ACLU Sues to Stop Michigan Law That Ends Public Employer Same-Sex Partner Benefits

Posted by Chris Geidner
January 5, 2012 1:15 PM |

The American Civil Liberties Union, on behalf of four Michigan public employees and their partners, sued Michigan Gov. Richard Snyder (R) today to stop enforcement of the state's new law that prohibits some public entities from offering health coverage to their employees' domestic partners, arguing that the law is the "the result and expression of discriminatory animus toward gay and lesbian individuals and families."

aclu.pngThe lawsuit, filed in federal court in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Michigan, argues that "[c]ategorically eliminating the possibility of receiving family health coverage for lesbian and gay public employees' domestic partners -- while leaving other family members, including opposite-sex spouses, eligible to receive family coverage -- discriminates against the Public Employee Plaintiffs by treating them differently from other similarly situated public employees."

The lawsuit claims that the new law, which Snyder signed into law on Dec. 22, 2011, violates both the equal protection and due process clauses of the Fourteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

In addition to the ACLU and the ACLU of Michigan, attorneys from the Chicago office of Kirkland & Ellis, LLP, are representing the plaintiffs in the challenge to the new law. The lawsuit references the employees and their respective domestic partners as two independently impacted groups in the complaint.

The plaintiffs include Theresa Bassett, a middle school math teacher in Ann Arbor, and her wife, Carol Kennedy; Peter Ways, also a middle school teacher in Ann Arbor, and his partner, Joe Breakey; Doak Bloss, who works and the health equity and social justice coordinator for Ingham County, and his partner, Gerardo Ascheri; and JoLinda Jach, a systems analyst for the City of Kalamazoo, and her partner, Barbara Ramber, who has glaucoma and arthritis and "lost her health insurance coverage through the City of Kalamazoo as of January 1, 2012."

As the complaint in Bassett v. Snyder details, "The Public Employee Plaintiffs will lose family health insurance coverage for their committed domestic partners, and all of the Domestic Partner Plaintiffs will lose their present health insurance coverage, or have already lost their coverage."

The executive director of the ACLU of Michigan, Kary L. Moss, said in a news release announcing the challenge, "Although justified by the governor as a cost-cutting measure, the numbers don't hold up. The reality is that the legislation was intended to disenfranchise LGBT families. When a key policy priority has been to attract top talent and resources to the state, our elected officials have sent a clear message that Michigan is out of step with the kinds of public policies that attract talent and grow our economy."

The lawsuit lays out how the current situation stems from restrictions on employee benefits following the adoption of the 2004 Michigan constitutional amendment stating that "the union of one man and one woman in marriage shall be the only agreement recognized as a marriage or similar union for any purpose." Courts in Michigan interpreted that language as prohibiting public entities from offering domestic partner benefits, which resulted in several public entities' insurance plans including an "other qualified adult" provision that allowed coverage for people -- including domestic partners -- that "was not predicated on an agreement establishing or affirming a particular type of relationship."

The new law challenged today restricted even that "other qualified adult" coverage, prohibiting some public employers from offering health insurance benefits to people who "share a residence with a public employee and who are not married to the employee, dependents of the employee as defined in the Internal Revenue Code, or potential heirs of the employee as defined by Michigan intestate succession laws."

Supporters of the law argued that the act was needed because, as legislative analysis put it, because public employers "found ways around the law that is now a part of the Michigan Constitution, by avoiding the clearly prohibited language barring health benefits for same-sex partners." The complaint presents a mirror image of that argument, however, claiming, "The Act singles out lesbian and gay public employees and categorically denies them, and only them, the ability to obtain employee health insurance benefits for their closest family members -- the partners with whom they share their lives."

Despite the law's impact, its reach does not appear to include two areas of public employees in the state: university and civil service employees. In a statement released by Snyder when he signed the bill in December 2011, he explained his view that the law did not apply to "university employees or state employees under civil service" due to the state constitution's provision setting the Civil Service Commission's authority and state Supreme Court precedent regarding the "constitutional autonomy of universities."

READ the complaint: bassettcomplaint.pdf


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