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Sonya Heath

Same sex employee benefits lawsuit tossed again

This is great, but as always that’s not the end of it.

The lawsuit dates back to 2013, when pastor Jack Pidgeon and accountant Larry Hicks sued the city to end the policy. In 2015, after the U.S. Supreme Court handed down the landmark Obergefell ruling that opened up marriage rights to same-sex couples in all states, Pidgeon and Hicks continued to pursue the lawsuit, arguing that the decision did not extend to the right to city spousal benefits.

In June 2017, the Texas Supreme Court agreed, ruling unanimously that while same-sex marriage had been made legal, there is still room for state courts to explore the “reach and ramifications” of the landmark Obergefell ruling. The all-Republican high court sent the case back to a Houston trial court for further consideration.

Nearly two years later, Judge Sonya Heath on Monday threw out the case, ruling for Houston in what the city has touted as a major win.

“This is a victory for equality, the law of our nation and human rights,” Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner said in a statement Thursday evening. “I thank our Legal Department for its diligent work defending common sense and fairness, and I’m glad we get to continue the policy established by the city 6 years ago.”

Still, that win won’t go unchallenged. Jared Woodfill, the lawyer who represents Pidgeon and Hicks, said Thursday night that his clients will appeal the ruling — and that he expects the case to land again before the Texas Supreme Court and that it could eventually be decided by the U.S. Supreme Court.

See here, here, and here for some background. There’s a bunch of blathering by Jared Woodfill in the story about how unfair it was that a Democratic judge, who ousted the Republican judge that originally gave him an injunction that was quickly overridden, got to rule on his case, while also gloating that Republican judges up the line and on SCOTUS will surely be in the bag for him. He failed to mention that the only reason this case is still being litigated is because the State Supreme Court bowed to political pressure after initially giving him the brushoff. I don’t know what will happen in this case once the appeals process starts up again, but I do know two things. One is that Woodfill and his crank case plaintiffs represent a shrinking fringe, and two is that we need to win more elections so we can pass some more robust laws protecting the fundamental rights of all Americans. (Honestly, just ensuring that no more bad legislation gets passed would be a big step forward.) Mayor Turner’s press release has more.

Woodfill and Hotze take their next shot at same sex employee benefits

Here we go again.

Anti-LGBTQ activists are again asking a Harris County judge to halt benefits for the same-sex spouses of Houston city employees, according to a recently filed motion.

The motion for summary judgment in Pidgeon v. Turner, a five-year-old lawsuit challenging the benefits, states that the city should not subsidize same-sex marriages because gay couples cannot produce offspring, “which are needed to ensure economic growth and the survival of the human race.”

The motion also asks Republican Judge Lisa Millard, of the 310th District Family Court, to order the city to “claw back” taxpayer funds spent on the benefits since November 2013, when former Mayor Annise Parker first extended health and life insurance coverage to same-sex spouses. And the court filing suggests that to comply with both state and federal law, the city should eliminate all spousal benefits, including for opposite-sex couples.

The motion for summary judgment was filed July 2 by Jared Woodfill, an attorney for Jack Pidgeon and Larry Hicks, two Houston taxpayers who initially brought their lawsuit in December 2013. Woodfill, a former chair of the Harris County Republican Party, is president of the Conservative Republicans of Texas, which is listed by the Southern Poverty Law Center as an anti-LGBTQ hate group.

In his motion for summary judgment, Woodfill asserts that although the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in favor of marriage equality in Obergefell v. Hodges in June 2015, that decision does not require the city to treat same-sex couples equally.

“Obergefell does not require taxpayer subsidies for same-sex marriages — any more than Roe v. Wade requires taxpayers subsidies for abortions,” Woodfill’s motion states.

Alan Bernstein, a spokesman for the city, said it will respond to the motion “in a timely fashion.”

“The City hopes the Judge will be persuaded by the law,” Bernstein said in an email. “The Legal Department defers to the arguments it will make in response.”

See here for previous coverage, and here for the last update. It’s hard to know what will happen here because the basic goal of the lawsuit is so ridiculous and harmful, and the immediate reaction of any decent person who hears about it will be “but marriage is marriage and why would anyone want to do that?” The sad and scary fact is that some people are like that, and that includes some judges. Did I mention that the judge in this case, Lisa Millard, is up for re-election in August? Sonya Heath is her opponent. There’s never been a better time to elect some better judges. Think Progress has more.

