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Solomon v. Guidry

Supreme Court of Vermont

September 23, 2016

Melissa Solomon
Jane Guidry

         On Appeal from Superior Court, Windham Unit, Family Division, Karen R. Carroll, J

          Karen R. Carroll, J. Amy K. Butler of Law Office of Amy K. Butler, PLLC, Montpelier, for Plaintiff-Appellant.

          Jane Guidry, Pro Se, Garner, North Carolina, Defendant-Appellee.

          PRESENT: Reiber, C.J., Dooley, Skoglund, Robinson and Eaton, JJ.

          SKOGLUND, J.

         ¶ 1. Plaintiff Melissa Solomon appeals the dismissal, without consideration of the merits, of her petition for dissolution of a nonresident civil union.[1] 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 followed.

         ¶ 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 and remand.

         ¶ 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." Id.

         ¶ 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.

         Act No. 3 Summary, Vermont Legislature, 0Summary.htm []. 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 ...

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