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In Sonoma lawsuit, the plight of an aging gay couple

UPDATE: Lawyers for Clay Greene and Sonoma County agreed to a settlement Thursday, July 22. The county agreed to pay $300,000 for Greene’s legal fees, $275,000 to Greene himself, and $25,000 to the estate of Harold Scull for property that may have been auctioned off under value. In exchange, Greene’s lawyers agreed to drop charges of discrimination against the county. In a press release the county acknowledged that some administrative errors may have occurred in its handling of Scull and Greene, but said there was never any discrimination against the gay couple. Read the full story.

Harold Scull and Clay Greene in an undated photo. Photo courtesy Justice for Clay Greene and Harold of Sonoma County, Calif., on Facebook

After 20 years of living together in their Sonoma County home, an elderly gay couple, Harold Scull and Clay Greene, were suddenly separated in April 2008 when Scull was injured in their home and had to be hospitalized. Greene was placed in a separate assisted living facility, and Scull died three months later without the two seeing each other again.

Now Greene is suing the county, saying that county officials not only kept the men apart without recognizing the nature of their relationship but also took control of their finances and auctioned off their possessions without their permission. Greene is seeking an undisclosed amount, and the trial is set to begin  July 27.

The National Center for Lesbian Rights, which is assisting in Greene’s defense, claims the officials failed to recognize that Scull, 88, and Greene, 77, were a couple, although they had named each other in their wills and granted each other power of attorney. They also say that county officials exploited the nature of Scull and Greene’s relationship to their own material gain: county employees sent to review the contents of the house commented on their possessions, saying how much they would like certain items for themselves. When Greene objected, he was allegedly told to “shut up.” The county denies these accusations.

“Personally, it caused me to pause and it scared me, because if this can happen in Sonoma County it can happen anywhere,” said Amy Todd-Gher, the lead attorney for the NCLR team.

Only 45 minutes from San Francisco, Sonoma County is considered by many to be one of the most tolerant areas in the state, if not the country. Just a few months after this incident, 66.4 percent of county voters said no to Proposition 8, a ballot initiative that overturned the California Supreme Court’s May 2008 ruling that it was unconstitutional to deny same-sex couples the right to marry.

“This is honestly one of the most tragic cases I have seen in my career,” Todd-Gher said. “I don’t know how you ever make a human being whole from all that Clay Greene has gone through in this case.” She argues that in ignoring the relationship between Greene and Scull, the county inflicted unnecessary pain on the couple. She believes that if they had recognized the two as partners “they would have found ways to place Harold and Clay together, instead of separating them and putting them into two separate facilities.”

A lawyer for Sonoma County disputes the claim that the county officials were discriminatory. “Sonoma County is a very tolerant place,” Greg Spaulding said. “I’ve been working on this case for well over a year and I have not seen anything that suggests to me that anybody had any kind of gay-bashing or anti-same-sex marriage or any other issues going on.”

Spaulding believes that both Scull and Greene consented to assisted-living facilities and to having their property sold. “Both men realized that they were going to be living in board and care or some kind of different living situation, not in a home, and there really wasn’t going to be room for their possessions,” he said. “The balance of the possessions were sold in order to raise funds to pay for their care.”

But Todd-Gher says that there is no record of this consent. “Clay to this day will say he was standing up and telling the county employees not to take his things, that he didn’t want to go,” she said. She says Greene made it clear that he didn’t want to be in the assisted living facility. “The day after he was placed in the assisted-care facility, he was telling his doctor he felt trapped, he was there against his will, he didn’t want to be there.”

The case is further complicated by the county’s claim that Scull’s injuries were not an accident, but the result of Greene’s abuse. The county says this the reason the two men were separated. “We have numerous witnesses to support that Mr. Scull reported that his injuries were the result of domestic violence by Clay Greene,” Spaulding said.

The NCLR says the claims of abuse were a misunderstanding. After Scull fell he did not want Greene to call an ambulance, the group said on its website, and when the ambulance arrived he became angry and told the paramedics that Greene had pushed him. The case, the group says, was investigated by the county district attorney and eventually dropped.

Another point of contention is the county’s failure to recognize the nature of the men’s relationship. The county’s lawyer says that Scull and Greene themselves were guarded about how they described it. “Clay used the term ‘roommates.’ Harold used the term ‘roommates.’ These guys described themselves as roommates.”

Todd-Gher agrees that the men were not forthcoming about their relationship. “I think that some of Clay’s comments reflect the age in which he and Harold grew up,” she said. “They didn’t grow up in a time that recognized that they could be gay in any way.” Regardless, she said, they “took all the steps that they thought would protect them, including executing powers of attorney and a will and a health care directive, and sadly the county disregarded them.”

One thing the two sides agree on is that the case might be a call to action for other gay couples whose relationship status might be in doubt. “Certainly this case indicates how vulnerable all LGBT [lesbian gay bisexual or transgender] elders can be,” said Todd-Gher. Spaulding pointed out that the case might give other couples an incentive to register as domestic partners in the absence of marriage rights.

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