NCLR, Lambda Legal and Equality California Win Legal Victory in Case Challenging Basic Property Tax Protections for Domestic Partners

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California Court of Appeal Affirms Trial Court Decision Rejecting Challenge to Board of Equalization Rule
October 3, 2007

(San Francisco, CA, October 3, 2007) — In a resounding victory, a California Court of Appeal unanimously affirmed the validity of a Board of Equalization rule that protects domestic partners from increased property taxes when one of the partners dies and the other inherits the couple's home.  California law has long provided this protection for surviving heterosexual spouses.     

The case began in March 2005 when Sutter and Orange Counties challenged the rule in state court. Represented by NCLR, Lambda Legal, and the law firm of Munger, Tolles & Olson LLP, Equality California and three same-sex couples intervened in the litigation to defend the rule. Orange County later left the litigation, but Tehama and Madera Counties joined it. In 2006, Sacramento Superior Court Judge Jack Sapunor rejected the challenge and upheld the rule, and the assessors appealed.  In a decision issued on Tuesday, the Third District of the California Court of Appeal unanimously upheld Judge Sapunor's ruling. 

"The panel's decision means that surviving partners will be able to stay in their homes and not see their property taxes double or even triple," said Brian Chase, Senior Staff Attorney in Lambda Legal's Western Regional Office.  "We're pleased the appeals court has upheld what nearly everyone agrees on — that same-sex couples deserve the same protections in a crisis as everyone else.  The Board of Equalization thought so.  The lower court thought so. What's surprising is that the county assessors challenged the rule in the first place."

After the lawsuit was filed, the California Legislature codified the Board of Equalization rule by enacting Senate Bill 565, authored by California State Sen. Carole Migden (D-San Francisco). The bill became effective January 1, 2006. The Court of Appeal decision confirms that both the Board of Equalization and the Legislature have the authority to define what constitutes a change of ownership among family members, including registered domestic partners.

"Surviving domestic partners should not lose their homes at the moment they are dealing with the tragedy of having lost their life partners," said Shannon Minter, Legal Director for the National Center for Lesbian Rights. "The fact that government officials would attack such a basic protection for same-sex couples is shameful. We are relieved the Court of Appeal affirmed this sensible, pro-family rule."

"We salute Sen. Carole Migden and the Board of Equalization for their efforts to ensure that registered domestic partners have the same vital protections as all other committed couples," said EQCA Executive Director Geoff Kors. "We are pleased with the court's decision, recognizing that domestic partners should be treated fairly and equally. The fact that some same-sex couples have lost their homes simply due to the death of a partner shows that domestic partnerships fall way short of marriage. Until we secure marriage for all loving and committed couples, taxpayer dollars will continue to be utilized for lawsuits like this as we work to achieve full equality for all Californians."

The case is Strong v. Board of Equalization. Dan Powell from Munger, Tolles & Olson LLP argued the case on behalf of EQCA and three same-sex couples.

Lambda Legal is a national organization committed to achieving full recognition of the civil rights of lesbians, gay men, bisexuals, transgender people and those with HIV through impact litigation, education and public policy work.

The National Center for Lesbian Rights is a national legal organization committed to advancing the legal and human rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people and their families through litigation, public policy advocacy, and public education.

Equality California is a nonprofit, nonpartisan, grassroots-based, statewide advocacy organization whose mission is to achieve equality and civil rights of all lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) Californians.


 Jason Howe 213-382-7600 ext.247; Email: jhowe@lambdalegal.org



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