GUERNEVILLE, Calif. –
Sonoma County has agreed to pay $600,000 to settle a lawsuit by an elderly gay man who said social workers kept him from seeing his dying partner in the hospital.
Clay Greene, 78, of Guerneville, Calif., filed a lawsuit earlier this year, claiming the county’s Public Guardian program discriminated against him because he’s gay.
Greene accused social workers of denying him hospital visitation rights to see his partner, Harold Scull, despite signed wills, medical declarations and powers of attorney naming each other as spouses. The couple was not married nor registered as domestic partners.
The lawsuit also alleged that after Scull’s death, social workers forced Greene into a nursing home and sold the couple’s property, including art and heirlooms.
The county’s lawyer, Gregory Spaulding, denied the discrimination claims but admitted mistakes in selling the couple’s property.
Greene was kept away from Scull because of previous domestic violence allegations, according to the county. According to a sheriff’s report, Scull went to authorities with a black eye and said Greene threatened to kill him, though Scull was later unwilling to lodge a formal complaint.
“The county remains confident in its position that there was no discrimination in this case,” Spaulding said, noting that the plaintiff removed the discrimination allegations from the lawsuit three weeks ago.
Under the law, officials can sell property worth $5,000 or less to cover medical expenses, but the couple’s property sale brought in more than $25,000 at auction, Spaulding said. Errors in that case have led to revised policies at the Public Guardian’s office, he said.
Spaulding said the county settled the case July 22 to avoid further expense.
“It just made economic sense to stop the bleeding,” Spaulding said. “To end the case and avoid all expenses and costs.”
“This settlement will allow Mr. Greene to finally have the quiet retirement he deserves,” said Anne N. Dennis, one of Greene’s attorneys. “Although nothing can undo the harm to these gentlemen, we believe the changes made because of the lawsuit will improve services to elders and other individuals who need the assistance of the Sonoma County Public Guardian’s Office.”
Plaintiff Jannette Biggerstaff, the executor of Scull’s estate and a longtime friend of the couple, added: “There is no possible justification for what happened to my friends Harold and Clay, and I still feel outraged and heartbroken that they suffered such a terrible tragedy, which was made worse by the county spreading such terrible lies about Clay,” she said. “But I am pleased that their rights have been vindicated, and I’m hopeful that their story will help to prevent this from happening to other vulnerable people.”
The National Center for Lesbian Rights heralded the decision, but echoed sentiments that money was no suitable replacement for keeping Greene and Scull apart.
“What Clay and Harold lost can never be replaced, but this settlement brings a measure of justice to their story,” said NCLR Senior Staff Attorney Amy Todd-Gher. “This victory sends an unmistakable message that all elders must be treated with respect and dignity, regardless of their sexual orientation, and that those who mistreat elders must be held accountable.”