraining order and other motions and briefs, “just in case.” As in most divorce cases, ancillary issues started cropping up: Rodriguez had declared bankruptcy shortly before winning the lottery and he and his wife had lived separately for several months. Unlike most divorcing couples, however, the Rodriguezes were about to receive an enormous windfall. The fact that millions of dollars were sitting in an Albany-area bank for the state Department of Taxation and Finance, Division of the Lottery — just out of reach — motivated settlement negotiations from the beginning, Aguirre said. His first concern was to prevent the state from disbursing the money until there was a determination on the equitable distribution of the marital assets. He also wanted to obtain some interim funds, pendente lite, for his client. To do this, Aguirre had to show that the prize winnings were marital property. One of his partners spotted the precedent they needed. Myrna Socorro was a paralegal with the practice for almost 20 years, until she went to law school at night and became a partner in 2004. Working through Thanksgiving weekend, she scoured the Internet for a legal decision on point, until she turned up references to a case the Law Journal had published six years earlier. German v. German, QDS:92700225 (1998), was still good law. In it, a judge had restrained a defendant’s lottery winnings after his estranged wife brought a divorce action. The defendant sought release of some of the winnings, and the court released $1 million of the $4 million winning share, on the theory that the defendant would be awarded at least 25 percent interest in the marital assets if still married. Armed with the German case, Aguirre won a temporary restraining order on Nov. 29, 2004 — the day before Rodriguez was scheduled to get the money. After the TRO, negotiations dragged on through the winter. Finally, Aguirre’s office negotiated an interim stipulation that provided Rodriguez with $2 million in early March. Rodriguez, represented by David Newman, a partner at Sonnenschein Nath & Rosenthal, was also allowed $2 million. Aguirre admits he was nervous. “With the TRO, you don’t know if someone’s going to run up to the Appellate Division and get it knocked out,” he said, noting that there are a lot of opportunities for procedural missteps. NEW FORMIDABLE OPPONENT Aguirre found himself facing another formidable matrimonial attorney after the stipulation. Deborah Lans, partner at Cohen Lans, took over representation of Rodriguez from Newman. Cohen Lans, a Manhattan family law and commercial litigation firm, was founded in 2003 by a founding partner and former head of the matrimonial department at Morrison Cohen Singer & Weinstein. The ongoing negotiations were simplified by the fact that there was only one significant marital asset — the $149 million jackpot. “I think both parties realized that it should be resolved as quickly as possible,” Aguirre said. “There’s all this money sitting up there, and nobody can touch it” until the case is resolved. Neither side wanted a trial and, nearly four months after the TRO, Rodriguez gave up half of his new fortune under a separation agreement. Rodriguez may seek a conversion divorce based on the agreement. A conversion divorce is the closest thing New York has to a no-fault divorce. After living separate and apart for one year or more pursuant to a decree or judgment of separation, either person may apply for a divorce based on the separation agreement. There are no personal allegations against the spouse, and the separation is the only reason given. Neither Mr. or Mrs. Rodriguez could be reached for comment. “I think it worked out well for both [sides],” Aguirre said. After taxes, each will receive a lump sum of about $30 million. Rodriguez, who received more than Ivana Trump in her divorce settlement, was reportedly dancing in the courthouse hallway after the decision. Aguirre declined to discuss the fees his office received, but said the firm may move to a larger space, and employ a couple more attorneys. Still, the firm plans to stay small, and to remain with its roots in the Bronx. “It’s a good place to practice law,” Aguirre said. “It’s the home of the world champion New York Yankees, for one thing. Who’s got it better?”

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