While politicos and pundits nitpick and debate about the underlying arguments of today’s Supreme Court ruling that all states must permit same sex couples to marry, businesses need to prepare for the employment, employee benefit and other operational challenges of the fallout.
With same sex couples lining up to apply for licenses in the 34 states that prohibited or refused to recognize same sex marriages before the Supreme Court announced its landmark June 26, 2015 Obergefell v. Hodges ruling that all states must allow same sex marriages, businesses need to anticipate and prepare to cope with the legal and operational demands their business likely will face as same sex couples move to claim the new rights recognized by the Supreme Court. While these demands may vary depending on the nature of the business and its workforce and client base, most businesses should move quickly to review and update as necessary their human resources and employee benefit policies and practices concerning when same-sex partners of employees are treated as the spouses of the employees in light of the United States Supreme Court’s . When moving forward on these actions and addressing spousal rights and compliance concerns in the workplace, employer and employee benefit plan leaders and their consultants are cautioned that the decision requiring states to allow same-sex couples to marry under their marriage law does not eliminate ambiguities or differences in state laws and documentation of marriage. Consequently, policies, practices and programs for administering the employment and employee benefit rights of married employees need to be carefully tailored to identify and require proof of marriage evenhandedly taking into account variances and potential biases in state documentation and practices that could create complications or even liabilities for employers and plans if not appropriately considered.
Since the Supreme Court ruled that the Equal Protection Clause of the United States Constitution entitled same-sex couples to equal treatment with married heterosexual couples under federal law in United States v. Windsor, 133 S.Ct. 2675 (2013), employers have faced several challenges understanding and updating their policies and practices with respect to employees involved in same sex relationships.
The Obama Administration’s aggressive reinterpretation of federal employment, employee benefit, tax and other laws and regulations to require same sex partners married or in legal relationships that applicable state law afforded treatment equivalent to marriage placed pressure upon employers to update their policies and practices concerning when to recognize employees in same sex relationships as marriages for employment, employee benefits and other purposes. See, e.g., See Obama Executive Order’s Prohibition Of Government Contractor Sexual Orientation & Gender Identity Discrimination Creates Challenges For All US Employers; Discrimination Rules Create Risks For Employer Reliance On Injunction Of FMLA Rule On Same-Sex Partners’ Marital Status; Review Benefit Plan, FLMA & Other Family-Related Policies In Light Of Labor Department Same-Sex Marriage Guidance; Post-Windsor Same-Sex Participant Guidance May Require Mid-Year Plan Amendments; DOMA: Health & Cafeteria Plan Design & Administration In A Post-Windsor World; Review & Update HR & Benefit Practices For DOL Proposed Change In FMLA Regs, Other Rules Treating Some Same-Sex Couples As Spouses. As the Windsor decision did not address whether the United States Constitution also guaranteed same sex couples a right to marry under state law, disparities in the treatment of same sex marriages between the states and rapid changes in the state statutory and judicial rules governing these determinations created significant challenges to employer efforts to determine if and when a same sex couple could marry in a particular state and the right and duty of the employer in response to such an arrangement. Today’s Obergefell ruling will help to resolve some, but not all of this uncertainty by answering the question whether states may refuse to allow same sex partners to marry or refuse to recognize marriages of same sex partners. The Obergefell decision settles this debate by holding that the United States Constitution requires all States to allow same-sex couples to marry on the same terms as apply to heterosexual couples.
While the Obergefell decision answers the question about whether states must allow same-sex couples to marry, employers still face many challenges. First, employers, employee benefit plan fiduciaries and service providers, their advisors and consultants must reevaluate and update their policies and practices in response to Winsor and Obergefell. Employers, employee benefit plans and their leaders need to think and act broadly and systematically when conducting this analysis to help ensure that their efforts cover all policies, practices and procedures where the rights of an employee or his spouse may be implicated. While some of these concerns and requirements will be clear, others may not necessarily be obvious at first blush. Businesses and benefit plans definitely need to make a priority updating their existing employment and employee benefit policies and practices to deal with the new rights and expectations of potential employees or applicants in same sex marriages. Naturally employers and plan fiduciaries and administrators will need to take steps to identify and specifically respond to any new rules or updated guidance concerning the employment, employee benefits or other rights of employees in same sex relationships. Employers also need to anticipate and address the foreseeable impacts of the ruling on practices not covered by specific judicial precedence or regulatory guidance where newly recognized marital status of an employee to his or her same sex partner could create rights or expectations not previously enjoyed for the employee, his or her spouse or their family members. For instance, employers can expect and will need to plan to handle potential requests to add a same sex spouse to benefit plans, change cafeteria plan elections to change the employee’s benefit or beneficiary elections in response to his or her newly recognized marital status, add dependent children of a same sex partner as dependents under health or other benefit plans, and have the employer or benefit plan grant access to events or information to a same sex spouse normally enjoyed by spouses of heterosexual married employees.
