Just days before trial was set to begin in our lawsuit on behalf of Clay Greene, Sonoma County officials have agreed to settle out of court with the elderly man, who County officials separated from his partner, Harold Scull, after Harold was injured in a fall outside of their home.
Their tragic story captured hearts and headlines across the country, and generated an outpouring of support unlike anything we have seen before, along with intense, justifiable outrage that an elderly gay couple could experience such cruel mistreatment and abuse.
Sonoma County has agreed to pay Clay and Harold’s estate. This payment is partial vindication for the nightmare Clay and Harold endured at the hands of county workers, whom disregarded their 20-year relationship and failed to respect legal documents in which Clay and Harold named each other as agents for medical and financial decisions.
Ignoring Greene entirely, the County petitioned the Court for conservatorship of Scull’s estate, separated the couple by putting them in separate nursing care facilities, and terminated Harold and Clay’s lease on the home they shared. Without authority, the County took everything the couple owned and auctioned it off. And horrifyingly, without following the strict legal requirements for placing someone in a nursing facility against their will, the County then forced Clay into a facility where he did not want or need to be, where he was physically restrained from leaving, and where he was completely isolated. In Clay’s own words from a story in The New York Times: “I was trash” to them, he said. “I’m going to end up in the dumpster.”
In addition to paying out a substantial sum, as a result of Clay and Harold’s lawsuit, the County has changed or modified a number of important policies in its Office of Public Guardian, including requiring employees to follow protocols before seizing private property, preventing employees from relocating elders or others against their will, and prohibiting employees from backdating information in their guardianship databases.
No amount of money can ever ease the trauma, pain, humiliation, and fear Clay suffered in the months after Harold’s fall. And nothing can ever make it possible for Clay to be at Harold’s side when he died three months after they were separated.
We are awed by Clay’s courage in standing up for himself and other vulnerable LGBT elders. We are grateful to Clay’s court-appointed attorney, Anne N. Dennis, and elder abuse specialists Stephen O’Neill and Maggie Flynn of Tarkington, O’Neill, Barack & Chong, because their hard work and dedication led to this terrific result. We trust that this experience will go a very long way in ensuring that LGBT elders in Sonoma County are not similarly mistreated in the future. But this victory is tempered by the harsh, sad facts of this case. Nothing can salve the heartache of being cruelly deprived of the opportunity to be with a dying partner. Nothing can make up for the unbearable reality that Harold died alone, without Clay by his side, after spending the final months of his life making a photo album for Clay of their life together.
This story truly haunts me, and underscores the need for everyone to be more educated about elder abuse within the LGBT community, and what each one of us can do to prevent a sequel to this tragedy. At NCLR, we are working harder than ever, expanding outreach for our elder law public education program. And your support can help us continue working to enforce laws to protect the aging LGBT population.
This case highlights the urgency needed for true and full LGBT equality across the country, rather than a patchwork of hit and miss state rights or protections. This settlement cannot undo what Clay and Harold endured, but it ensures that what happened to them will never happen in Sonoma County again. Someday, I hope I will be able to say the same for the rest of the country.