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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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  • Jessica

    The last part of the article strikes me the most- the vulnerability of the elderly LGBT community. It seems they are left out of many of the conversations.

  • Gabe

    This is outrageous. I agree with Jessica’s point about the elderly LGBT community in particular. The elderly are already treated pretty poorly in many cases in assisted living homes. If, on top of that, they have none of the rights married couples are afforded, they’re getting doubly screwed over. It’s time our country fixed both of these issues. I’m just glad there are organizations like the National Center for Lesbian Rights that can help people who do not have the resources to fight back on their own.

  • David

    As a middle-aged gay man, I find this story profoundly disturbing, and it needs desperately to be told. For years I’ve had (progressive) friends who have said that marriage rights for same-sex couples were unnecessary. All couples needed to do was to make sure that they had the right documents in place and everything would be fine. Apparently, that isn’t always true.

  • Gabrielle

    A significantly higher percentage of gay seniors have no one to care for them than heterosexual seniors. This is an example that is going to become more and more prevalent, unless social support systems are modified to recognize and accommodate gay relationships and also create environments for seniors that are gay friendly.

  • Beth Moser

    Thank you for addressing this subject and drawing attention to the shameful way in which both our elderly and LGBT communities are treated. I will be very interested in seeing more coverage and watching how this case, and others like it, unfold.

  • Benjamin K

    It’s not clear to me whether anyone is truly at fault here, but it’s terrible that this happened, and frightening that it happened in what is generally perceived to be a very tolerant place

  • Alana

    This is just heartbreaking. It looks to me like not only disregard of the couple’s relationship, but also potential abuse of the elderly in the scenario Greene describes (selling off the couple’s things while he wanted them not to; putting him in assisted living against his will). I can’t imagine what it must have been like to be separated during Scull’s last days. It’s so tragic.

  • DLG

    I suppose this again puts a lie to the idea that social tolerance of homosexuality is enough to protect people in situations where their rights are not protected by law. Whether anyone is at fault, the principle here is that attempting to simulate the legal protection of marriage without actual marriage is insufficient.

    If this was a straight couple who was officially married, none of the other paperwork would have even been considered and no one would have accepted the idea that it was humane to separate them.

  • Graham

    A tragic incident that goes to the heart of the matter regarding the legal status of same-sex couples. I am surprised that this story has not gained national attention. More people should be made aware of it.

  • Bob Halper

    Truth be told, dealing with end of life issues before they become problems is something both homosexual and heterosexual couples need to deal with sooner rather than later. Leave something to a government authority to decide and you can be sure it will not turn out the way you would like it to. It does, however, certainly seem in this case that the county couldn’t have cared less about dealing with Clay and Harold in a considerate manner. Very sad.

  • Jean

    I find it so disturbing that we are still grappling and struggling with communication issues at the core of ALL issues. I agree that if nothing else, this story was covered and written well and very clearly a reminder that accountability has to be taken early on to prevent other ‘strangers’ from making erroneous and malformed decisions and I would suggest that this tragic and very sad commentary become public information in the media mainstream! Excellent work!

  • Dominic

    That’s just horrible.

  • Erin

    This case really needs to be publicized. How horrible that after their preparations this should have happened. It’s also shocking that someone can have all his (or her) possessions sold without even having to sign something to give the county permission to do so… All the county has to do is say, “Oh, he said it was okay.” That is preposterous and terrifying. The story is written in a very balanced way. I want to know what happens with all this and how the lawsuit turns out.

  • Jonathan


  • Rebecca

    Thank you for bringing this alarming story to light! I hope this tragedy can lead to change.

  • Estelle Bajou

    If an issue–civil and women’s rights, “green” issues, “food” issues–must build momentum over time before our social consciousness is ready to address it, I believe this story comes at just that moment, offering a fresh and tragic perspective on the under-protected rights of the LGBT community in America.

    I would be very interested to see more coverage of this case and others like it as well.

  • marilyn

    A story that needs a bigger forum; this should be blasted all over the media. As well as seconding all the comments re rights of the LGBT community, as a (slightly) older person I find it frightening that this could happen.

  • Danny Klein

    Fascinating, if upsetting, story, well told.

  • Kate

    This is just heart-breaking. This needs to be followed up on!

