Class actions post-DOMA:Questions remain

Posted on 02-04-2015 by
Tags: Latest Headlines & Stories

According to an article by Lexis Nexis ® Corporate Counsel Advisory, while there have been some victories for same-sex marriage couples, there are still questions that remain.

It was recently when a Californian court threw out class claims by same-sex domestic partners of public employees seeking long-term care benefits. In the case Dragovich v. the U.S. Department of the Treasury, the judge found that “the barriers to benefits faced by all class members mirrored those faced by individuals involved in heterosexual domestic partnerships.” The Dragovich court granted summary judgment to the plaintiffs seeking state benefits.

While the appeal was pending the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in United States v. Windsor that the DOMA heterosexual-only marriage provision was unconstitutional. The Ninth Circuit would vacate the summary judgment in Dragovich, and remand the case to the Northern District of California.

On remand, Judge Wilken granted summary judgment for the state and federal defendants and reasoned that “the plaintiffs are on equal footing with heterosexual domestic partners because same-sex couples in California can choose to marry and the DOMA no longer limits benefits to heterosexual unions.”

The judge would also deny the plaintiffs’ motion to file a supplemental complaint for alleged Title VII violations based on the increased costs associated with the “unlawfully” delayed enrollment in the long-term care plan, but declined to comment on whether the Title VII claim could be filed as a new complaint or whether it would be appropriate for class treatment.

Laura J. Maechtlen, partner at Sayfarth Shaw LLP, said it was unclear what specific Title VII claims the Dragovich plaintiff class might assert, but noted open questions regarding whether Title VII requires equal employment benefits for same-sex married couples may be litigated in other cases.

Maechtlen said potential theories articulated for that include one of “relational” discrimination, in which the plaintiffs’ bar argues that Title VII prohibits not just discrimination against an employee based on a protected characteristic, but also based on an employee’s characteristic in relation to another person. In other words, it prohibits discrimination against an employee simply because of the same-sex relationship. Another argument plaintiffs might make is that restricting spousal health coverage to employees married to a different-sex spouse violates Title VII’s prohibition on impermissible sex stereotyping.

So how are employees going to be impacted by this?

A person’s designation as a person married with a “spouse” has an impact on numerous employment issues such as:

  • Whether and how employer policies or benefit plans that contain a definition of “spouse” should be applied to same-sex couples
  • Whether state or federal COBRA continuation coverage for "spouses" applies
  • Whether an employer is required to recognize same-sex marriages from other states in applying employer policies or benefit plans
  • Whether state laws prohibiting discrimination or granting employment protections based on “marital status” are applicable.

To get deeper insight on these cases and questions raised, read the full article here.

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