Beyond handling these common employment and employee benefit transactions and dealings, businesses also generally will want to consider revising their workplace conduct, discrimination, harassment and other policies and retrain members of their workforce to conduct themselves appropriately concerning conduct and communications impacting the legal obligations of the employer toward employees or customers in or perceived to be involved in marriages or other relationships with same sex spouses or partners.
When conducting this analysis, business and benefit plan leaders should keep in mind that while the Supreme Court’s Obergefell requires States to treat same sex and opposite sex couples equally under the law for purposes of determining which couples are married, determining consistently whether two individuals are legally married in any particular state remains anything but simple. Variations in the marriage laws of the states mean the requirements for and proof of marriage can vary significantly. When working to adopt updated policies and practices for deciding whether to treat two individuals, regardless of their sex, as married for employment or employee benefit purposes, employers, employee benefit plans, and their management, fiduciaries, service providers and advisors also need to use care to manage potential discrimination risks that might arise from the adoption of policies that by the terms or in operation treat same sex versus opposite sex partners disparately. Beyond the specific administrative complications and compliance risks that ignoring these differences could create, policies or practices that by their terms or in operation treat same sex and opposite sex couples differently for purposes of recognition of marriage rights also may create sex discrimination liability exposures under the Civil Rights Act and other laws. Accordingly, parties responsible for these activities should act promptly and carefully with the advice of counsel to evaluate and update their employment and employee benefit policies to respond to the new decisions and these other challenges and duties.
For Legal or Consulting Advice, Legal Representation, Training Or More Information
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 extensively involved in health and other employee benefit and human resources policy and program design and administration representation and advocacy throughout her career, Cynthia Marcotte Stamer is a practicing attorney and Managing Shareholder of Cynthia Marcotte Stamer, P.C., a member of Stamer│Chadwick │Soefje PLLC, author, pubic speaker, management policy advocate and industry thought leader with more than 27 years’ experience practicing at the forefront of employee benefits and human resources law.
A Fellow in the American College of Employee Benefit Counsel and Board Certified in Labor & Employment Law by the Texas Board of Legal Specialization, Ms.Stamer is recognized nationally and internationally for her practical and creative insights and leadership on health and other employee benefit, human resources and insurance matters and policy. Ms. Stamer uses her deep and highly specialized knowledge and experience to help employers and other employee benefit plan sponsors; health, pension and other employee benefit plans, their fiduciaries, administrators and service providers, insurers, and others design legally compliant, effective compensation, health and other welfare benefit and insurance, severance, pension and deferred compensation, private exchanges, cafeteria plan and other employee benefit, fringe benefit, salary and hourly compensation, bonus and other incentive compensation and related programs, products and arrangements. She is particularly recognized for her leading edge work, thought leadership and knowledgeable advice and representation on the design, documentation, administration, regulation and defense of a diverse range of self-insured and insured health and welfare benefit plans including private exchange and other health benefit choices, health care reimbursement and other “defined contribution” limited benefit, 24-hour and other occupational and non-occupational injury and accident, ex-patriate and medical tourism, onsite medical, wellness and other medical plans and insurance benefit programs as well as a diverse range of other qualified and nonqualified retirement and deferred compensation, severance and other employee benefits and compensation, insurance and savings plans, programs, products, services and activities. As a key element of this work, Ms. Stamer works closely with employer and other plan sponsors, insurance and financial services companies, plan fiduciaries, administrators, and vendors and others to design, administer and defend effective legally defensible employee benefits and compensation practices, programs, products and technology. She also continuously helps employers, insurers, administrative and other service providers, their officers, directors and others to manage fiduciary and other risks of sponsorship or involvement with these and other benefit and compensation arrangements and to defend and mitigate liability and other risks from benefit and liability claims including fiduciary, benefit and other claims, audits, and litigation brought by the Labor Department, IRS, HHS, participants and beneficiaries, service providers, and others. She also assists debtors, creditors, bankruptcy trustees and others assess, manage and resolve labor and employment, employee benefits and insurance, payroll and other compensation related concerns arising from reductions in force or other terminations, mergers, acquisitions, bankruptcies and other business transactions including extensive experience with multiple, high-profile large scale bankruptcies resulting in ERISA, tax, corporate and securities and other litigation or enforcement actions.
Ms. Stamer also is deeply involved in helping to influence the Affordable Care Act and other health care, pension, social security, workforce, insurance and other policies critical to the workforce, benefits, and compensation practices and other key aspects of a broad range of businesses and their operations. She both helps her clients respond to and resolve emerging regulations and laws, government investigations and enforcement actions and helps them shape the rules through dealings with Congress and other legislatures, regulators and government officials domestically and internationally. A former lead consultant to the Government of Bolivia on its Social Security reform law and most recognized for her leadership on U.S. health and pension, wage and hour, tax, education and immigration policy reform, Ms. Stamer works with U.S. and foreign businesses, governments, trade associations, and others on workforce, social security and severance, health care, immigration, privacy and data security, tax, ethics and other laws and regulations. Founder and Executive Director of the Coalition for Responsible Healthcare Policy and its PROJECT COPE: the Coalition on Patient Empowerment and a Fellow in the American Bar Foundation and State Bar of Texas, Ms. Stamer annually leads the Joint Committee on Employee Benefits (JCEB) HHS Office of Civil Rights agency meeting and other JCEB agency meetings. She also works as a policy advisor and advocate to many business, professional and civic organizations.
