The U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Florida ruled that the state must issue accurate death certificates to all surviving same-sex spouses. This is a victory for Lambda Legal clients Hal Birchfield and Paul Mocko, two gay widowers, and all other surviving same-sex spouses who were denied accurate death certificates for their deceased spouses that acknowledge they were married and recognize them as the surviving spouses.
“We are thrilled that the Court has put an end to the way the State of Florida was erasing whole lives spent together when it refused to issue corrected death certificates recognizing married same-sex couples unless the surviving spouse obtained a court order. Hal and Paul and other Florida widows and widowers like them suffered at the hands of the state all because their spouses died before the state’s marriage ban was struck down,” said Karen Loewy, Counsel for Lambda Legal. “These surviving same-sex spouses should never have been forced to bear the burden of the state’s discrimination, but that discrimination ends today. Hal, Paul, and other surviving same-sex spouses in Florida can’t get their loved ones back, but now all Florida surviving same-sex spouses will have the respect and dignity of accurate death certificates that recognize their relationships.”
Paul Mocko and Greg Patterson were together for 26 years and, in April 2014, they were married in San Francisco. Having met in the 1980s, the two men, like so many gay men of their generation, were told to spend down their life’s assets after becoming HIV positive because they were not expected to live very long. When they survived, they had to rebuild their lives from scratch. Paul and Greg moved to Fort Lauderdale in 2009 as they prepared to take care of Greg’s mother, but the move was a struggle financially and they had to declare bankruptcy. They were living on limited income from Social Security and other benefits when Greg was diagnosed with stage four lung cancer. In July 2014, just months after their wedding, Greg passed away. When Paul received Greg’s death certificate, it said Greg was never married and in the section for spouse, it said “none.” Having lost the love of his life and half of the couple’s joint income, Paul has experienced tremendous financial stress since Greg’s death. When he sought to get Greg’s death certificate amended, he was told that he would not be able to get it corrected without a court order, which includes a filing fee of $401 and required that he obtain legal representation.
“This is great news. I didn’t know where I would have found the money to pay for an accurate death certificate for Greg. It is a relief to know that I won’t have to get a court order just to have the State respect our relationship,” Paul said.
After more than 40 years together, Hal Birchfield and James Merrick Smith traveled to New York in October 2012 and got married. Tragically, less than a year later, in September 2013, James died at the age of 94. Upon James’s death, Hal received a death certificate that failed to list James’s marital status as married, and failed to list Hal as his spouse. Lambda Legal successfully represented Birchfield in another matter in October 2015 when the Miami-Dade County Office of Property Appraisal agreed to reinstate his spousal homestead protections.
Lambda Legal filed this case in December 2015 arguing that the state of Florida’s refusal to issue amended death certificates to Birchfield, Mocko, and other surviving same sex spouses deprives these widows and widowers of the same protections different-sex widows and widowers receive and compounds the discrimination they have already faced at the hands of the State. Today, the Court recognized that surviving same-sex spouses, “…are entitled to appropriate injunctive relief correcting the state’s prior, unremedied violation of the plaintiffs’ constitutional rights.”
“The state of Florida discriminated against us and disrespected our relationship in life and even in James’ death, but this decision will ensure that I and all the other surviving same-sex spouses will finally have accurate death certificates that honor our relationships,” said Hal Birchfield.
Read the decision here: lambdalegal.org/in-court/legal-docs/birchfield_fl_20170323_summary-judgment
Read the class certification: lambdalegal.org/in-court/legal-docs/birchfield_fl_20170323_class-cert
Counsels Karen L. Loewy and Tara L. Borelli are handling the matter. They are joined by co-counsel David P. Draigh and Stephanie S. Silk of White & Case LLP.