  • Claire

    This is heartbreaking on many levels. It hurts me that people can be life partners for 20 years and not be recognized as such. I will never cease to amazed and how many straight couples I know who have married and divorced while LGBT life partners of multiple decades aren’t recognized. In someways the part that I find the most sad is that the couple referred to themselves as roommates (thus fueling a fire over not recognizing their status), I hope for future generations of non-straight couples will be more comfortable in their skins. Admittedly, the abuse claim brings to me a few more questions, as the gay community also doesn’t have good support in dealing with spousal abuse when/if it happens. Not saying it did here, just that I would like to learn more. These poor people, it is sad however you cut it. I will follow this news story, thanks for sharing!

  • Samara Klein

    A tragic story . . . but important that it’s told (in detail), so that some day (hopefully) situations like this will no longer arise.

  • Susan Mower

    This is a very sad, complex, and totally wrong. I wonder if there are any Social Workers at the assisted living facilities. The elderly, whether gay or straight, need advocates who are unbiased and supportive of “families” – in the larger sense of the word. Thank you for bringing this well written story to this reader’s attention.

  • Corinna

    The times they are a’changing — and clearly social workers & government officials need to be brought up to speed. I wonder, how many of these stories are we not hearing?

  • Janet

    This story is heart-breaking to hear. As a nurse it is baffling to me how their power of attorney/will and health care directive’s were totally unheeded. That right there is illegal, and whomever in the county disregarded those directives (and all involved) need to be fired, sued, and charged with whatever it is that they can be charged with. If this was a man/woman who were not married this would not have been an issue. It is disgraceful that in the 21st century people can still think that what they can do that to another human being; no matter there race, religion, sex, or sexual orientation is acceptable. I personally think it is disgusting that someone in Sonoma County is trying to divert attention by mentioning an abuse allegation when the Prosecuting Attorney dismissed the case.
    This case needs to have more attention!!!

  • Michele

    I am outraged by this story. How could county officials ignore the wills of these two men? Legal documents and directive need to be followed, and clearly, that did not happen.These men did everything that a gay couple could legally do to protect themselves, only to have their personal wishes ignored. Gay couples are not second class citizens, and they do not deserve to be treated as such. Domestic partnerships and civil unions are clearly not enough. Our country needs to allow marriage for gay couples so tragedies like this never happen again. Good luck to the NCLR.

  • Katie W

    Marriage should be a contract between two people and just that — a contract.

    Both men named each other in their wills and named each other power of attorney. Pretty clear evidence about their intent. It doesn’t surprise me about their possessions being sold off, this happens all the time to the elderly. We need more oversight for the rights of the elderly, no matter how they identify themselves.

  • Beth

    I have been aware of this as a political issue. This article uncovers the heart wrenching human cost and brings home the responsibility we each have to protect each other. Where were the neighbors and friends and family of these men who could have interceded on their behalf? It is a shame when these most personal decisions become the business of the government. So be it – time for legislation in California and everywhere else to legalize any union people choose!

  • Justin P

    This disturbs me. The reason being is that this couple had all the legal documentation in place to protect the other from something like this from happening and it still happened anyway. Their rights as human beings were ignored.
    I have seen instances where non-married heterosexual couples have had this same issue. However, the government has contested their legal rights (through wills and other documentation) in court and won. In this case, it seems the government didn’t even do that. They seemed to go above the law and ignore the proper legal protections that this couple set up for themselves. That frightens me.
    I hope to see more on this case in the weeks ahead. To me (and I am a gay male), it’s not just about the rights of this LGBT couple, it is about the rights of all senior citizens that are facing or will face this issue at some point.

  • Lisa

    It seems in this case — and I am confident in other situations like this in the future — the couple relied on “the system” to take care of them. As the conclusions points out, they did everything necessary for civil rights protection.
    I wonder, as with other estate-related documents, if naming a secondary or sub-executor would have helped? The story mentions no offspring, but I would think a close friend to the couple could be named (legally) to assist the living partner in instances like this.
    Our population will continue to see more and related issues as we all age. For the sake of anyone faced with the critical injury or death of a long-term partner, let us only hope justice will set precident in this case.

  • JoAnn L

    Not mentioned in this article is whether Scull signed up for county medical financial assistance when he was admitted to the hospital. Not sure about Sonoma County, but in San Diego County, if you sign up for it, there is a provision that if you die before paying back the county, everything you own becomes the property of the county and their administrators will see all your possessions and pay off the county first, then any other creditors. Many people sign up for this aid when they are seriously ill or elderly and cannot comprehend the provision.

  • Jason

    My friend emailed this to me – a really tragic case that should get more attention. Hopefully more people will find out about this and will help avoid similar situations in the future.

