Foster Swift Employment, Labor & Benefits E-News (also published in the Foster Swift Municipal Law News)
In 2008, the Michigan Supreme Court concluded that domestic partnership policies intended to provide health care benefits to same sex couples violated Michigan law. Specifically, National Pride at Work v Governor held that such policies violated the Michigan Marriage Amendment ("Marriage Amendment") by recognizing same sex domestic partnerships as analogous to a marriage or similar union. (The Marriage Amendment recognizes the union of one man and one woman as the only agreement recognized as a marriage and also prohibits public employers from providing health insurance benefits to their employees' same-sex domestic partners.)
Since the decision in National Pride, public employers have sought ways to provide health care benefits to their employees and their employees’ domestic partners without violating the Marriage Amendment. Employers did so by modifying the language of the benefit policies to exclude the term "same sex" when referring to the individuals eligible to receive benefits. For example, benefits may be offered to state employees and "other qualified adults."
This strategy was recently challenged in the Michigan Court of Appeals decision, Attorney General v Civil Service Commission. In this unpublished opinion, the Michigan Court of Appeals upheld a policy providing health care benefits to state employees and "other eligible adult individuals." The provision at issue addressed unmarried employees or those whose spouses were not eligible for enrollment in the plan. In that situation, the employee was allowed to enroll one "other eligible adult individual," provided that certain conditions were met. The conditions included the following, which require the other eligible adult individual to:
- be at least 18 years of age;
- not be a member of the employee’s immediate family; and
- have jointly shared the same regular and permanent residence for at least 12 continuous months, and continue to share a common residence with the employee other than as a tenant, border, renter or employee.
The Court of Appeals initially recognized the holding of National Pride, but identified its limits. The Court of Appeals indicated that there was no absolute prohibition against same-sex domestic partners receiving benefits through their relationship with an employee so long as that receipt was not based on the employer’s recognition of that relationship as a marriage or similar union. It noted that the Marriage Amendment did not prohibit domestic partnership policies, particularly when the employee could share benefits with a wide variety of other people, such as an opposite-sex boyfriend or a housemate.
The Court of Appeals found that the benefits policy at issue in this case was gender-neutral; did not implicate race, ethnicity, national origin or illegitimacy; did not invoke any fundamental right; and did not violate equal protection. It did note that the policy, and in particular the restrictions contained in it were absurd. ("An employee could share his or her benefits with a fraternity brother but not an actual brother.") However, the Court of Appeals concluded that the policy passed muster in that it appeared to serve the negotiated, bargained-for needs of the individuals affected by it.
The Court of Appeals specifically recognized that the policy providing health care benefits to state employees and "other eligible adult individuals" was substantially different from the policy at issue in National Pride. It found that the provision of health care benefits to same-sex domestic partners, when not tied to the recognition of that relationship as a marriage or similar union, would be upheld.
If you have any questions about how your health care benefit policies may be implicated by this ruling, please contact Mindi Johnson.