Discrimination Rules Create Risks For Employer Reliance On Injunction Of FMLA Rule On Same-Sex Partners’ Marital Status

Employers covered by the Family & Medical Leave Act (FMLA) have a temporary reprieve from the obligation to comply with a change to the FMLA regulations’ definition of “spouse” that requires FMLA-covered employers to recognize certain same-sex relationships as marriages for purposes of the FMLA that had been slated to take effect on March 27, 2015 under a preliminary injunction order granted by the District Court for the Northern District of Texas in Texas v. U.S, No. 7:15-cv-00056-O, 2015 BL 84253 (N.D. Tex. Mar. 26, 2015).   However the delay in the implementation of the regulation as a practical matter may present traps for unwary employers in light of federal employment discrimination law rules that prohibit employers from discriminating against employees based on sexual orientation or gender identity. 

The preliminary injunction issued by Judge Reed O’Connor of the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Texas on March 26 rule enjoins the Labor Department from enforcing a final regulation that would require employers covered by the FMLA to grant workers in legal same-sex marriages to take job-protected leave under the FMLA to care for a seriously ill spouse even if the state where the employee lives or works doesn’t recognize same-sex marriages.

The preliminary injunction resulted from a lawsuit brought by the attorney generals of Texas, Arkansas, Louisiana and Nebraska questioning the validity of change to the definition of “spouse” in DOL Regulation § 825.102 and § 825.122 to expand the definition of the term “spouse” for purposes of the FMLA to include same-sex relationships recognized as marriage under the state law of the location of the marriage celebration.

The Final Regulation redefining the term “spouse” for purposes of the FMLA is one of a host of changes to federal employment, tax, immigration and other regulations and enforcement policies announced by the Obama Administration in response to the Supreme Court’s decision in United States v. Windsor, 133 S. Ct. 2675, 118 FEP Cases 1417 (2013).

In Windsor, the Supreme Court ruled unconstitutional and struck down Section 3 of the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), which sought to preclude same-sex couples from being treated as married for purposes of federal law including the FMLA by restricting the definition of marriage for federal law only to relationships between persons of the opposite sex.

If and when implemented, the FMLA Final Regulation will revise the DOL’s FMLA regulations to provide that “Spouse” means

a husband or wife. For purposes of this definition, husband or wife refers to the other person with whom an individual entered into marriage as defined or recognized under state law for purposes of marriage in the State in which the marriage was entered into or, in the case of a marriage entered into outside of any State, if the marriage is valid in the place where entered into and could have been entered into in at least one State. This definition includes an individual in a same-sex or common law marriage that either:

  1. Was entered into in a State that recognizes such marriages; or
  2. If entered into outside of any State, is valid in the place where entered into and could have been entered into in at least one State.

According the DOL, the adoption of a place of celebration standard for determining marital status in the Final Rule ensures that all legally married employees have consistent FMLA leave rights regardless of where they live. The Department believes that this place of celebration rule will give fullest effect to the purpose of the FMLA to let employees to take unpaid, job-protected leave to care for a spouse for an FMLA-qualifying reason.  Thus, whether a same-sex or other couple qualifies as married for purposes of the FMLA turns upon whether the couple is in a relationship legally recognized as a married in the state in which the ceremony was performed.  However, the Final Regulation does not require employers to treat same-sex civil unions, as well as opposite-sex civil unions, as marriages and as such are not guaranteed the right to take FMLA spousal leave nor do have other protections of the Act, including from retaliation. As noted above, an employer may offer an employment benefit program or plan that provides greater family or medical leave rights to employees than the rights established by the FMLA, including voluntarily offering other types of leave for couples in civil unions. In addition, eligible employees in civil unions can take FMLA leave for their own serious health condition, for the birth of a child or the placement of a child for adoption or foster care and for bonding, to care for their child or parent with a serious health condition, and for qualifying military family leave reasons.

In Texas v. U.S., the states jointly argued that the Final Rule unlawfully interferes with state laws that prohibit same-sex marriage and bar recognition of out-of-state same-sex marriages.  Explaining his finding that the states had demonstrated a substantial likelihood of prevailing on the merits on their claim that the Final Regulation violates the Full Faith & Credit Clause of the U.S. Constitution, Judge O’Conner wrote, “Congress has not delegated to the Department the power to force states defining marriages traditionally to afford benefits in accordance with the marriage laws of states defining marriage to include same-sex marriages.”  Accordingly, Justice O’Conner ordered the Labor Department to stay implementation of the Final Regulation pending a decision on the merits of the states’ claims.

