Denial of Federal Benefits for Same-Sex Couple Ruled Unlawful Sex Discrimination
Judy L. Rooks, Marketing Communications Manager, (503) 294-9831
The denial of health care benefits to the same-sex partner of a U.S. District of Oregon court employee constitutes unlawful sex discrimination, according to an administrative ruling by Chief Judge Ann Aiken of the U.S. District Court for the District of Oregon. Pamela Jacklin, Stoel Rives partner, retired, represented the plaintiff in the pro-bono complaint, with assistance from Stoel Rives partners Jennie Bricker and Edward Reeves.
Margaret Fonberg, a career law clerk now working for U.S. Magistrate Judge Thomas M. Coffin, filed the discrimination complaint after her attempt to enroll her domestic partner in her employer-offered federal health care plan during the 2009 annual enrollment period and was declined by the U.S. Office of Personnel Management ("OPM"). The OPM cited the federal Defense of Marriage Act ("DOMA"), as the basis for its decision. DOMA defines "spouse" as an opposite-sex partner in a legal marriage, and OPM determined the federal family health benefits plans that covered employees, spouses and other family members could not be extended to same-sex couples.
Judge Aiken concluded that the denial of benefits to Fonberg and her partner constitutes sex discrimination and discrimination on a basis unrelated to job performance. Aiken agreed with Fonberg's argument that if either Fonberg or her partner were male, not female, "Fonberg's compensation would include insurance benefits for her partner."
Aiken's ruling breaks new ground in the ongoing legal argument over same-sex benefits because it finds DOMA's denial of benefits discriminatory even though Fonberg and her partner are not legally married. While two previous federal court rulings in the Ninth Circuit have considered whether the denial of federal benefits to same-sex spouses under DOMA constitutes employment discrimination, those cases involved employees who were legally married to same-sex partners under state law. Judge Aiken noted that under the Oregon Family Fairness Act, Fonberg and her partner have, by virtue of their domestic partnership, the legal and substantive benefits of marriage. She also noted that under both DOMA and the Oregon Constitution, marriage is limited to heterosexual couples.
Jacklin noted that employment benefits have long been viewed by the courts as an acceptable form of employee compensation that is designed to support the employee's family. "The debate should be about whether we provide each employee's family with the same benefits, rather than providing employees who are legally married the same family benefits," said Jacklin. "The narrow focus on marriage places the vast majority of same-sex couples in a "Catch 22" -- they aren't eligible for benefits because they aren't married but it is impossible for them to marry in the places they live and work. We are really pleased that Judge Aiken clearly rejected the notion that rights should only be extended to federal employees who happen to live and work in a place where they can legally marry."
Judge Aiken's remedy also breaks new ground. Since the proceeding involved an administrative dispute resolution, the Court could not rule on the constitutionality of DOMA or order OPM to provide Fonberg domestic partner benefits. Finding that "the District's refusal to offer benefits to Fonberg's partner is an unlawful employment practice that effectively compensates her at a lower rate than her co-workers," Aiken agreed that a health benefits premium reimbursement program, as requested by Fonberg, would provide "necessary and appropriate equitable relief." Aiken ordered the District to establish such a program and compensate her retroactive to January 4, 2010 and until the reimbursement program is implemented. As a result, Fonberg will be reimbursed for the "cost of providing [her] partner with health coverage comparable to that offered to spouses of similar judicial employees." In issuing her order, Aiken agreed with Fonberg's argument that the federal courts had the authority to provide such a remedy and that doing so would eliminate the discrimination in her compensation.
Download a copy of the order (PDF)