Ms. Stamer helps management manage.Ms. Stamer’s legal and management consulting work throughout her 27 plus year career has focused on helping organizations and their management use the law and process to manage people, process, compliance, operations and risk. Highly valued for her rare ability to find pragmatic client-centric solutions by combining her detailed legal and operational knowledge and experience with her talent for creative problem-solving, Ms. Stamer helps public and private, domestic and international businesses, governments, and other organizations and their leaders manage their employees, vendors and suppliers, and other workforce members, customers and other’ performance, compliance, compensation and benefits, operations, risks and liabilities, as well as to prevent, stabilize and cleanup workforce and other legal and operational crises large and small that arise in the course of operations.
Ms. Stamer works with businesses and their management, employee benefit plans, governments and other organizations deal with all aspects of human resources and workforce management operations and compliance. She supports her clients both on a real time, “on demand” basis and with longer term basis to deal with daily performance management and operations, emerging crises, strategic planning, process improvement and change management, investigations, defending litigation, audits, investigations or other enforcement challenges, government affairs and public policy. Well known for her extensive work with health care, insurance and other highly regulated entities on corporate compliance, internal controls and risk management, her clients range from highly regulated entities like employers, contractors and their employee benefit plans, their sponsors, management, administrators, insurers, fiduciaries and advisors, technology and data service providers, health care, managed care and insurance, financial services, government contractors and government entities, as well as retail, manufacturing, construction, consulting and a host of other domestic and international businesses of all types and sizes. Common engagements include internal and external workforce hiring, management, training, performance management, compliance and administration, discipline and termination, and other aspects of workforce management including employment and outsourced services contracting and enforcement, sentencing guidelines and other compliance plan, policy and program development, administration, and defense, performance management, wage and hour and other compensation and benefits, reengineering and other change management, internal controls, compliance and risk management, communications and training, worker classification, tax and payroll, investigations, crisis preparedness and response, government relations, safety, government contracting and audits, litigation and other enforcement, and other concerns.
Author of the thousands of publications and workshops these and other employment, employee benefits, health care, insurance, workforce and other management matters, Ms. Stamer also is a highly sought out speaker and industry thought leader known for empowering audiences and readers. Ms. Stamer’s insights on employee benefits, insurance, health care and workforce matters in Atlantic Information Services, The Bureau of National Affairs (BNA), InsuranceThoughtLeaders.com, Benefits Magazine, Employee Benefit News, Texas CEO Magazine, HealthLeaders, Modern Healthcare, Business Insurance, Employee Benefits News, World At Work, Benefits Magazine, the Wall Street Journal, the Dallas Morning News, the Dallas Business Journal, the Houston Business Journal, and many other publications. She also has served as an Editorial Advisory Board Member for human resources, employee benefit and other management focused publications of BNA, HR.com, Employee Benefit News, InsuranceThoughtLeadership.com and many other prominent publications. Ms. Stamer also regularly serves on the faculty and planning committees for symposia of LexisNexis, the American Bar Association, ALIABA, the Society of Employee Benefits Administrators, the American Law Institute, ISSA, HIMMs, and many other prominent educational and training organizations and conducts training and speaks on these and other management, compliance and public policy concerns.
Ms. Stamer also is active in the leadership of a broad range of other professional and civic organizations. For instance, Ms. Stamer presently serves on an American Bar Association (ABA) Joint Committee on Employee Benefits Council representative; Vice President of the North Texas Healthcare Compliance Professionals Association; Immediate Past Chair of the ABA RPTE Employee Benefits & Other Compensation Committee, its current Welfare Benefit Plans Committee Co-Chair, on its Substantive Groups & Committee and its incoming Defined Contribution Plan Committee Chair and Practice Management Vice Chair; Past Chair of the ABA Health Law Section Managed Care & Insurance Interest Group and a current member of its Healthcare Coordinating Council; current Vice Chair of the ABA TIPS Employee Benefit Committee; the former Coordinator and a Vice-Chair of the Gulf Coast TEGE Council TE Division; on the Advisory Boards of InsuranceThoughtLeadership.com, HR.com, Employee Benefit News, and many other publications. She also previously served as a founding Board Member and President of the Alliance for Healthcare Excellence, as a Board Member and Board Compliance Committee Chair for the National Kidney Foundation of North Texas; the Board President of the early childhood development intervention agency, The Richardson Development Center for Children; Chair of the Dallas Bar Association Employee Benefits & Executive Compensation Committee; a member of the Board of Directors of the Southwest Benefits Association. For additional information about Ms. Stamer, see www.cynthiastamer.com or contact Ms. Stamer via email here or via telephone to (469) 767-8872.
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