Thursday, September 6, 2007

NYAppellate Court to Hear Case on Interstate Recognition of Same-Sex Spousal Unions

New York Appellate Court to Hear Precedent-Setting Case on Interstate Recognition of Same-Sex Spousal Unions

NEW YORK, NY-- On September 11, 2007, New York's Appellate Division, Third Department, sitting in Albany, will hear oral argument in Langan v. State Farm Fire & Casualty Co (WCB). Plaintiff John R. Langan will ask New York to legally recognize his Vermont civil union with his decedent-spouse Neal Conrad Spicehandler. Without that recognition, Langan cannot recover the workers' compensation death benefits that New York affords to a "surviving spouse."

"Throughout this State's history, New York has routinely recognized spousal unions created in sister states, regardless of whether those relationships could have been legally created in New York," said Jennifer H. Rearden, a partner at Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher, who is representing Langan pro bono. "The law could not be any clearer on this issue: by entering into a Vermont civil union, John and Conrad became full-fledged legal spouses. They should be recognized as such in New York."

In February 2002, Spicehandler was struck by a hit-and-run driver and died two days later, after what was supposed to be routine surgery. Langan filed a claim for death benefits under New York's Workers' Compensation Laws with the New York Workers' Compensation Board. The insurance carrier, State Farm, agreed that death benefits were due and owing, but opposed John's recovery of those benefits. Workers' Compensation Law Judge William Griff denied Langan's claim in June 2005, and the Worker's Compensation Appeals Board upheld that decision in September 2006. Central to those decisions was a misapprehension that the opinion of the New York Court of Appeals last year in Hernandez v. Robles, which held that New York law restricting marriage to different-sex couples does not violate the New York State Constitution, also precludes New York from recognizing a legally-valid spousal union formed in another state. Langan, in a vital post-Hernandez case, now approaches the Third Department for a clarification of his rights.

Langan and Spicehandler were joined in a civil union in Vermont in November 2000. They met in 1986, when they were 25 and 26, respectively, and moved in together the next year. In November 2000, four months after civil unions became legal in Vermont, 40 family members and friends attended a ceremony where the couple exchanged vows and rings. Over the years, Langan's and Spicehandler's families recognized them as spouses and considered them part of their families.

"I couldn't believe it when the Workers' Compensation Board said that I'm not a surviving spouse," said Langan. "Conrad and I did everything under the sun to legally protect each other and to formalize our relationship. How can they say we weren't spouses?"

Lambda Legal, a national organization committed to achieving full recognition of the civil rights of lesbians, gay men, bisexuals, transgender people, and those with HIV, submitted an amicus brief on Langan's behalf. "The power of [New York] law's respect for out-of-state spousal unions is no less robust in its application to same-sex relationships," Lambda argued.

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