This article was originally published on The Legal Intelligencer by Zack Needles on January 4, 2017.
In a decision that one attorney said could have “far-reaching impact,” the Pennsylvania Superior Court has ruled that Vermont civil unions between same-sex couples are the functional equivalent of marriages for the purposes of dissolution in Pennsylvania.
In a published Dec. 28 opinion, a three-judge panel in Neyman v. Buckley unanimously reversed a ruling by a Philadelphia trial judge who said Pennsylvania courts do not have jurisdiction under the Pennsylvania Divorce Code to dissolve civil unions.
The appellate panel, led by Senior Judge James J. Fitzgerald III, said the legal principle of comity requires Pennsylvania courts to treat Vermont civil unions like marriages for the purposes of dissolution. Doing so “would promote the strong Pennsylvania public policy interest in uniformity of result, particularly in the context of the recognition of marriage,” according to Fitzgerald.
“In this case, when the parties entered into a Vermont civil union, they were aware that they were subject to all of the same rights and responsibilities provided to opposite-sex couples through civil marriage,” Fitzgerald said. “Therefore, in order to provide the parties with the uniformity of result strongly favored in Pennsylvania, this court must recognize their Vermont civil union as the legal equivalent of a marriage for purposes of dissolution.”
Fitzgerald was joined by Judges Kate Ford Elliott and Paula Francisco Ott.
The parties in Neyman—Freyda Neyman and Florence Buckley—are Pennsylvania residents who entered into a civil union in Vermont in July 2002. They subsequently began living separate and apart in December 2002, according to Fitzgerald.
In 2014, the parties filed a complaint in the Philadelphia Court of Common Pleas seeking a divorce/dissolution decree under Section 3301(c) of the Divorce Code. But in June 2015, Philadelphia Court of Common Pleas Judge Margaret T. Murphy dismissed the complaint, finding that the court lacked jurisdiction to dissolve a Vermont civil union because the Divorce Code and the Rules of Civil Procedure refer only to courts’ authority to grant parties “‘divorce from the bonds of matrimony.'”
But Fitzgerald said Murphy’s reasoning “elevates mere semantics over the fundamental domestic character of the relationship at issue.”
“The family court division possesses the expertise and the unique toolbox available, via the Pennsylvania Divorce Code, necessary to resolve the intimate and complex domestic matters likely to be at issue incident to the dissolution of a Vermont civil union, such as equitable distribution, child custody, and support,” Fitzgerald said. “These benefits and obligations of marriage are the precise legal protections explicitly provided under Vermont’s civil union statute and exactly what the parties knowingly accepted when they entered into a Vermont civil union.”
Fitzgerald also noted that Neyman and Buckley entered into their civil union and separated before other states began to recognize same-sex marriages and long before the U.S. Supreme Court cemented same-sex couples’ constitutional right to marry in Obergefell v. Hodges.
“Therefore, declining to acknowledge the parties’ civil union as the equivalent of marriage would essentially penalize the parties simply for their same-sex status because the Vermont civil union statute explicitly granted same-sex couples equivalent rights to those only available to opposite-sex couples through marriage at that time,” Fitzgerald said, noting the “tectonic shift in the law regarding same-sex marriage” that occurred with rulings like Obergefell and Whitewood v. Wolf, the 2014 case in which the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Pennsylvania invalidated as unconstitutional any statutes that refused to recognize same-sex marriage in Pennsylvania.
Rebecca G. Levin of Jerner & Palmer in Philadelphia represented Neyman, who pursued the appeal on behalf of herself and Buckley.
Levin said the ruling is an important one because it gives same-sex couples in civil unions access to Pennsylvania courts to resolve issues such as equitable distribution and support.
“I think the impact of this decision will be interesting to see both with regard to civil unions and domestic partnerships [entered into] in other states,” Levin said.