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Employee Sues Over Denied Health Benefits for Same-Sex Spouse

Same Sex MarriageA lesbian employee who works for St. Joseph’s Medical Center in New York filed a class-action lawsuit last week, arguing that her spouse is entitled to the same medical coverage as spouses of heterosexual workers. The woman has been with her partner for 16 years, and the two married last autumn.

Following the legalization of same-sex marriage in New York State last year, most businesses have extended health benefits to spouses of same-sex couples. However, some large self-insured employers, including St. Joseph’s (a Catholic-affiliated institution), are predominantly administered by federal rather than state regulations. Therefore they may deny health coverage to gay and lesbian couples under the federal Defense of Marriage Act, which defines marriage as a union between a man and a woman. In the St. Joseph’s lawsuit, which was filed in Federal District Court in Manhattan, the employee claims that it is unlawful to draw on the Defense of Marriage Act to justify rejected coverage, because the law is inherently discriminatory and thus unconstitutional.

A number of lawsuits throughout the U.S. have been brought by same-sex couples and advocates of marriage equality to challenge the constitutionality of the Defense of Marriage Act.  Up until now, two separate courts have already ruled parts of the act unconstitutional, and the issue is moving toward the Supreme Court.

The suit demonstrates the very scenario that Roman Catholic bishops warned against last year when the Obama administration, said the Defense of Marriage Act was unconstitutional, and announced it would no longer defend it in court. Cardinal Dolan, the Roman Catholic archbishop of New York, told President Obama that measures legalizing gay marriage might push Catholic social service organizations to close their doors for good rather than violate moral beliefs.

The plaintiff, who is an employee of St. Joseph’s Hospital Westchester, stated that she submitted an application for health coverage for her spouse last December. The staff member in human resources who helped her fill out forms continually referred to her new spouse as “he,” and the plaintiff said, “I think you should know, I did not marry a man, I married a woman.”  The plaintiff stated that soon after she was told that she was not eligible for spousal health care benefits. In May, Blue Cross Blue Shield send her a written denial stating that under St. Joseph’s plan, “same-sex spouse and domestic partner is an exclusion under the benefit.”

A spokesperson for Blue Cross Blue Shield would not comment on pending litigation, and St. Joseph’s Medical Center did not respond to a New York Times request for comment.

The employment attorneys at Emery Reddy are committed to equal right for all workers, and have worked for years as advocates of workers employed in both small and large companies. If you have experienced illegal employment practices—discrimination, wrongful termination, a wage dispute, or some other issue involving FMLA or ADA—we will defend your rights and help you receive the maximum compensation allowed under Washington law.

Emery Reddy