Court Hears Oral Arguments in Case of Gay Orange County Man Whose Domestic Partner Misled Him By Never Registering Partnership with the State

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"This case shows how important marriage equality is to protect same-sex couples' families"
April 30, 2008

(Santa Ana, Calif., April 29, 2008)—The California Court of Appeal heard oral arguments today in the appeal of an Orange County man who believed his domestic partnership was registered with the state, only to discover upon separation that his partner never mailed the form.

“This case shows how important marriage equality is to protect same-sex couples’ families,” said Lambda Legal Staff Attorney Tara Borelli, who argued before the court. “If Darrin and David could have gotten married, Darrin wouldn’t have to ask the Court for the same protections that heterosexual spouses can take for granted.”

Darrin Ellis seeks 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.

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. When Ellis tried to 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 is appealing that dismissal.

Lambda Legal’s brief argues that AB 205, California’s domestic partner law, should give same-sex couples the same protection under the state’s “putative spouse doctrine” as people in different-sex relationships who believed they were married, and have lived their life as 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.

“People get divorced all the time, and it’s never pleasant,” said plaintiff Darrin Ellis. “What’s different in my case is that I first have to prove that my relationship should be treated the same as anybody else’s who believed they were married. If I could have gotten married in the first place, I wouldn’t be in this situation.”

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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Jason Howe: Office: 213-382-7600, ext. 247, Cell: 415-595-9245;

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.


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