July 21, 2021
GLAD submitted an amicus brief in a Florida appeals court to support the position that the relationships and marriages of same-sex couples must be seen as equal to all other marriages in the eyes of the law. With assistance from the Miami firm of Gelber, Schachter & Greenberg, P.A., GLAD, joined by the ACLU of Florida, supports the jury’s award of spousal loss of consortium damages to widower Bryan Rintoul in a wrongful death lawsuit against Phillip Morris USA Inc. & R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Company. These corporations were held responsible for the death of Bryan’s husband.
Bryan lost his beloved husband Ed to lung cancer in 2018, after 37 years together. Despite the couple’s many years together, the companies argued that Bryan is ineligible for spousal damages because, under applicable Florida law, a couple must be married at the time one spouse was injured. Ed was diagnosed with COPD in 1996, and Ed and Bryan’s marriage was not solemnized until January 2015, when Florida first began licensing marriages. Bryan’s counsel argued that this “marriage-at-time-of-injury” rule could not be applied to Bryan because the couple was prohibited from marrying in 1996. Instead, counsel argued that Bryan must be allowed to show that he and Ed would have been married by 1996 had they had been allowed to do so. The trial judge agreed, and the jury so found.
The Florida appellate court must now decide if the trial court and jury were correct – whether it would be unconstitutional today to deny the rights and benefits tied to marriage to anyone – like Bryan – because they were not married at a required point in time and were not married because the government had precluded them from marrying at that time.
GLAD’s brief argues that the companies’ reliance on Florida’s discriminatory marriage laws in 1996 – and continuing until 2015 – to render invisible same-sex couples’ relationships and marriages – and deny them the benefits tied to marriage – would wrongly perpetuate the very discrimination condemned by the Supreme Court’s 2015 Obergefell v. Hodges decision. In other words, “Where the government conditions benefits on marriage but same-sex couples are barred from marriage, the government necessarily discriminates against same-sex couples in an unconstitutional manner.”
The brief also discusses research explaining how same-sex couples in long-term relationships commencing in the 1980’s and 1990’s – and Ed and Bryan became involved in 1983 – understood and formed familial commitments equivalent to marriage at a time when there were no relationship recognition laws and no apparent prospects for marriage. That research undermines the companies’ argument that Ed and Bryan lacked a committed relationship by 1996 because they had, for example, failed to have a commitment ceremony, seek to marry in some other state, sign up for a very limited local domestic partner registry or have children. Rather, Ed and Bryan demonstrated their commitment to each other when they moved from California to Florida, then to Georgia, and then back to Florida, buying new homes together each time. They did jointly what they could – property ownership and bank accounts and treated each other’s family as their own in good times and with aging and illness. Based on the trial testimony, we argue that the jury had ample evidence to find that the couple would have been married by 1996 if they could have done so.
GLAD is extremely thankful for the support and collaboration of Gelber Schachter & Greenberg, P.A., a Florida law firm that donated its time and resources to work with us on this important brief.