Denial of Federal Benefits for Same-Sex Couple Ruled Unlawful

July 28, 2011 ( – A federal court has ruled that the denial of health care benefits to the same-sex partner of a U.S. District of Oregon court employee constitutes unlawful sex discrimination.

According to a statement from Stoel Rives LLP, which represented the plaintiff, Chief Judge Ann Aiken of the U.S. District Court for the District of Oregon agreed with Margaret Fonberg’s argument that if either she or her partner were male, not female, “Fonberg’s compensation would include insurance benefits for her partner.”  

The law firm said that while two previous federal court rulings in the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals have considered whether the denial of federal benefits to same-sex spouses under the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) constitutes employment discrimination, those cases involved employees who were legally married to same-sex partners under state law. Judge Aiken noted that under the Oregon Family Fairness Act, Fonberg and her partner have, by virtue of their domestic partnership, the legal and substantive benefits of marriage. She also noted that under both DOMA and the Oregon Constitution, marriage is limited to heterosexual couples.  

Finding that “the District’s refusal to offer benefits to Fonberg’s partner is an unlawful employment practice that effectively compensates her at a lower rate than her co-workers,” Aiken agreed that a health benefits premium reimbursement program, as requested by Fonberg, would provide “necessary and appropriate equitable relief.” Aiken ordered the District to establish such a program and compensate her retroactive to January 4, 2010, and until the reimbursement program is implemented.   

As a result, Fonberg will be reimbursed for the “cost of providing [her] partner with health coverage comparable to that offered to spouses of similar judicial employees.” In issuing her order, Aiken agreed with Fonberg’s argument that the federal courts had the authority to provide such a remedy and that doing so would eliminate the discrimination in her compensation.  

According to the statement, Margaret Fonberg, a career law clerk now working for U.S. Magistrate Judge Thomas M. Coffin, filed the discrimination complaint after her attempt to enroll her domestic partner in her employer-offered federal health care plan during the 2009 annual enrollment period and was declined by the U.S. Office of Personnel Management (OPM). The OPM cited DOMA as the basis for its decision.   

DOMA defines “spouse” as an opposite-sex partner in a legal marriage, and OPM determined the federal family health benefits plans that covered employees, spouses and other family members could not be extended to same-sex couples.   

Following similar lawsuit filings, U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder said the President instructed the Justice Department not to defend the statute in two cases before the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals (see Department of Justice to no Longer Defend DOMA).