Appeal from Superior Court, Windham Unit, Family Division,
Karen R. Carroll, J
R. Carroll, J. Amy K. Butler of Law Office of Amy K. Butler,
PLLC, Montpelier, for Plaintiff-Appellant.
Guidry, Pro Se, Garner, North Carolina, Defendant-Appellee.
PRESENT: Reiber, C.J., Dooley, Skoglund, Robinson and Eaton,
1. Plaintiff Melissa Solomon appeals the dismissal, without
consideration of the merits, of her petition for dissolution
of a nonresident civil union. We reverse and remand.
2. Plaintiff and defendant entered into a civil union on July
24, 2001, in Brattleboro, Vermont, but both currently reside
in Wake County, North Carolina. The parties were separated by
May 2014. The parties have no children. In 2015, they decided
to dissolve their civil union and filed an uncontested
complaint in Vermont, accompanied by a final stipulation, as
dictated by 15 V.S.A. § 1206(b).
3. The superior court dismissed the complaint, concluding
that the parties failed to produce evidence that they
attempted to obtain a dissolution of the civil union in North
Carolina. The court went on to state that, if the parties
attempted to file for dissolution in North Carolina and if a
North Carolina court refused to address the matter, then
"the proper appeal should be taken there." The
court expressed concern that if Vermont courts
"continue[d] to accept these filings and allow courts in
other states to ignore precedent [set by Obergefell v.
Hodges, U.S., 135 S.Ct. 2584, 2608 (2015)], the
situation [would] never be resolved." This appeal
4. Plaintiff argues that (1) the court erred as a matter of
law in applying the Obergefell decision; (2) the
court exceeded its constitutional authority by imposing
requirements not included in 15 V.S.A. § 1206(b),
constituting reversible error; and (3), the trial court
controverted both the plain language and the legislative
intent of § 1206(b) in its dismissal, producing the
exact result the statute was enacted to remedy. We reverse
5. In order to address these issues properly, we must conduct
a brief survey of the legislative history of § 1206(b).
In 2000, responding to this Court's decision in Baker
v. State, 170 Vt. 194, 744 A.2d 864 (1999), the Vermont
Legislature created a new legal entity, the civil union,
which "[e]xtend[ed] the benefits and protections of
marriage to same-sex couples" through a system entirely
separate from civil marriages. 1999, No. 91 (Adj. Sess.),
§ 1. "While a system of civil unions [did] not
bestow the status of civil marriage, it [did] satisfy the
legal relationships of the Common Benefits Clause."
6. Then in 2009, Vermont became the first state to
legislatively recognize same-sex marriage by redefining civil
marriage from "the legally recognized union of one man
and one woman" to "the legally recognized union of
two people." 15 V.S.A. § 8. Although not explicitly
codified, the Legislature's view of the relationship
between civil unions and civil marriages is clear from the
extensive act summary and legislative history:
When the act takes effect on September 1, 2009, same-sex
couples will have access to the civil marriage laws but may
no longer establish a civil union. Couples with existing
civil unions will be permitted to marry one another. The
civil marriage does not dissolve the civil union. Civil
unions established before September 1, 2009 will continue to
be recognized in Vermont, regardless of whether the couple
chooses to marry.
3 Summary, Vermont Legislature,
0Summary.htm [https://perma.cc/P9T2-R4ZY]. Thus, it
was the Legislature's intent to maintain civil unions and
civil marriages as separate legally recognized entities
governed by different chapters of Title 15-civil unions under
Chapter 23 and civil marriages under Chapter 1-as long as the
civil union occurred prior to September 1, 2009.
7. Next, in 2012, the Legislature amended both Chapter 11,
which governs divorce and annulment, and Chapter 23 to
address the "patchwork of laws regarding the recognition
of legally joined same-sex couples." 2011, No. 92 (Adj.
Sess.), § 1. The purpose of the amendments was "to
provide access to a civil union dissolution or a divorce to
nonresident couples joined in a Vermont civil union
or Vermont marriage who are legally barred from
dissolving the union in their state of residence."
Id. (emphasis added). The Legislature noted that
"while an opposite-sex out-of-state couple who marries
in Vermont can get divorced in the state of residence of
either party, most same-sex out-of-state couples joined in a
Vermont civil union or marriage do not have this
option" because their state of residence does not
recognize their Vermont civil union or marriage.
Id. (emphasis added).
8. To solve this pressing issue, the Legislature enacted two
new sections outlining the requirements for nonresident
divorces and civil union dissolutions. Under 15 V.S.A. §
1206(b), a nonresident civil union may be dissolved by the
family court in the county in which ...