Gay Man's Right to Retain Home Goes Before Washington's Highest Court

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Argument: Tuesday, February 13, 9:00 a.m.
February 8, 2001

(LOS ANGELES, February 8, 2001) — Lambda Legal Defense and Education Fund urges the Washington Supreme Court to overturn a ruling that stripped a man of his home and business following the death of his partner of nearly three decades and affirm that gay couples are protected by Washington’s law of equity.

On Tuesday, February 13, the Washington Supreme Court will hear argument in Vasquez v. Hawthorne; afterwards, Managing Attorney Jennifer C. Pizer of Lambda’s Western Regional Office, plaintiff’s attorney Terry Barnett and Northwest Women’s Law Center Executive Director Lisa Stone will comment to reporters.

“The Court of Appeals created a peculiar and unfair barrier for lesbians and gay men when it treated Frank Vasquez as a legal stranger to the property he and his partner had built up over their years together. For the sake of all gay families throughout the state, as well as basic justice for Frank Vasquez, the Washington Supreme Court should tear down this barrier,” said Pizer, who authored Lambda’s amicus brief.

Pizer authored Lambda’s amicus brief to the Court, supporting the appeal of Mr. Vasquez, who had shared a home and business with Robert Schwerzler, his life partner of 27 years. Schwerzler died in 1995 without a will. In 1997, Schwerzler’s relatives sued to take over all the men’s assets, including their home in Puyallup, Washington.

Applying a long-standing state equitable doctrine, a trial court upheld Vasquez’s claim to the property, valued at $230,000, that the two had acquired jointly during their relationship. The doctrine in question protects those in long-term, unmarried relationships should they separate or one partner die. It allows a party who does not have legal title nevertheless to seek a fair distribution of property the couple had acquired or enhanced while they were together.

But, in February 2000, the Court of Appeals ruled that Vasquez has no right to retain that property because the two men were of the same sex and thus, under current interpretation of Washington law, could not have married even if they had wished to. However, the equitable doctrine Vasquez sought to invoke exists separate and apart from marriage law.

Lambda Legal Director Ruth E. Harlow said, “Washington’s equitable doctrine provides a fair safety net if one partner in an unmarried couple dies without a will. This doctrine of fairness should not be offered to only some couples and not others because of their sexual orientation.”

Headquartered in New York and with regional offices in Los Angeles, Chicago, and Atlanta, Lambda is the oldest and largest legal organization dedicated to advancing the civil rights of lesbians, gay men, and people with HIV and AIDS.

WHAT: Oral argument in Vasquez v. Hawthorne
WHO: Lambda Managing Attorney Jennifer C. Pizer, lead counsel Terry Barnett, and Lisa Stone, executive director of the Northwest Women’s Law Center
WHERE: Washington Supreme Court, 415 12th Street West, Olympia, Washington
WHEN: Tuesday, February 13, 2001 immediately following the argument, which will be at 9:00 a.m. PDT

(Vasquez v. Hawthorne, No. 22616-2-II)

CONTACT: Jennifer C. Pizer 323-937-2728, ext. 223
Peg Byron 212-809-8585 or 888-987-1984 (pager)
Terry Barnett - Counsel for Mr. Vasquez 253-756-0333



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