Sonoma County settles bias suit
by Lois Pearlman
Sonoma County officials have agreed to pay $650,000 to settle a lawsuit brought by an elderly gay man who claimed the county separated him from his longtime partner and auctioned off their belongings.
The plaintiff in the lawsuit, Clay Greene, will receive $275,000 from the county and an additional $53,000 from a co-defendant, Agua Caliente Villa, the nursing home where he lived after the county intervened in his life. Additionally, $25,000 will go to the estate of Greene's late partner, Harold Scull. The county agreed to pay $300,000 for attorneys' fees, according to a news release. The National Center for Lesbian Rights, which served as co-counsel, requested that it not receive any fees, spokesman Erik Olvera said.
County supervisors still need to accept the settlement at their next weekly meeting, August 3, but it appears to be a done deal.
Both sides in the case said they are satisfied with the conclusion to the suit that was filed nearly a year ago in Sonoma County Superior Court.
"It puts this tragic episode behind everyone in a way that gives Clay a measure of personal comfort," said Amy Todd-Gher, the lead attorney in the case for NCLR.
Greene, 78, is now living in a small assisted living home in bucolic Kenwood, surrounded by organic gardens and large wineries. Until the settlement he occupied a studio apartment in downtown Guerneville.
According to Gregory Spaulding, the private attorney representing the county, the settlement cost the county less than it would have spent on a trial. He estimated that "the attorneys' fees and costs for both sides going to trial would have exceeded $1 million."
But the settlement, coming less than a week before the lawsuit was scheduled for trial, leaves the public wondering what really happened, in a case that garnered national attention.
According to the lawsuit, Greene said his late partner, Harold Scull, 88, tumbled down the stairs, setting off a county response that ended with Scull dying alone in a nursing home and all of their possessions sold to pay for Scull's care.
But Spaulding said after interviewing over 50 witnesses, he was sure that Scull was the victim of domestic violence and satisfied that the county acted appropriately when it placed him in a nursing home. According to the county, Scull said he was afraid to go back to the house he had shared with Greene in rural Sebastopol and asked county officials to find him another place to live.
"I had plenty of evidence. I was confident that if I had tried the case I would have established that there was domestic violence," Spaulding said.
[Updated Thursday, July 29: NCLR pushed back against Spaulding's claims. In a statement issued today, Shannon Minter, legal director, accused the county of continuing to "make knowingly false and defamatory statements about Clay."
"The Sonoma County Sheriff's office closed its file on any domestic abuse allegations on April 28, 2008," Minter said in the statement. "The district attorney then closed its case, with no further investigation on May 19, 2008. Diana Gomez, assistant district attorney, has also stated, 'As far as we're concerned, it's a closed matter ... We rejected [the claim] two years ago.' Two of the people closest to Harold, Jannette Biggerstaff, his friend of 45 years, and Ron Preston, his attorney, have testified that Harold told them separately in the hospital after his fall that Clay did not cause his injuries and had not abused him."
Minter also said that during their depositions, "county officials have now testified that the domestic abuse allegations were 'unfounded,' and admitted that in the days and weeks following their separation, Harold asked to be placed with Clay again."
NCLR's initial press release on the settlement, dated July 23, did not include a reference to the domestic violence allegations. Minter said today that NCLR has stated "numerous times that the allegations are false."
"We did not feel the need to repeat that in a press release that was focused on reaching a positive settlement," Minter said. "The county has tried to use false allegations of domestic violence to divert attention from their unlawful conduct, which, in our view, is where the focus should be.
"What makes this story important and newsworthy is that the county engaged in grossly unlawful and inhumane conduct toward an elderly gay couple. We do not want the county to get away with using false allegations to divert attention from its misconduct," Minter added.]
Spaulding admitted that county's Public Guardian office violated state regulations by confiscating and selling off Scull's and Greene's possessions without seeking permission from the court.
According to state law, public conservatorship agencies can sell their clients' property and use the proceeds to pay for the clients' care, but they must get court approval for property worth more than $5,000. The contents of the couple's home brought more than $25,000 at public auction.
Spaulding said county officials didn't realize the value of the men's possessions because their house was "unkempt and in disarray" and many of their things were packed away in boxes. Friends of the men have said their house was filled with antiques and works of art from Scull's years in the film industry and as an artist.
Todd-Gher said the settlement sends a message that all elders must be treated with respect and dignity, regardless of their sexual orientation.
"We urge every citizen in Sonoma County to demand more oversight of the Public Guardian's office. They need to be watched," she said.
However, attorneys on both sides agreed that legalizing same-sex marriage, and encouraging same-sex couples to file for domestic partnership until that happens, would help gay and lesbian couples retain control over their lives as they get older.
"It [the settlement] also highlights, in the absence of gay marriage rights, the benefits to couples to register as domestic partners," Spaulding said.
Greene and Scull had executed both mutual powers of attorney for medical and financial decisions and wills naming each other as beneficiaries.