Dickerson Decision: Clears Up Civil Union Confusion in the Courts and Brings Long Awaited Justice to Victim

Empire Justice Center July 21, 2011


Groundbreaking Lawsuit Clears up Civil Union Confusion for Courts and Provides

Long Awaited Justice for Victim of Violence

For More Information Contact: Amy Schwartz, Empire Justice Center aschwartz@empirejustice.org  or  585-295-5726

Geri Pomerantz, Law Office of Geri Pomerantz: pomerantzlaw@albany.twcbc.com  or 518-409-1665

(July 21, 2011)   In a landmark decision today in the case of Dickerson v. Thompson, the Appellate Division, Third Department, reversed a lower court’s ruling and granted dissolution of a Vermont civil union for lifelong New York resident and victim of intimate partner abuse, Audrey Dickerson.  Dickerson sought relief in New York because, as a non-resident of Vermont, she was unable to dissolve her civil union there.

“The significance of this decision for same-sex couples cannot be understated.” said Amy Schwartz, Senior Attorney in the Rochester office of Empire Justice Center.  “We now have a road map for other courts to follow.  This ruling clears up confusion and emphatically states that New York courts can dissolve these out-of-state unions and look to that state’s law to determine whether sufficient grounds exist to do so. ”

Ms. Dickerson waited over four (4) years and endured not one, but two, appeals in her quest to have her Vermont civil union dissolved in her home state.  As a result of today’s ruling, Audrey Dickerson will also have the freedom to marry her current partner in September.

Ms. Dickerson stated, ” I am looking forward to being able to marry the woman I love in my state of New York.  I knew that, regardless of how long it would take, the courts would do what was right and just.  The civil union to Ms. Thompson became a legal prison for me. It took a long time, but God wanted me to be patient. I am grateful for the existence of civil legal services programs like Empire Justice Center, Lambda and to my pro bono attorney, Geri Pomerantz for their strong advocacy on my behalf. ”

The original case was dismissed by the Supreme Court of Schenectady County for lack of subject jurisdiction.  Empire Justice Center, together with co-counsel, the Law Office of Geri Pomerantz, appealed that ruling and won (see Dickerson v. Thompson, 73 A.D.3d 52 [2010]).  In that case, the Third Department held that New York courts could dissolve civil unions and, further, determined that courts may recognize the parties’ civil union status.  The case was then sent back to the trial court for further proceedings on the merits.  Unfortunately, the trial court again refused to dissolve the civil union and this second appeal ensued.

Agreeing with Ms. Dickerson in its strongly-worded opinion, the majority stated “the exercise of Supreme Court’s equitable powers to grant a dissolution of the civil union was clearly warranted here…[W]e find that equity would be served by granting her the requested relief and that Supreme Court erred in declining to…do so.”  Based upon the merits of the complaint, the Appellate Court determined that Ms. Dickerson plead sufficient grounds for dissolution under Vermont law and granted her dissolution request.  In support of this, the Appellate Court also discussed the “chilling effects” that would flow from Ms. Dickerson’s continued status as a civilly unioned person in the absence of dissolution relief.  Notably, in light of the recent legislative marriage equality victory, failure to dissolve a civil union would, incongruously, render civil unions more durable than same-sex marriages in this state.

“We are very pleased with this outcome, not only for Ms. Dickerson, but also for the many same-sex couples living in New York who find themselves in the unfortunate position of needing to dissolve their civil union here.” said attorney, Geri Pomerantz.  “We applaud the Third Department for providing our client with justice long-denied” she concluded.

Ms. Dickerson initially reached out to the Legal Aid Society of Northeastern New York and the case was referred to Geri Pomerantz, a private attorney who handled the case pro bono for four years.  Ms. Schwartz, an attorney with Empire Justice Center, a statewide non profit law firm acted as co-counsel throughout the course of the litigation. As in the previous case, Lambda Legal Defense and Education Fund filed a friend-of-the court brief in support of Ms. Dickerson’s position.

To read the decision for yourself: