Partner Rights Hit In Westchester Ruling

County Supreme Court justice refuses to expand rights of NYC domestic partner

Following the lead of several other recent decisions by New York judges, Westchester County Supreme Court Justice John R. LaCava ruled on June 14 that a registered domestic partner may not sue for compensation for his economic losses resulting from an injury to his partner.

LaCava’s ruling arose from a routine auto accident that happened in Yonkers on July 1, 2003. Ellen Lennon, Joseph Mazzelli’s domestic partner under New York City’s registration law, was a passenger in a car being driven by her sister, which collided with a car being driven by David Charney. Lennon, who was injured in the accident, is suing both her sister, Linda June Mercello, and Charney for negligence, and her partner Mazzelli joined as co-plaintiff seeking damages for “loss of consortium.”

New York law allows someone who incurs economic loss due to physical injury to his spouse to make such a claim, which is intended to compensate for loss of income, services and companionship as a result of injury to a spouse.

Mazzelli claimed that as a registered domestic partner, he should be treated the same as a spouse for this purpose, relying on the financial interdependence that is one of the qualifications to register. LaCava granted the defendants’ motion to dismiss Mazzelli’s claim.

LaCava relied on two recent gay rights victories in his opinion. First, he noted that in Slattery v. City of New York, the Appellate Division decision that upheld the validity of the New York City Domestic Partnership Law, the court stated that “the city has not, by extending benefits to domestic partners, transformed the domestic partnership into a form of common law marriage.”

A loss of consortium claim arising under state law and the state, not the city, has the “exclusive right to regulate the institution of marriage,” the ruling noted.

Slattery was a case in which the city partnership law was challenged by plaintiffs claiming that the City Council had exceeded its authority in creating what they argued was in effect a form of marriage for same-sex couples. In rejecting that claim, the appellate court emphasized the limited rights that go with the city’s partnership law.

Another gay rights victory cited by LaCava was Hernandez v. Robles, the ruling earlier this year in favor of same-sex marriage by New York County Supreme Court Justice Doris Ling-Cohan. Rejecting the city’s argument that the domestic partnership law provided sufficient rights to meet the obligation of equal protection of the laws, Ling-Cohan emphasized the “relatively minimal [benefits] compared to those of civil marriage,” and ruled that only opening up marriage to same-sex couples would eliminate current law’s equal protection violation.

Seizing upon these statements, LaCava rejected the argument that a registered partnership is sufficiently like marriage to come within the traditional requirement of spousal status as a prerequisite for a loss of consortium claim.

LaCava cited a 1984 decision by the Appellate Division, in which the court rejected a loss of consortium claim by a medical malpractice victim’s husband because the couple was not married until after the operation that gave rise to the claim, even though the husband was suing only for losses incurred since the marriage that were due to his wife’s continuing injury.

LaCava had the judicial latitude to analyze the policy reasons for limiting consortium claims to determine whether they would justify permitting a partner to assert such a claim, particularly in light of the City Council’s enactment of the partnership registry. Instead, his short, dismissive opinion, which apart from the recent gay rights cases relies entirely on court opinions that long predate the enactment of domestic partnership, contains essentially no analysis, merely a formalistic rejection of Mazzelli’s claim.

LaCava’s decision establishes no precedent outside Westchester County, but it is consistent with several other recent rulings refusing claims based on registered partnership, as the New York Law Journal noted in its reporting June 28. A state trial judge in Staten Island refused in December to order the Metropolitan Transportation Authority to extend health benefits to the registered domestic partner of one of its employees. In March, the Appellate Division struck down the City Council’s attempt through the Equal Benefits Law to require city contractors to provide benefits for domestic partners of their employees and, in April, a different branch of the Appellate Division rejected a claim for survivor’s workers’ compensation benefits for the domestic partner of a flight attendant who died in a 2001 airline crash near Kennedy Airport.

The only recent courtroom successes involving domestic partnership have been claims from surviving partners of victims of the 9/11 terrorist attacks—one in which a trial judge was considering a dispute between a surviving partner and a surviving brother over division of payments from the federal compensation fund, which explicitly acknowledged the rights of domestic partners, and the other upholding a claim under a special provision of the workers’ compensation law that was passed in Albany specifically authorizing compensation for surviving partners of those killed in that tragedy.