  • Deb

    Even more than a reflection of gay couples, this is a reflection of the terrible way we treat our elderly. I cannot tell you how many times I have heard an older person in tears because they do not want to go to a nursing home. Even when it seems medically and safety-wise the only answer, we strip them of all identity, of personal belongings and family heirlooms. When this happens as a result of a hurricane, or a tornado, everyone is appalled and steps up to help. But for the elderly, it is just another day. How little we respect those that gave us life.

  • Mike

    I found it very interesting that lawyer representing the county believes that there was no evidence of gay-bashing in the case. If this is true, it is frightening because it demonstrates how easily the rights of this couple were trampled upon by people who don’t consider themselves homophobic. This article does a really good job of showing the necessity of strengthening legal protections for the LGBT community.

  • Craig

    Great article. It points out several issues that have been problematic for years with no apparent resolution in sight. Regardless of what the men called their relationship, they had legal documentation that provided instructions on how to deal with these issues. County bureaucrats are probably scrambling after-the-fact to justify their actions.

  • Jennifer Miller

    I am saddened to hear of the seperation of this family. As a nurse, I have seen many situations such as this. Unfortunately, in most states the law is not on the side of the gay or lesbian partners. So many decisions fall to the next of kin when someone becomes ill and often times they do not take into consideration an individual’s wishes and they can exclude whomever they like. This is one glaring reason in support of gay and lesbian marriage in my opinion. A partner should be recognized as a husband or wife and be considered the legal next of kin for so many reasons but most strikingly for this one. How horrific to be torn away from your partner during such a difficult time and to not be present when they passed on, my heart goes out to them both!!

  • Jane

    How tragic. The fact these individual’s legally-recorded wishes were completely ignored is disturbing . . .

    This story indeed must receive national attention! It is a travesty on every level: lgbt, elderly, individually. If it can happen to these two men when they had made their wishes and intentions clear, it can happen to anyone.

  • Karin M

    WOW! I can’t even organize my thoughts around this enough to comment. It is wrong on so MANY levels. Outrageous, unbelievable, unconscionable, barbaric, terrifying…those are some of the words that come to mind. I am absolutely stunned that this can and did happen in this country, in this time, in the 21st century. I will be very interested to hear what the courts final ruling will be.

  • rosa

    I belive this is a grave injustice to the lgbt community. If this is allowed to happen their it can happen any where. How is this country able to live up to its theory of land of the free? When we are not free to be who we are in peace. I dont know what I would do if that happen to me and my partner. Its as though they were treated like criminals. Sad.

  • Ernie & Bert

    The fact that they were both gay seems a mere coincidence to their poor life planning. This is a gay issue because – it happened to two gay people? Their self importance is insufferable. They are no different than any other childless couple in their twilight years (which is, ostensibly and ironically, what the gay community wants – to be no different than anyone else).

    And I don’t buy the part about “Clay’s comments” reflecting the age in which he grew up. C’mon – he was forty minutes from San Francisco – there is no more permissive environment than that to be open about who you are. There is more to this story.

  • Nikki

    Homosexuality is unnatural and immoral. The Bible clearly states that marriage and sexual unions are to be between men and women only. Until people with this ‘alternative’ lifestyle repent as God demands, this will be the way of the world. Don’t feel too badly for these men, they chose to violate God’s laws. We need to pray for them and hope the remaining man, repents before he breathes his last breath. Progressive communities and alternative lifestyles are nothing but evil. Stop trying to rename this vulgarity to make it appear acceptable. IT IS NOT ACCEPTABLE!

  • susan katz

    I am sad to read about this story about these gay elders and I will remember them in my prayers.I believe that this was a grave injustice against this couple and I am hoping that the partner wins his lawsuit. They were together for a long time and to have their possessions sold off to offset their care and not being able to see each other is sad. Would hetrosexual couples be treated the same way? I would be terrified if I could not see my husband before I died and have my possessions sold to take care of me.

  • George Mann

    This is awful, and proof that sadly, changing laws about gay rights etc is not enough to protect the LGB community, and that changing laws back and forth does little to encourage narrow minded people to change their point of view about homosexuality. We also need a change in mindset about this issue, but without help from governmental organisations to enforce laws about human rights such as those basic rights denied above, what hope do we have? Where is Obama and nobel peace prize when you need him? I hope this poor man wins his court case. I hope the majority who voted against same-sex marriage can just get over the fact that some people are gay, and that’s ok. But they’re unlikely to do that without the government setting a good example first.

