Superior Court of PA Issues Ruling on Civil Unions

  • Mazzoni Center Legal and Public Policy Director Thomas W. Ude, Jr.

The Superior Court of Pennsylvania has issued a unanimous opinion in the case of Neyman v. Buckley, marking the first time that a Pennsylvania appellate court has recognized civil unions.

The decision resolves what had been a vexing issue for many couples who had entered into civil unions before same-sex marriage was legal, and found themselves unable to legally dissolve the relationship in the event of a break-up. Mazzoni Center Legal Services, along with local firm Jerner & Palmer, L.C., worked together over many months to reach this outcome.

Civil unions were created as a separate marital status for same-sex couples in a number of states across the county, prior to same-sex marriage becoming available nationwide.  But for couples who entered into a civil union in one state, and found themselves residing in another state that did not recognize their union, they often encountered difficulties in dissolving their relationships. 

Such was the case with the parties in Neyman v. Buckley, who were attempting to have their 2002 Vermont civil union dissolved in the Philadelphia Family Court. 

Neither party was contesting the dissolution of their civil union. They had been living separate and apart since December 2002, but were effectively in legal limbo without having residency in a state to dissolve their union or access to the court’s due to Pennsylvania’s Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA).

In June 2014, after the Whitewood v. Wolf decision that brought marriage equality to Pennsylvania, Philadelphia resident Freyda Neyman filed a Complaint in the City’s family court, seeking an uncontested dissolution of her civil union on the same basis as a divorce action. On June 19, 2015, the trial court dismissed the complaint, stating that the Family Division does not have jurisdiction over civil unions.

An appeal filed in the Superior Court by Neyman and her attorneys, Tiffany L. Palmer of Jerner & Palmer, P.C., and Thomas W. Ude, Jr. of Mazzoni Center Legal Services, urged the Court to find that the Court of Common Pleas Family Division has jurisdiction to hear a civil union dissolution case and permit it to proceed on the same basis as a divorce action.

Briefs were filed April 5, 2016 and the case was argued by R. Barrett Marshall, Esq. of Mazzoni Center Legal Services on July 20, 2016. Susan Sommer, Esquire of Lambda Legal filed an Amicus Curiae brief in support of Freyda’s case.

This week the Superior Court agreed.

The Pennsylvania Superior Court’s unanimous opinion issued on December 28 in Neyman v. Buckley held that, “[A] Vermont civil union creates the functional equivalent of marriage for purposes of dissolution and … the trial court erred in dismissing the complaint.” 

The Court also established that civil union dissolutions may proceed through Family Court.

“This decision is important to Freyda and to the many other Pennsylvanians whose civil unions far outlasted their actual relationships. They will now finally be able to obtain court decrees that bring those unions to a recognizable end,” said Ude.

“Civil unions created a second-class marital status that has placed people like Freyda in a legal limbo,” said Palmer. “Treating civil unions as marriages when people seek to dissolve them is a logical way to provide uniformity as to how courts will handle these cases. We are thrilled that the court agreed,” added Palmer.

Click here to read the full opinion.  


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