Court of Appeal Decides in Favor of Gay Orange County Man Whose Domestic Partner Misled Him By Never Registering Partnership with the State
(Santa Ana, Calif., May 6, 2008) — The California Court of Appeal has ruled unanimously that a gay Orange County man who mistakenly thought his ex-partner had registered their domestic partnership is entitled to the same protections covering heterosexual spouses who discover that, for whatever reason, their marriage is not valid.
Darrin Ellis sought the same recourse available to heterosexuals who honestly believe they were validly married, but later discover they were not. This protection allows good faith "putative spouses" access to family court for a fair division of the couple's property, rather than being treated as legal strangers.
"We're pleased the court found in Darrin's favor, but this case shows that domestic partnerships are not adequate to fully protect same-sex couples," said Tara Borelli, staff attorney for Lambda Legal, who argued before the court. "Gay and lesbian couples are forced to rely on a continuous legal patch job to fix gaps in the law. Without marriage equality, we'll be doing constant legal patch jobs to make sure that same-sex couples are treated the same as everyone else under the law. No one should have to walk through life with a constitutional lawyer on one side and the legislature on the other, trying to patch up an inadequate system."
Ellis and his ex-partner, David Arriaga, had been in a committed relationship for more than five years. In August of 2003, the two met with their attorney to draft estate planning documents and a declaration of domestic partnership. Ellis understood that Arriaga was to send the notarized form to the California Secretary of State's office, and did not discover until their separation years later that Arriaga never mailed the form. When Ellis tried to formally dissolve the partnership in September of 2006, Arriaga requested the trial court to dismiss the case, saying Ellis had no protection since the couple was not validly registered. The trial court agreed with Arriaga's interpretation of California's domestic partnership law and dismissed the case on February 2, 2007. Lambda Legal appealed that dismissal.
Lambda Legal's brief argued that AB 205, California's domestic partner law, gives same-sex couples the same protection under the state's "putative spouse doctrine" as people in different-sex relationships who believed they were married only to find out later that their marriage was not valid. The trial court's interpretation of the domestic partnership law shows that the State's relegation of same-sex couples to a lesser family protection system like domestic partnership is inadequate to provide full equality.
"I'm happy I'll finally be able to put all this behind me," said plaintiff Darrin Ellis. "This was supposed to be a simple divorce, which was painful enough, but unlike straight spouses I had to prove that my relationship should be treated the same as anybody else's. This never would have happened if I had been able to get married in the first place."
Lambda Legal Staff Attorney Tara Borelli is lead counsel on Ellis v. Arriaga. She is assisted by Lambda Legal Senior Counsel Jennifer C. Pizer and co-counsel Reba Birmingham and Audrey Stephanie Loftin of Long Beach Law, Inc., APLC.
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