The legal tide has greatly changed in the last year with respect to employers’ treatment of the same-sex spouses of employees in Minnesota. No longer can benefits, granted to opposite-sex spouses of employees, be denied to same-sex spouses.
By now, most employers are aware of the United States Supreme Court’s 2013 decision in U.S. v. Windsor, which struck down as unconstitutional the provision of the federal Defense of Marriage Act (“DOMA”) which defined the terms “marriage” and “spouse” as only including opposite-sex marriages when used in any federal statute or regulation. Minnesota had its own DOMA, which similarly prohibited marriages “between persons of the same sex” until that provision was repealed in 2013. With the repeal of the Minnesota DOMA, same-sex marriages became legal within the State of Minnesota.
This change in the legal landscape requires employers to consider such issues as health insurance benefits for the same-sex spouses of their employees and ERISA plan treatment. Typically, employers who provide health insurance benefits to their employees also offer them to their spouses. Until 2013, the term “spouse” in Minnesota did not include a same-sex spouse so, as long as employers did not offer health insurance benefits to unmarried, opposite-sex partners, they were not required to offer them to unmarried, same-sex partners. Now, with the repeal of the Minnesota DOMA, same-sex marriages are generally on equal footing with opposite-sex marriages.
Moreover, the Minnesota Human Rights Act (the “MHRA”) prohibits employers from discriminating with respect to “hiring, tenure, compensation, terms, upgrading, conditions, facilities or privileges of employment” on the basis of “sexual orientation.” The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission has also been aggressive with respect to discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation, identifying “coverage of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender individuals under Title VII” as one of its top enforcement priorities. Although no published case law has squarely addressed the issue, it seems clear that now, Minnesota employers could face liability under the MHRA and other laws if they refuse to provide benefits to the same-sex spouses of employees while granting them to opposite-sex spouses.
It is vital that employers review their employment policies, benefit plans and other related materials to be sure they are in compliance with these laws. Please contact Daniel Ballintine if you have questions or need assistance.