Thursday, May 19, 2011

Same Sex Partner Benefits and the Constitution - COTW #41

A close-to-home employment law Case of the Week, here in State College, PA: Wiessman v. State College Area School District (SCASD)(complaint). Two women filed the lawsuit on Tuesday (with a little help from the ACLU and local counsel), alleging that the school district was violating the U.S. and Pennsylvania Constitutions by not giving medical benefits to its employees' same-sex partners. One plaintiff is a school district employee, and the other is her partner.

One thing that I find particularly interesting about this case, is that (according to the Complaint) the school district's policy expressly discriminates on the basis of sexual orientation (and arguably gender). It provides benefits to "domestic partners" who can provide certain documentation. For example, the plaintiffs would qualify because they own a home together, have joint credit accounts, executed mutually beneficial wills, etc. Except the plaintiffs don't qualify because the policy expressly provides that "Domestic partners cannot be the same gender."

Thus, the District can't argue that it is depending on state marriage laws (same-sex marriage is not allowed in Pennsylvania currently). To the extent it attempts to justify the policy on the basis of fraud prevention, the extensive documentation requirements at least weaken that argument. It will be interesting to see the District's Answer and arguments.

The Plaintiffs raise four claims:

  1. Sexual orientation discrimination in violation of the U.S. Constitution's Equal Protection Clause (14th Amendment);
  2. Sex discrimination in violation of the U.S. Constitution's Equal Protection Clause (14th Amendment);
  3. Violation of the Pennsylvania Constitution's Equal Rights Amendment (Art. I, s. 28, commonly called "PERA"); and
  4. Violation of the right to intimate association (U.S. Const. 1st Amendment, incorporated via the 14th Amendment).

It will be interesting to see how this thing plays out...

Side-note: I attended SCASD schools for grades 1-12 and my child (coming in August, if you haven't heard) will likely attend as well. SCASD was also involved in a noteworthy 1st Amendment case from the Third Circuit, with an opinion authored by now-Justice Alito: Saxe v. SCASD.

Posted by Philip Miles, an attorney with McQuaide Blasko in State College, Pennsylvania in the firm's civil litigation and labor and employment law practice groups.