Off the Kuff Rotating Header Image

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.

Related Posts:

Comments are closed.

Bookmark and Share