Even as Judge O’Connor issued his preliminary injunction, the Obama Administration was moving ahead to implement new mandates extending sweeping new protections prohibiting government contractors and subcontractors from discriminating against workers based on sexual orientation or gender identity under an Executive Order issued by President Obama that took effect April 8, 2015.  See Obama Executive Order’s Prohibition Of Government Contractor Sexual Orientation & Gender Identity Discrimination Creates Challenges For All US EmployersSince the preliminary injunction issued by Judge O’Connor does not apply to that Executive Order, employers contemplating holding off granting FMLA rights to employees involved in same-sex relationships should consult with legal counsel about the potential that such delay, despite Judge O’Connor’s order, might form the basis of employment discrimination, government contracting regulation violations or both.

 For  Advice, Representation, Training & Other Resources

If you need help responding to these new or other workforce, benefits and compensation, performance and risk management, compliance, enforcement or management concerns, help updating or defending your workforce or employee benefit policies or practices, or other related assistance, the author of this update, attorney Cynthia Marcotte Stamer may be able to help.

Recognized as a “Top” attorney in employee benefits, labor and employment and health care law, Ms. Stamer is a practicing attorney Board Certified in Labor & Employment Law by the Texas Board of Legal Specialization, author, pubic speaker,management policy advocate and thought leader with more than 25 years’ experience advising government contractors and other employers, their management, benefit plans and plan fiduciaries, vendors and service providers and others about OFCCP, EEOC, and other employment discrimination, government contracting compliance, and other workforce and operational performance, compliance, risk management, compensation, and benefits matters. As a part of this involvement, Ms. Stamer throughout her career specifically has advised and represented a broad range of employers across the U.S., their employee benefit plans and plan fiduciaries, insurers, health care providers and others about the implications of DOMA and other rules relating to rights and expectations of LBGT community members and others in federally protected classes under Federal and state employment, tax, discrimination, employee benefits, health care and other laws.

In addition to her extensive client work Ms. Stamer also is a widely published author, management policy advocate and thought leader, and management policy advocate on these and other workforce and related matters who shares her experience and leadership in a wide range of contexts.  A current or former author and advisory board member of HR.com, Insurance Thought Leadership, SHRM, BNA and several other the prominent publications, Past Chair of the ABA RPTE Employee Benefit & Other Compensation Arrangements Group, Co-Chair and Past Chair of the ABA RPTE Welfare Plan Committee, Vice Chair of the ABA TIPS Employee Benefit Plans Committee, Vice President of the North Texas Health Care Compliance Professionals Association, Past Chair of the ABA Health Law Section Managed Care & Insurance Section, former President of the Richardson Development Center Board of Directors, and the former Board Compliance Chair of the National Kidney Foundation of North Texas, An American College of Employee Benefit Counsel, American Bar Association (ABA) and State Bar of Texas Fellow, Martindale Hubble Premier AV Rated (the highest), Ms. Stamer publishes and speaks extensively on these and other staffing and human resources, compensation and benefits, technology, health care, privacy, public policy, and other operations and risk management concerns. As a part of these activities, Ms. Stamer is scheduled to speak about Same-Sex Marriages and Domestic Partnerships: Lessons Learned, Unanswered Questions and Best Practices on May 1, 2015 for the ABA RPTE Section 2015 Spring Symposium in Washington D.C.  See also Stamer Talks About “Handling Health Plan Spouse, Dependent & Other “Family” Matters in Post-DOMA World” at SPBA 2014 Spring Meeting  Her publications and insights appear in the ABA and other professional publications, HR.com, SHRM, Insurance Thought Leadership, Health Care Compliance Association, Atlantic Information Service, Bureau of National Affairs, World At Work, The Wall Street Journal, Business Insurance, the Dallas Morning News, Modern Health Care, Managed Healthcare, Health Leaders, and a many other national and local publications.

You can review other recent human resources, employee benefits and internal controls publications and resources and additional information about the employment, employee benefits and other experience of the Cynthia Marcotte Stamer, PC here. If you or someone else you know would like to receive future updates about developments on these and other concerns, please be sure that we have your current contact information – including your preferred e-mail – by creating or updating your profile www.cynthiastamer.com or by registering to participate in the distribution of these and other updates on our HR & Employee Benefits Update here including:

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