Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Ruling Could Have Serious Impact on Partner Benefits

Ruling Could Have Serious Impact On Partner Benefits
by 365Gay.com Newscenter Staff

Posted: July 13, 2007 - 4:00 pm ET

(Boston, Massachusetts) A federal court ruling in Boston, involving an unmarried opposite-sex couple, could have serious consequences for gay and lesbian couples.

The case involved a man who sought benefits for his female domestic partner but was rejected by his employer, Partners Healthcare, even though it provided coverage to unmarried same-sex partners.

The Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination had ruled that Jason Webster was the victim of bias based on his sexuality but U.S. District Court Judge Joseph Tauro ruled the commission had no authority to investigate the case.

Tauro, in his written ruling, said that federal law trumps the tougher Massachusetts anti-bias statute. Sexuality is not covered under federal law.

Because Boston-based Partners pays employees’ medical bills itself instead of purchasing outside health insurance it falls under the federal employee benefits law known as ERISA Tauro ruled.

He said that ERISA plans are governed by federal anti-bias law, not state statutes. States, he ruled, cannot "tell plans [under ERISA] who can and must be beneficiaries. If courts allowed such results, differing state laws could quickly make it difficult to administer a fair, uniform plan."

Webster had the support of Gay and Lesbian Advocates and Defenders, the law firm that won the 2004 Massachusetts decision legalizing gay marriage, in his lawsuit.

Partners began covering the same-sex partners of its workers before gay marriage became legal in Massachusetts. It continued to offer the insurance after gay marriage was legalized because a large number of its employees lived in neighboring states where same-sex couples could not marry.

That Tauro ruled companies under ERISA need not comply with state nondiscrimination laws GLAD argues the decision creates a loophole leaving same-sex couples in jeopardy.

"The present action could have profound repercussions for all lesbians and gay men who are employed and in committed relationships whether married or not," said GLAD attorney Nima Eshghi.

"We don’t believe [the federal law] should give employers a free pass to avoid state anti-discrimination laws."

©365Gay.com 2007

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