New York courts have been nibbling around the issue of terminating out-of-state civil unions for a while now. Beginning in 2000, same-sex couples could go to Vermont to get civil unions without fulfilling any residency requirement, and many did so. The problem came in terminating those civil unions. Vermont, in common with almost every other state, has a real residency requirement for divorce cases, and when they passed the Civil Unions Act, they adopted the same requirement for dissolving civil unions. Couples who returned to their home states were stuck if they wanted to dissolve their civil union. Either one member of the couple had to relocate to live in Vermont for a year, or they could just try to ignore the fact that they had a civil union, or they could try to get a home state court to dissolve it.
This was the problem faced by Audrey Dickerson. She and Sonya Thompson, her partner at the time, went to Vermont in April 2003 to get civilly united, then returned home to New York. But their relationship subsequently deteriorated in substantial ways, to judge by the court's opinion. Writes Justice Karen K. Peters, "Here, the uncontested evidence submitted by plaintiff establishes that, during the course of the parties' relationship, defendant had subjected her to violent physical abuse on several occasions and was verbally abusive to both her and her autistic son on a daily basis. Defendant also stole from her, resulting in defendant's criminal conviction of grand larceny, and removed the license plates from plaintiff's vehicle to prevent her and her son from escaping defendant's abusive conduct. Furthermore, the parties have lived apart since April 2006 and plaintiff has alleged facts demonstrating that resumption of the civil union is not probable."
Dickerson filed a lawsuit against Thompson in Schenectady County Supreme Court, seeking a dissolution of her civil union. Thompson, who evidently had no interest in continuing the relationship, failed to respond to the complaint, and Dickerson moved for a default judgment granting the relief she requested. But Justice Vincent J. Reilly, Jr., dismissed the complaint, finding that he had no subject matter jurisdiction. Since New York did not have the legal institution of a civil union, and the divorce law was only available to dissolve marriages, Reilly opined that he lacked the authority to act on the complaint.
Dickerson appealed, and the Appellate Division reversed, finding that the Supreme Court can exercise its general equitable jurisdiction to deal with a legal issue such as this one. Without suggesting what the outcome should be, the Appellate Division sent the case back to Justice Reilly, with instructions to do equity between the parties. Thus instructed, Justice Reilly decided that in this case equity would support issuing a declaration that Dickerson and Thompson were free of all the rights and responsibilities incident to their civil union, but he persisted in his view that "in the absence of any legislatively created mechanism in New York by which a court could grant the dissolution of a civil union entered into in another state, [the court] was powerless to grant the requested relief."
Dickerson brought the case back to the Appellate Division, arguing that the equity jurisdiction of the Supreme Court was broad enough to dissolve the civil union, and the Appellate Division agreed. "While plaintiff lacks a remedy at law," wrote Justice Peters, "the dissolution of a civil union falls squarely within the scope of the Supreme Court's broad equity jurisdiction." The court quoted numerous prior decisions demonstrating the breadth of equity jurisdiction, which is intended to give the court great leeway to try to achieve a just result between the parties to a legal dispute that is not controlled by specific statutory or established doctrinal rules.
The court found that "the exercise of Supreme Court's equitable powers to grant a dissolution of the civil union was clearly warranted here," because Dickerson needed a judicial remedy and, due to Vermont's residency requirement, could not obtain it in that state without moving there, effectively leaving her without a remedy for her problem. The problem itself, as described by the court, was that an undissolved civil union could have serious consequences down the road because of its continuing potential effect on the rights and responsibilities of the parties. The court noted that somebody who is a party to a civil union is precluded from entering into a new civil union with anybody else, and presumably would also have problems getting married. It would certainly stand in the way of entering into a New York City domestic partnership and, after July 24, could preclude Dickerson from marrying a new partner. Also, the court pointed out, if Dickerson became pregnant through donor insemination, Thompson would automatically be the legal parent of that child under Vermont law, and there is New York precedent suggesting that she could be considered a parent of the child under New York law, even though Thompson and Dickerson no longer considered themselves partners.
Thus, it was important for Dickerson to be able to get the civil union dissolved in order to get on with her life. "These chilling effects, both potential and actual, flowing from plaintiff's continued status as a partner to the civil union further support our conclusion that the exercise of the court's equitable power to dissolve the parties' civil union was warranted," wrote Justice Peters. "Indeed, it would be patentluy incongruous for the courts of this state to render civil unions more durable than marriages." The court noted that several New York trial courts had issued orders dissolving civil unions after the Appellate Division issued its first jurisdictional ruling in this case, so trial judges in Monroe, Erie, New York, Tompkins, Onondaga, and Westchester counties had not felt constrained by the concerns that Justice Reilly articulated.
While all five members of the Appellate Division panel agreed with the result, Justice John A. Lahtinent, writing for himself and Justice Bernard J. Malone, Jr., concurred separately, observing that they thought that Justice Reilly's decision was sufficient, since it declared that neither party was bound by the rights or responsibilities of the civil union. This, they opined, could be sufficient to prevent the problems identified by the majority. Yet they concurred because they agreed that the equity jurisdiction of the court was broad enough to dissolve the civil union.
Audrey Dickerson was represented by Amy Schwartz of the Domestic Violence Legal Project in Rochester, with amicus assistance from Thomas W. Ude, Jr., of Lambda Legal. As Sonya Thompson defaulted in this case and Dickerson has achieved the remedy she sought on appeal, there will be no further appeal in this case and the court's ruling is final.