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Florida Ordered to Correct Death Certificates to List Surviving Same-Sex Spouses Without Requiring Individual Court Orders

Posted on: April 1st, 2017 by Art Leonard No Comments

U.S. District Judge Robert L. Hinkle, who rendered a decision prior to Obergefell v. Hodges finding that Florida’s ban on same-sex marriages was unconstitutional, had the opportunity to apply his ruling further in Birchfield v. Armstrong, Case No. 4:15-cv-00615 (N.D. Fla.), issued on March 23, 2017.  The case was brought by Lambda Legal as a class action on behalf of all survivors of same-sex spouses who died in Florida prior to the Obergefell decision, and who were thus not listed as surviving spouses on their death certificates.  Those certificate identify the decedents as being unmarried at death because Florida did not recognize their same-sex marriages, which had been performed out-of-state in jurisdictions that allowed such marriages.

There are two named plaintiffs, Hal B. Birchfield and Paul G. Mocko. Birchfield married James Merrick Smith in New York in 2012, the year after New York adopted its Marriage Equality Law.  Smith died in Florida in 2013.  Mocko married William Gregory Patterson in California in 2014, the year after the U.S. Supreme Court dismissed an appeal and left standing a federal court order striking down California Proposition 8, thus allowing the resumption of same-sex marriages in California as decreed by that state’s Supreme Court in 2008.  Patterson died in Florida later in 2014.  In both cases, the decedents were identified as unmarried on their death certificates, and any mention of their surviving spouses was omitted.

A proper death certificate is an important document for a surviving spouse to have as they settle the affairs of their decedent, especially when it comes to dealing with issues involving property ownership, bank accounts, survivor benefits under government programs, insurance policies and the like. To have to initiate litigation to obtain a proper death certificate is an inconvenience at a difficult time.

After the Obergefell decision, Birchfield and Mocko sought to get corrected death certificates.  But the state insisted, pursuant to a statute and an interpretive rule, that they could only get such certificates by obtaining an individual court order.  Lambda sued on their behalf in federal court seeking class relief, arguing that the Obergefell decision must be applied retroactively and that the state should have to issue corrected death certificates upon presentation of documentation of the out-of-state weddings, without requiring surviving spouses to go to state court for an order.

The state relied on Fla. Stat. Sec. 382.016(2), which states: “CERTIFICATE OF DEATH AMENDMENTS – Except for a misspelling or an omission on a death certificate with regard to the name of the surviving spouse, the department may not change the name of a surviving spouse on the certificate except by order of a court of competent jurisdiction.”

Judge Hinkle pointed out that one might plausibly read this statute to authorize exactly the relief that Lambda Legal was seeking in this case. “One might conclude that the explicit exception to the court-order requirement – the exception for ‘an omission on a death certificate with regard to the name of the surviving spouse’ – applies to a death certificate that both omits the fact that the decedent was married and omits the name of the surviving spouse.”  The problem, however, is that the ambiguity created by the wording of the statute had been addressed years ago through an interpretive rule adopted by the Health Department, which allows an amendment to marital statusor the name of a surviving spouse, but not both, without a court order.  “The defendants refused to depart from that interpretation,” the judge observed, without noting an explanation offered for such refusal.  The obvious explanation is sheer cussedness.  As far as Florida officials are concerned, apparently, they won’t do anything voluntarily to effectuate marriage equality beyond what a court orders them to do.  Witness, for example, the state’s obstinacy on the issue of parental status presumption for same-sex spouses of women who give birth.  Thus, the need for this wasteful litigation.

“As a matter of federal constitutional law,” wrote Judge Hinkle, “a state cannot properly refuse to correct a federal constitutional violation going forward, even if the violation arose before the dispute over the constitutional issue was settled. If the law were otherwise, the schools might still be segregated.”  Florida concedes in this case that as a result of Obergefell, declaring a constitutional right under a provision adopted as part of the Constitution shortly after the Civil War, its failure to recognize these marriages at the time of death was unconstitutional.  “They are willing to correct any pre-Obergefell constitutional violation,” Hinkle continued. “But the defendants insist that, as a prior condition to any correction, an affected party must obtain an order in response to an individual claim in state court.  Not so.  As the Supreme Court said long ago, 42 U.S.C. Section 1983 affords a person whose federal constitutional rights have been violated ‘a federal right in federal courts.’  In short, a federal court has jurisdiction to remedy a federal violation, including, when otherwise proper, through a class action.”

Hinkle found this was an appropriate case for such class relief. “To the extent the defendant state officials simply need a clear resolution of the perceived conflict between the federal constitutional requirement and the state statute, this order provides it.”  Acknowledging that state officials could legitimately seek proof that the marriages in question took place, Hinkle said that the state could require the submission of an application, affidavit, and appropriate documentary evidence.  “This order provides that, upon submission of the same materials, the defendants must correct a constitutional error that affected a death certificate’s information on both marital status and a spouse’s identity.”  If they were going to insist on a “court order” to make such a change, then a copy of Judge Hinkle’s order in this case can accompany the application.  “This injunctions binds the defendants [Florida’s Surgeon General/Secretary of Health and the State Registrar of Vital Statistics] and their officers, agents, servants, employees, and attorneys – and others in active concert or participation with any of them – who receive actual notice of this injunction by personal service or otherwise.”

Hinkle indicated that he would retain jurisdiction of the case “to enforce the injunction” if necessary and to “award costs and attorney’s fees” to the plaintiffs. If past is prologue, expect haggling about the amount of attorney’s fees the state will be ordered to pay.  Lambda Legal attorneys Karen L. Loewy and Tara L. Borelli represent the plaintiffs with volunteer co-counsel David P. Draigh and Stephanie S. Silk of White & Case LLP.