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A same-sex couple’s Vermont civil union is the legal equivalent of marriage under Pennsylvania’s Divorce Code, the Pennsylvania Superior Court said Dec. 28 ( Neyman v. Buckley , 2016 BL 433290, Pa. Super. Ct., No. 2203 EDA 2015, 12/28/16 ).
The court held that a Pennsylvania family court should not have dismissed a divorce petition filed by one of the women to dissolve the out-of-state civil union.
Reacting to the ruling, Pennsylvania attorney Aaron D. Weems, a partner at Fox Rothschild LLP, said that the superior court’s decision “offers clarity in the law and opens up the commonwealth’s family courts to Pennsylvania citizens who entered into out-of-state civil unions.”
In a Jan. 6 e-mail to Bloomberg BNA, Weems said that the decision “builds on the Obergefell case. It establishes the legal equivalency of marriages and civil unions under Pennsylvania law.”
Calling the decision “a major step towards bringing the various forms of same-sex unions established by other states prior to Obergefellunder a single, standard procedure in Pennsylvania’s family courts,” Weems said that it “reflects a realistic view of the legal history of same-sex marriage.”
He explained that although the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2015 decision in Obergefell v. Hodges recognized the same-sex marriage right, “it did not resolve the issue of access to the courts for a generation’s worth of same-sex couples who were forced to use whatever legal means available—other than marriage—for some degree of legal protection as a couple.”
The Pennsylvania Superior Court “pragmatically moved this issue past semantical hurdles and obsolete statutory definitions to promote a `uniformity of result’ for marriages and civil unions in our courts,” Weems said.
Weems added that although the case does not specifically expand its ruling beyond that of Vermont civil unions, he “believe[s] the analysis done by the Superior Court is designed to be applied to any state’s civil unions or domestic partnerships where they were created to serve as a half-measure or alternative to marriage.”
In 1999, the Vermont Supreme Court held that the state constitution required that same-sex couples receive the same statutory rights and protections as opposite-sex couples. However, it did not mandate that they be permitted to marry.
In 2000, the Vermont legislature created a civil union scheme that provided “all the same benefits, protections and responsibilities under law … as are granted to spouses in a civil marriage.” 15 V.S.A. § 1204(a).
In July 2002, two Pennsylvanians, Freyda Neyman and Florence Buckley, entered into a Vermont civil union. They separated five months later.
In 2014, Neyman, with Buckley’s consent, petitioned to dissolve the civil union pursuant to Pennsylvania’s Divorce Code.
The family court dismissed the case, saying that the code authorized it to “only divorce parties from the ‘bonds of matrimony'[.]” State lawmakers have not expressly defined this statutory phrase. Neyman appealed.
Former Justice James J. Fitzgerald noted that the Vermont legislature created civil unions in order to provide same-sex couples with a statutory equivalent to marriage at a time when same-sex marriage was not yet available anywhere in the U.S.
He said that the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Obergefell v. Hodges,135 S.Ct. 2584 (2015), mandating recognition of same-sex marriage, “does not resolve all questions regarding the status of civil unions and divorce.”
Fitzgerald then turned to the legal principle of comity, under which one state gives effect to the laws and judicial rulings of another state.
Applying that principle, he concluded “that the legal properties of a Vermont civil union weigh in favor of recognizing such unions as the legal equivalent of marriage for purposes of dissolution under the Divorce Code.”
Fitzgerald noted that Vermont law explicitly provides that the law of domestic relations, including divorce and property division, are applicable to parties to a civil union.
He said “declining to acknowledge the parties’ civil union as the equivalent of marriage would essentially penalize the parties simply for their same-sex status because the Vermont civil union statute explicitly granted same-sex couples equivalent rights to those only available to opposite-sex couples through marriage at that time.”
Adding that “recognition of a Vermont civil union as the legal equivalent of a marriage for purposes of dissolution under the Divorce Code would promote the strong Pennsylvania public policy interest in uniformity of result, particularly in the context of the recognition of marriage,” he said that in furtherance of that policy, “this Court must recognize [the parties'] Vermont civil union as the legal equivalent of a marriage for purposes of dissolution.”
Fitzgerald also reasoned that application of comity principles to Vermont civil unions would promote interstate uniformity and “limit forum shopping aimed at avoiding the responsibilities imposed by Vermont law in the event of dissolution.”
He acknowledged that after recognizing same-sex marriage in 2009, the Vermont legislature established separate statutory schemes for the dissolution of civil unions and divorce for civil marriages.
“However, both institutions are subject to the same benefits and obligations under Vermont law,” Fitzgerald said.
He also said that “Pennsylvania residents should not have to travel to Vermont to avail themselves of the rights and obligations they undertook when they entered into a Vermont civil union.”
“[W]e conclude that a Vermont civil union should be considered the legal equivalent of a marriage for the purposes of dissolution under the Pennsylvania Divorce Code. Precluding family court jurisdiction simply due to the use of the word ‘marriage’ and ‘divorce’ in Pennsylvania jurisdictional authority elevates mere semantics over the fundamental domestic character of the relationship at issue,” Fitzgerald wrote.
Observing that the family court “possesses the expertise and the unique toolbox available, via the Pennsylvania Divorce Code, necessary to resolve the intimate and complex domestic matters likely to be at issue incident to the dissolution of a Vermont civil union,” he reversed the dismissal of Neyman’s complaint and remanded.
President Judge Emeritus Kate Ford Elliott and Judge Paula Francisco Ott concurred.
Neyman was represented by Rebecca G. Levin and Tiffany L. Palmer, of Jerner & Palmer, P.C., and by Rosalind Barrett Marshall and Thomas W. Ude, Jr., of Mazzoni Center Legal Services. Buckley appeared pro se. All are from Philadelphia.
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