By PAUL PAYNE
THE PRESS DEMOCRAT
Clay Greene flipped through the pages Tuesday of an old photo album, one of the few mementos remaining from the 25 years he spent with his partner, Harold Scull, 88.
Greene, 78, said that as Scull lay dying in a hospital bed two years ago, Sonoma County officials denied visitation for the same-sex couple, contending they were mere “roommates” despite signed wills, medical declarations and powers of attorney naming each as the other’s spouse.
His lawsuit accuses the county’s office of the public guardian/conservator of forcing him into a nursing home, of selling the contents of the men’s Sebastopol home and of carting off choice heirlooms for themselves.
“They stole my furniture, put me in a retirement home and told me to shut up,” said Greene, sitting in his cramped studio apartment in Guerneville, where he lives alone. “They took my cats. They took everything.”
The case has sparked outrage within the gay community, where many believe the men were discriminated against because of their sexual orientation.
But a county attorney said the case is “about domestic abuse, not gay rights.”
Gregory Spaulding, who represents county employees named in the lawsuit, said Scull was hospitalized after he was attacked by Greene. Their belongings were sold for about $35,800 to cover expenses for their care, he said.
“When the facts come out, the story that’s being thrown out will be found inaccurate in a number of respects,” Spaulding said. “The case came to the public guardian when Scull reported he had been assaulted by Clay Greene.”
He said the two men were separated for their own protection.
Greene’s lawyer, Anne Dennis, said no violence occurred between the men. Scull was hospitalized after a fall at his home, she said.
“It’s the county’s attempt to deflect the real issues of the case,” said Amy Todd-Gher, an attorney for the National Center for Lesbian Rights in San Francisco, who is assisting in the lawsuit.
A Sheriff’s Office report of the April 27, 2008, incident in which Scull was injured was not made available by either side in the case. The Sheriff’s Office spokesman said Tuesday the report was not immediately available.
According to the suit, filed last summer, Scull was admitted to Kaiser Permanente in Santa Rosa in April 2008 after being hurt at the couple’s Barnett Valley Road home.
A temporary conservator was appointed for Scull because he showed signs of dementia and reduced mental capacity, and he was placed in a nursing home, the lawsuit says.
That May, the county took possession of Scull’s personal property, including keepsakes from his time as a Hollywood studio artist in the 1950s and 1960s, furniture, Oriental rugs, art and items of monetary and sentimental value. Dennis, Greene’s attorney, said the property may have been worth hundreds of thousands of dollars.
According to the lawsuit, county employees and agents made comments regarding the desirability of the property, saying “this would look nice in my living room” and “my wife will love this.” In July, the items were sold without the couple’s consent by North Bay Auctions, the lawsuit alleges.
About the same time, the county determined Greene also was unable to care for himself and placed him in a separate nursing home, Agua Caliente Villa in Sonoma, the lawsuit said.
In the weeks leading up to Scull’s death from congestive heart failure on Aug. 13, 2008, Greene was “falsely imprisoned” and prevented from visiting Scull before he died, the lawsuit said.
The suit accuses Deputy Public Guardian Michael Brewster of publicly demeaning Greene about his sexual orientation. It also names as defendants Jo Weber, director of the county Human Services Department, and two other county conservators/public guardians: Sally Liedholm and Karin Stagg-Hourigan.
The nursing home and the auction company are co-defendants.
Weber declined to comment Monday, referring calls to the county’s attorney. Valerie Brown, chairwoman of the county Board of Supervisors, did not return a call Tuesday.
The case is pending before Sonoma County Superior Court Judge Robert Boyd. A trial date of July 16 has been set.
Dennis said she would seek attorney fees and other damages that could reach millions of dollars. She said her client lost a lifetime of possessions, his cats, Sassy and Tiger, and suffers post-traumatic stress disorder from the experience.
“All he got was a lamp, a hutch and eight photo albums,” Dennis said. “The cats are dead.”
The lawsuit has swept Internet sites over the past week after it was posted online by the National Center for Lesbian Rights.
Outrage spilled onto a Facebook page advocating justice for the couple. Organizers urged people to write legislators, TV stations and newspapers. Others vented about the handling by Sonoma County officials or called for a boycott of all local businesses.
“I lived a horrid, short year in Satan Rosa,” posted Kristin Windju. “They are definitely not exactly welcoming to our community.”
Another Facebook commenter, Patrick McRae, said he and his partner would vacation elsewhere this year. “I will not be purchasing wine, dairy products or other goods produced in Sonoma County,” McRae said.
Others said the case is an example of why gay people should have the right to get married.
“This horrific case simply underlines the point that gay people need and deserve marriage — 100 percent equal rights under the law,” David Hoffman wrote. “No exceptions, no exclusions, no excuses.”
Local gay marriage advocates said the case is an example of what can happen to long-term couples who don’t have the protections under the law that heterosexual couples enjoy.
Bill Gardner of the Sonoma County chapter of Marriage Equality USA, said equal treatment can become an issue despite the state’s domestic partnership laws. Gay partners continue to report they have been prevented from visiting a loved one in the hospital or are otherwise denied rights normally given to spouses.
“We spend decades together and denied those last crucial moments, holding their hand in a hospital,” Gardner said. “So, we’re not only discriminated against in marriage and housing but at the time of death. It’s a tragedy.”