  • Renee

    Heartbreaking and infuriating! I can only hope that great articles like this one will be read by those who can and will change the system – to actually listen to people and support their wants and needs particularly in these life and death matters. ~ R

  • Lauraliz

    This is a great article that needs serious exposure. I hope this doesn’t stop here. People need to know!! So sad and unjust.

  • Ed

    The Government CANNOT !! help, people need to take control over their own life, we have enough Government intervention in our lives now. I am a christian man and I really don’t believe in gay or lesbian marriage But at the same time, let them do as they will, our bibles tell us we should have compassion on others and I try to live by that rule. I think that the lord will show them right from wrong. I think that this shows us that we ALL need to prepare for the end of our life and if this story is true I hope that this man can win his court case, NO ONE SHOULD BE TREATED IN THIS FASHION !!!!! If I am wrong then I need to throw away all of the things my mother and father have taught me through the years. I pray for the day when we have compleate understanding of all things, and that we can grow old without fear of losing our right to live on our own without someone comming in and taking everything that we have worked for all of our lives. amen

  • Mikey

    I wondered how long it would take someone like NIkki to demonstrate her idea of God’s love to us here.

  • art

    yeah yeah, closets have doors for a reason

  • phil

    Wow! ANother PBS article on LGBT issues…what a surprise…

  • Time Will Solve Gay Marriage Debate, ‘The Kids Are All Right’ Tells a Too-Familiar Story About Gay Marriage, Bishop On Same-Sex Marriage: Not Now, Not Ever…, and more… »

    [...] In Sonoma Lawsuit, the Plight of an Aging Gay Couple. Read more  [...]

  • A.S.

    Despite how one may feel about homosexuality, the truth of the matter is both of these men had legal documents to support their intentions and named each other as benefactors. I wonder– if this had been an unmarried straight elderly couple who also did the same thing, would they have been treated differently?

  • Sunshine

    Well done to the journalist who brought this to light!! In the name of human rights, a big thanks!

    We are all part of a human society and should aim to live and co – habit as such.

    In any care setting, as in any other environment, it’s absolutely necessary to bear in mind the responsibility to treat everyone in a human and ethical way; so, there’s no excuse, not the right to pass over other’s will. This is not just a case of homosexuality but of human treatment. There is still so much stigma, i guess, regarding this kind of relationship, that we become ‘blind’ and that’s a real evil!! Remember what Jesus said about judging others; it’s so easy to do so but we have to look inside ourselves. Surely, we got our own issues that should be addressed first, before to judge someone else.

  • Lisa
  • Steve Goldblatt

    Most of the above comments are spot on. Though let me add we are fooling ourselves if we think all Americans will see equality in the lifespan of anyone old enough to read these words. I am a proud Figgie and member of the FIGS (Free, Independent Gay State) Party.

    When we are in our own country, we will live freely, with liberty and equality and our own politically autonomous Gay state will welcome all. Our people deserve peace, safety and compassion. As sad as this story is and as disturbing as it is, these circumstances happen more often but never make the press by our elders too frail or intimidated to fight.

    I for one, dream of the day when I can die peacefully in my own home in our own land. Go Figgies!!!


    Nikki people like you are bigots and haters – god will punish you for hatred

  • bob shaw

    we (the gay community) is the only group in the country that can in most areas be discriminated against-we need to rise and attain our rights as citizens-our sexual preferance should not make any difference. STAND UP BE HEAR-WE ARE NOT GOING TO PUT UP WITH THIS ANY LONGER-TREAT US THE SAME AS YOU DO ANYONE.

  • RP

    Contracts were in place but not followed. How would have having a marriage license helped this couple? Someone in government messed up, big surprise. They won their case which proves that their civil rights were upheld. Stop all of the winning, this kind of government misstep happens every day to straight as well as gay people. What right do gay people not have now that legalized gay marriage would add? If your will is not followed then your heirs can sue whether you are gay or not.

  • Rhona

    A shocking story. We still live in such a discriminatory, patriarchal and homophobic society (as some of the above comments also prove). Your age and/or sexual orientation are no grounds for exploitation. More people need to know about stories like these. A real wake-up call.

  • Danny Verde

    Nikki, assuming you’re a women, should be sent back to pre-1900 when women didn’t have the right to vote. She can pull her bible out all she wants and preach why women are inferior to men. Then she can move over to the african community and explain to them as well. Here we go again. The bible is warping your mind. Strap a bomb on you in the name of jesus and I’d find myself in a mirror of the middle east. Good article here and great that this debate is exposed and continues to pull knuckleheads like Nikki out into the open.