Court Blocks MA Benefits Discrimination Inquiry

June 29, 2007 (PLANSPONSOR.COM) - A federal judge in Massachusetts has blocked a state agency from looking into whether an employer ran afoul of state anti-discrimination law by providing benefits to same-sex domestic partners but not non-married heterosexual couples.

U.S. District Judge Joseph L. Tauro of the U.S. District Court for the District of Massachusetts said the issue before the Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination (MCAD) is pre-empted by the Employee Retirement Income Security Act (ERISA).

With his ruling, Tauro refused MCAD’s request that the court not take action in the case.

The matter before Tauro concerned a legal challenge by Jason Webster, a heterosexual employee of Partners Healthcare System, a New England health care provider, to the company’s provision for benefits to same-sex partners but not to their heterosexual counterparts.

Webster took his challenge to MCAD, and Partners then asked a federal judge for an injunction barring MCAD from considering Webster’s discrimination claim. MCAD asserted that its proceedings were not pre-empted by ERISA.

Tauro ruled that the state anti-discrimination law has a “connection with” ERISA because applying the law to Partners’ plan would “in effect, specify who the plan must name as beneficiaries of the plan health insurance benefits,” the court said.

The court pointed out that state marriage laws in the New England states where Partners operates treat homosexuals differently so Partners struck a balance by providing benefits only for same-sex domestic partners. Tauro noted that ERISA is designed to allow the creation of national benefit plans and not require employers to administer different plans in different states.

The case is Partners Healthcare System Inc. v. Sullivan,   D. Mass., No. 06-11436-JLT, 6/25/07.