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NAVRATILOVA SPLIT-UP MAY REDEFINE SAME-SEX RIGHTS

Her ex-lover tries a novel palimony claim.

Tennis legend and Sarasota County resident Martina Navratilova had a relationship for years with a woman named Toni Layton. But when they broke up last year, there wasn't much Layton could do.

A married couple can divorce and go to court to divide their property.

But Navratilova and Layton weren't married. Even if they had been, Florida law doesn't recognize same-sex marriages.

So now, Layton and her attorney, Raymond Rafool, have filed a lawsuit in Sarasota County that takes an unusual tack. Instead of a romantic partnership, the lawsuit describes their relationship as a business partnership.

"What we're having to do is address it with sort of commercial, corporate contract rights," Rafool said.

And, like two people splitting a company they once ran together as partners, Layton is seeking in her lawsuit to get her share of this "partnership."

The belongings she claims to own or co-own include: property in Florida and Colorado, a boat, art, jewelry, Land Rovers, a Mercedes, power tools, a porcelain cookie bowl and "approximately 10 frog art/collectible pieces" - purportedly worth more than $1.5 million altogether.

"This is a little bit different," said Bruce Carolan, a visiting professor at the Stetson University College of Law, who reviewed the lawsuit at the request of the St. Petersburg Times.

Although Florida has a set of laws governing business partnerships, he said, "in my mind it's novel to apply it to a relationship that one usually considers as not being (based) on a professional motive but on motives of love and respect and caring and all of that.

"I would watch with interest whether or not this is another avenue for same-sex partners," he said.

Navratilova, 52, is a nine-time Wimbledon singles champion who was still winning doubles matches in her late 40s.

According to Layton's lawsuit, the two were together since 2000. Rafool says they shared their belongings and that Navratilova repeatedly told Layton "what's hers and Toni's is theirs together."

"She said it many times," Rafool said. "But Martina has denied that there was any partnership."

Navratilova's attorney, Barry Greenberg of Miami, said, "We're deeming this a private matter, and we're not going to be making any public statements."

However, court papers filed for Navratilova say Layton's is improperly basing her claim "on a relationship that was not recognized as a marriage in the state of Florida, which does not recognize palimony." In states with palimony laws, an unmarried couple can divide their property like a married couple who are divorcing.

As the lawsuit describes the so-called partnership, Navratilova played the tennis (and presumably earned most of the money), and Layton handled logistics such as travel and scheduling. Layton also provided "support, criticism, friendship, compassion" and so on.

They never put any of this in writing, Rafool acknowledges.

The relationship had fallen apart by early last year, and Navratilova canceled Layton's credit cards, took money out of their joint accounts, and told her that "their partnership and/or relationship was terminated," according to the lawsuit. Afterward, Layton moved to New Jersey.

Layton's attorney, Rafool, said "first and foremost this is a lawsuit to obtain what is hers."

But he said it also serves to show that under Florida law, "something needs to be done better for same-sex relationships."

Rafool says the case "could set many precedents."

But that's not clear. Carolan, the visiting law professor at Stetson, said under the law, business partnerships involve people who have joined together in a profit-making enterprise. For example, two people who open a restaurant, with one serving as cook, one serving as waiter, and both sharing the profits evenly. Layton's lawsuit doesn't explicitly describe this kind of a profit-making enterprise.

"To me, the challenges of this lawsuit are multiple," said Nancy Dowd, a law professor at the University of Florida, after reviewing the complaint. She said she expects the opposing sides to debate whether the relationship was primarily personal or business.

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