Sonoma County settles out of court with Clay Green

George Tooker Landscape with Figures 1965-1966 egg tempera on pressed wood 25.5" x 29.5"

we are alone . . . but we are not alone

Their nightmare began only two years ago, and no one can undue the psychological damage done to Clay Green and Harold Scull or return to the surviving spouse the home and virtually all the property and personal possessions the two men had shared for 20 years, but their injuries have finally been acknowledged.

Last Friday, just two days before his suit would have been opened in court, California's Sonoma County, agreed to a settle Greene's complaint out of court, for the amount of $653,000. Greene will retain $275,000, his lawyers will take $300,000*, and Scull's estate will be given the remainder. It was announced in the San Francisco Chronicle that the nursing home will pay $53,000, but it was not made clear where it will end up.

Greene's suit against Sonoma had claimed that his sexual orientation was the reason social workers had separated him and his dying partner and why the county had summarily sold off their belongings, including shared personal mementos.

Under the terms of the agreement Sonoma County did not admit it had discriminated against the two elderly men, but the county's lawyer, Gregory Spaulding admitted that there had been “procedural errors” in the disposal of the property.

The Sonoma County Press Democrat** reports that Spaulding said that the error had led to policy improvements at the Public Guardian's office regarding property disposition and case management, but that he had also spoken on the subject of the Harold and Clay's own status before the law:

He said the dispute might have been avoided if the men had been able to be legally married or if they had registered as domestic partners. Because they weren't, their funds were viewed as separate, he said.

“Marital status played a role in what options were available to them,” Spaulding said.

In my April post I pointed out that, while Harold and Clay may not, and today could not, have been married, they had been a couple for 25 years and ". . . had taken the precaution of naming each other both beneficiaries of their respective estates and agents for medical decisions, and the authorities still proceeded as if they had no personal or legal relationship."

Barry and I know any number of heterosexual couples as friends, and we occasionally ask them whether they have ever had to prove they were married. They inevitably answer no, that they are never asked to furnish copies of their marriage certificates. Some of them in fact had never actually married, and yet they have been able to take advantage of all of the perquisites which are attached to a state which is supposedly carefully circumscribed by law.

People like Harold and Clay - and Barry and James, our friends Jill and Gabriella and others, and millions of other couples around the world - don't even get to be asked.

The National Center for Lesbian Rights in San Francisco had represented Greene, and Amy Todd-Gher was his lawyer, so I'm wondering about this compensation figure.

I and a number of other bloggers had complained months ago that like most of the commercial media, the Sonoma County, New York Times-owned paper, the Press Democrat, had long refused to cover this story altogether. The paper has finally acquitted itself with its coverage of the settlement, but this excerpt from the paper's July 22 post however is a bit disingenuous:

The case grabbed national media attention with its shocking claims of abuse at the hands of those meant to protect the frail and vulnerable. Gay rights groups pummeled county officials with strident e-mail and some threatened a boycott on county tourism and wines.

Although the suit was filed in August 2009, it didn't become widely known until a report about it ran in April on the website of the National Center for Lesbian Rights.

[image from eric reber]

You make some good points. But in the case mentioned above,the Will and medical directive were not the issue. Mr. Scull's Will was probated exactly as he intended with Mr. Greene as the beneficiary. And medical directives only come into play if one party becomes incapable of making his or her own medical decisions.(Having your estate conserved by the public guardian doesn't mean that someone else has the authority to make medical decisions for you.)

But if Mr. Scull and Mr. Green had been married (in a community property state like CA), their assets would probably have been divided equally while they were both alive, even though more of the assets were in Mr. Scull's name alone. A straight unmarried couple would have had the same problem; assets would be assumed to belong to the person in whose name they were held. Without proof of a marriage the court cannot assume community property unless the parties involved have put their assets in both their names. Mr. Greene received assets held in only Mr. Scull's name after Mr. Scull's death, but not before.

Some people are assuming that Mr. Greene couldn't visit Mr. Scull because they weren't married. The good news is: that's not true. Mr. Scull didn't want to return home to Mr. Greene and refused some (but not all) of Mr. Greene's phone calls after the last alleged domestic violence incident. Mr. Greene didn't try to visit (although they did see each other a few times elsewhere), but if Mr. Greene had visited, and Mr. Scull had been willing to see him, they wouldn't have been stopped, married or not.

There is some more info here:

A public advocacy group represented Greene, and is taking over HALF of the settlement as it's slice? ...Disgraceful and opportunistic.

Any lawyers care to comment?