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Neyman v. Buckley

Superior Court of Pennsylvania

December 28, 2016


         Appeal from the Order Entered June 19, 2015 in the Court of Common Pleas of Philadelphia County Family Court at No(s): 008400, Term June 2014.



          FITZGERALD, J.

         Appellant, Freyda Neyman, appeals from the order of the Philadelphia County Court of Common Pleas Family Court Division that dismissed her complaint in divorce seeking the dissolution of her Vermont civil union. Appellant claims the trial court erred in dismissing her complaint for lack of jurisdiction, and in support, she argues that under principles of comity, the Family Court Division had jurisdiction to dissolve her civil union under the Pennsylvania Divorce Code.[1] We hold that a Vermont civil union creates the functional equivalent of marriage for the purposes of dissolution and conclude the trial court erred in dismissing the complaint. Therefore, we reverse and remand for further proceedings.

         On July 12, 2002, Appellant and Appellee, Florence Buckley (collectively, "the parties"), two adult Pennsylvania residents, entered into a civil union in Vermont, the first state to offer civil unions. The parties began living separate and apart in December 2002. At that time, same-sex marriage was not recognized in the United States.

         In 2014, the parties each signed respective affidavits of consent, which specified that their civil union was irretrievably broken and stated the intention to request a final decree of divorce/dissolution. On June 2, 2014, Appellant filed a complaint in the trial court averring that the parties were adults who had resided in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania for at least six months prior to the complaint and seeking the entry of a divorce/dissolution decree under Section 3301(c) of the Pennsylvania Divorce Code. On

         February 4, 2015, Appellant filed a praecipe to transmit the record of the entry of a final decree/dissolution of the civil union.

         On June 22, 2015, the trial court dismissed Appellant's complaint stating:

[T]he Family Court Division may only divorce parties from the 'bonds of matrimony.' Pa.R.C.P. 1920.1 (a). This court cannot issue a Decree or Order dissolving the Vermont Civil Union that is the subject of this action. Therefore, the Complaint in Divorce is hereby dismissed. The Civil Trial Division of Philadelphia County has jurisdiction over complaints seeking dissolution of civil unions as actions in equity and has entered order/judgments dissolving same.

Order, 6/22/15.[2]

         Appellant filed a motion for reconsideration, which the trial court did not address. Appellant took the instant timely appeal on July 22, 2015. On August 20, 2015, Appellant timely filed a court-ordered Pa.R.A.P. 1925(b) statement of errors complained of on appeal.

         The trial court issued a Pa.R.A.P. 1925(a) responsive opinion on February 23, 2016. The court observed the Pennsylvania Constitution of 1968 vests jurisdiction in the family court division for matters implicating domestic relations, including "divorce and annulment and property matters relating thereto." Trial Ct. Op., 2/23/16, at 6-7 (discussing Pa. Const. art. V, Sched. § 16). The court concluded the Divorce Code and the Rules of Civil Procedure refer to "divorce from the bonds of matrimony, " and did not authorize the dissolution of civil unions. Id. at 4-5. Moreover, the court determined it was under no obligation to recognize a Vermont civil union as a marriage because Vermont maintains a distinction between a civil union and a same-sex civil marriage. Id. at 5. Lastly, the court noted that the appropriate forum for Appellant's action was in the civil trial division. Id. at 8.

         On appeal, Appellant raises the following issues for review:

1. Whether the Court of Common Pleas Family Division has jurisdiction over the dissolution of a Vermont civil union entered into by Pennsylvania residents?
2. Whether a Vermont civil union may be treated as a marriage by a Pennsylvania court for purposes of dissolving that civil union under the Divorce Code.

Appellant's Brief at 4.[3]

         As the instant case involves the question of whether a legal cause of action in dissolution exists, our standard of review is de novo and this Court must independently review the record to determine whether a legal divorce action is presented. Jayne v. Jayne, 663 A.2d 169, 172 (Pa. Super. 1995).

         As to the jurisdiction of the family court divisions of the courts of common pleas, Section 952 of the Judiciary Code provides:

The divisions of a court of common pleas are administrative units composed of those judges of the court responsible for the transaction of specified classes of the business of the court. In a court of common pleas having two or more divisions each division of the court is vested with the full jurisdiction of the whole court, but the business of the court may be allocated among the divisions of the court by or pursuant to general rules.

42 Pa.C.S. § 952.

         The Schedule to Article 5 of the 1968 Pennsylvania Constitution pertains to Philadelphia and states:

(q) The court of common pleas through the family court division of the court of common pleas shall exercise jurisdiction in the following matters:
(i) Domestic Relations: desertion or nonsupport of wives, children and indigent parents, including children born out of wedlock; proceedings for custody of children; divorce and ...

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