Houston city employees file their own lawsuit (again) on spousal benefits

A shame it’s had to come to this, but this is where we are.

On Thursday, three married couples from Houston filed a lawsuit in federal court aimed at forcing the city to preserve health coverage and other benefits for same-sex spouses of city employees. That’s because, despite the Supreme Court’s 2015 decision in Obergefell v. Hodges, which affirmed same-sex marriage nationwide, the Texas Supreme Court this summer opted for something more like marriage equality-lite, ruling that same-sex spouses of government employees in Texas aren’t guaranteed the actual benefits of marriage such as dental, health or life insurance.

Kenneth Upton is a Dallas lawyer and senior counsel with the LGBT rights group Lambda Legal, which is representing the married couples that filed Thursday’s lawsuit. He says it’s become clear Texas state courts have no intention of upholding marriage equality.

“I don’t know a judge in the Southern District of Texas that’s going to thumb their nose at both the Fifth Circuit and the Supreme Court,” he told the Observer on Thursday. “We need to be in federal court, because that’s who’s going to follow the law.”

[…]

Upton says the Texas courts’ handling of marriage equality post-Obergefell has been “an almost Alice in Wonderland kind of scenario,” which is why Lambda Legal wants to move the issue to the federal courts. “What makes it so offensive is there’s no question what the law is.”

One of Upton’s clients is a Houston police officer. “She puts her life on the line for the city and the people who live there every day,” he said. Were she to die in the line of duty, Upton said, “her surviving spouse would be treated differently than that of a straight officer, and that’s just offensive.”

See here and here for the recent background. The Associated Press adds some details:

Alan Bernstein, a spokesman for Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner, said in a statement the city, as does the state of Texas, offers employees coverage for all legally married spouses without regard to sex.

“As Mayor Sylvester Turner said in June, ‘The city of Houston will continue to be an inclusive city that respects the legal marriages of all employees. Marriage equality is the law of the land, and everyone is entitled to the full benefits of marriage, regardless of the gender of their spouse,'” Bernstein said.

But the mayor might not have a choice if ordered by a judge to stop paying them, Upton said.

“The city is caught in the middle,” he said.

Upton said he expects the Harris County civil court judge will grant the motion for an injunction blocking the payment of benefits because the judge has granted similar requests twice before.

Also named in Thursday’s lawsuit are the two Houston residents who initially filed the lawsuit in 2013 asking that the city stop paying such benefits and who were backed by a coalition of religious and socially conservative groups.

See here for more on the original lawsuit, here for the Lambda Legal overview of the case, and here for a copy of the complaint. This bit, from Section VI on the Current Litigation, explains where we are and why this lawsuit needed to be filed:

52. The Texas Supreme Court has not yet issued its mandate returning jurisdiction to the state district court. Nonetheless, the Taxpayers prematurely filed an Amended Petition and Brief seeking a new preliminary injunction against the Mayor and the City to prohibit them from continuing benefits to same-sex spouses of employees, including the Plaintiffs. The filing also shows the Taxpayers will request an order requiring the City to claw back benefits previously paid for spousal coverage to same-sex spouses of City employees, including Plaintiffs.

53. Barring the filing of a petition for rehearing by the City or a stay granted pending a petition for certiorari to the United States Supreme Court, the Texas Court’s mandate will vest jurisdiction back in the trial court as early as August 17, 2017, at which time there is a substantial likelihood the state district court will issue another temporary injunction—the third one issued by that court—ordering the City to withdraw, and even claw back (i.e., demand immediate reimbursement from the employees), spousal benefits from the City Employees and their Spouses without further notice.

Both of the previous injunctions were overturned by federal court order. That’s the goal here, to prevent or knock down another such injunction. Please note that the state court lawsuit was filed in the 310th Family District Court, presided over by Judge Lisa Millard, the granter of those injunctions. Judge Millard is up for election next year, and Democrat Sonya Heath has filed to run against her; Heath does not currently have a primary opponent. Elections have consequences, and that will be your opportunity to create some. The Dallas Voice has more.