The county of Sonoma settled a lawsuit out of court on July 21. Clay Greene claimed he was the victim of elder abuse, sexual discrimination and that his property was auctioned off without his consent by employees of the Public Guardian’s office. Sexual discrimination charges were later dropped, but the county will still pay $600,000 rather than try the case in court.
Attorneys for Greene were not immediately available for comment, but the National Center for Lesbian Rights (NCLR), said, “This victory sends an unmistakable message that all elders must be treated with respect and dignity, regardless of their sexual orientation, and that those who mistreat elders must be held accountable.”
Half of the $600,000 settlement covers lawyer fees, $275,000 goes to Greene and the remaining $25,000 to the estate of Greene’s life partner, Harold Scull. The most shocking accusations brought against the county—that despite medical directives and wills created by the couple the men were denied basic rights afforded to married couples and were verbally abused because of their sexual orientation—were challenged in court and then dropped by the plaintiffs. The county’s attorney, Gregory Spaulding, maintains that the county acted appropriately in separating the men.
The case dates back to 2008 when Scull was injured at the couple’s western Sonoma County home. Greene’s attorneys asserted that Scull, then 88, fell. County employees said that Scull reported being pushed or hit by Greene, then 77, resulting in the fall.
In the fall of 2008, the public guardian’s office took control of the men’s shared assets. Without first having the couple’s possessions appraised, officials auctioned the men’s property, collecting about $5,000, to pay for their care. Both men were placed in separate assisted living facilities, where Scull soon died.
In 2009, Clay Greene and a longtime friend of the couple acting on behalf of Scull’s estate, filed the lawsuit claiming county officials acted maliciously, seizing property for personal gains, separating the men against their will and ignoring their status as life partners. After the NCLR began working on the case, these allegations went national, spawning boycotts of Sonoma wine.
Spaulding says the case was complicated by Greene’s health and memory problems, and a fact sheet released by the county notes that at a court hearing Greene once forgot he was suing the county. He also confused details of the case.
This case highlighted the need for same-sex couples to have legal documents such as wills and trusts established, in the absence of marriage rights afforded to straight couples, but ultimately it was about much more than that.
“The NCLR’s agenda for gay marriage is a good agenda,” Spaulding says, “but this is the wrong case to push it with.”