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The DOMA ruling and the workplace

The SCOTUS ruling on DOMA will have an effect in Texas, if not now then eventually, we just don’t know exactly what that effect will be yet.


Companies may assume that the recent Supreme Court case rejecting a key part of the Defense of Marriage Act doesn’t affect them because Texas doesn’t recognize same-sex marriages.

But they ignore the ruling at their peril, according to some employment lawyers who have been examining whether the ruling that struck down the federal ban on recognizing same-sex marriages will entitle same-sex spouses to pension benefits, health care insurance and family leave coverage.

“No one really knows,” said Joe Gagnon, an employment lawyer with Fisher & Phillips in Houston, who represents management clients. But Gagnon argues that employers eventually could be on the losing end of a court battle if they exclude same-sex spouses as beneficiaries and plan participants.

It’s always hard to figure out how a court ruling will play out. But the ruling looks thorny for employers, especially those that have multistate operations in states that recognize same-sex marriages and ones that don’t.

Or what if a company transfers an employee from California – which recognizes same-sex marriage – to its operations in Texas? Will the employee’s same-sex spouse have the same benefit privileges in Texas as in California?

“We don’t know the answer yet,” said Michael A. Abbott, an employee benefits lawyer with Gardere in Houston.

We don’t know the answer, but sooner or later these questions are going to be litigated. If you’re legally married in one of the states that allows it and then you lose some kind of work-related benefit because you and your spouse moved or were transferred to Texas, you’re not going to accept that. It’s just a matter of time before there’s a conflict. It may be that the inevitable lawsuit gets filed by someone who doesn’t want his company recognizing accommodating same sex spouses in their retirement benefits. Either way, sooner or later something’s got to give.

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