By Sam Schwartz-Fenwick and Tom Horan
Seyfarth Synopsis: The Supreme Court announced that it would not hear an appeal from the City of Houston in a case challenging the city’s ability to offer spousal benefits to same-sex spouses of municipal employees. By leaving in place the Texas Supreme Court’s ruling that the Obergefell decision does not, in fact, require such benefits to be extended, the decision to deny cert will return the case to the trial court, where plaintiffs will argue that the benefits violate Texas state law and seek an order forcing the city to rescind them.
In a case previously discussed in this blog here, the United States Supreme Court denied the petition for certiorari filed by the City of Houston, seeking to challenge the Texas Supreme Court’s ruling in Pidgeon v. Turner, No. 15-0688. The petition had asked the Court to consider whether the Supreme Court of Texas correctly decided that Obergefell v. Hodges “did not hold that states must provide the same publicly funded benefits to all married persons,” regardless of whether their marriages are same-sex or opposite sex.
While the Houston City Attorney said the city’s policy to provide benefits to same-sex spouses will continue despite today’s ruling, the decision to deny certiorari will return the case to the trial court in Texas, where plaintiffs seek an injunction, arguing that Texas state laws prohibit spending taxpayer funds on benefits for same-sex spouses. An order from the state court that the city must stop offering the benefits would likely bring the case back before the Supreme Court.
In light of the Supreme Court’s normal practice of only considering cases after they have reached final resolution, it was viewed as unlikely that the Court would grant the city’s petition here. Still, certiorari was seen as a possibility because of the Texas Supreme Court’s narrow reading of Obergefell as requiring states to license and recognize same-sex marriage, but not necessarily provide all recognized married person with the same publically funding benefits. Plaintiffs, in fact, argue that the right to marry does not “entail any particular package of tax benefits, employee fringe benefits or testimonial privileges.”
While it remains possible that the Texas state courts will determine that Houston cannot constitutionally deny benefits to its employees’ same-sex partners, it leaves in place, for now, the Texas Supreme Court’s decision that there is still room to explore “the reach and ramifications” of marriage recognition following Obergefell.
That this case continues on more than two years after the Supreme Court’s ruling legalizing same-sex marriage, demonstrates that opponents of marriage equality continue to view the courts as a viable vehicle to limit or reverse marriage equality. As this case and other challenges make their way through the courts, private employers and benefit plans considering modifying their benefit offerings to exclude same-sex spouses should tread very carefully, especially given the EEOC’s position that differential benefit offerings to same-sex spouses violates Title VII of the Civil Rights Act.