Lambda Legal has filed a federal lawsuit against Houston Mayor Annise Parker and the City of Houston seeking to preserve spousal benefits, including health insurance, covering the same-sex spouses of city employees. The lawsuit was filed in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Texas on behalf three City of Houston employees legally married to same-sex spouses and follows notification these employees received recently that the City, one month after extending the employee coverage for their spouses, was being forced to withdraw these benefits and cancel the coverage.
“City employees who are married to same-sex spouses are doing the same work as coworkers who are married to different-sex spouses—at the end of the day this case is about equal pay for equal work. These employees, some who have worked for the City for many years, acted in good faith when notified the City was extending health coverage benefits to their legal spouses,” said Kenneth Upton, Senior Counsel in Lambda Legal’s South Central Regional Office in Dallas. “They enrolled for spousal benefits, including health insurance, paid the premiums, scheduled doctor visits and underwent treatments that will require ongoing care. Now, suddenly, the rug is pulled out from under them.”
Parker on November 20, 2013 announced that all lawfully-married city employees, including those who married same-sex partners in jurisdictions where such marriages are legal, would be eligible to enroll for spousal benefits, including health insurance coverage, under the City’s employee benefits health plan. The three plaintiffs named in Lambda Legal’s lawsuit enrolled their spouses as soon as they received notification of the policy change. Shortly thereafter, however, two Houston taxpayers sued the Mayor and the City in Family Law Court claiming the benefits were illegal and, without giving the Mayor or the City notice, secured a temporary restraining order (TRO) blocking extension of the benefits. The City is defending against the challenge to the Mayor’s decision to ensure equal employee benefits for all workers.
“The notice from the City was like a punch in the stomach,” said Noel Freeman, lead plaintiff in the lawsuit, administrative coordinator with the City of Houston Public Works & Engineering Office and a nine-year employee of the City. “Brad and I were so excited when we learned we could enroll him on my plan that we signed him up within an hour of finding out. And now, just a month later, they tell us they’re going to have to take it away, that once again I will be paid less than my married heterosexual colleagues for the same work. How is this fair?”
In addition to Noel and Brad, who were married in Washington, D.C., on August 1, 2010, and have been together for more than 11 years, the other plaintiffs in the lawsuit are: Yadira Estrada, a City of Houston police officer who married her partner of seven and a half years, Jennifer Flores, in Maine this past June and signed up for spousal benefits about a week after the Mayor’s announcement; and Ron Reeser, a systems administrator for the City and eight-year city employee who married his husband, Vince Olivier, in Canada in 2008 after they had been together for three years.
“By refusing to recognize the legal marriage of same-sex couples for the purpose of providing employment benefits, the City deprives some Houston families of a critical safety net and financial security,” Upton added. “By stripping legally married gay and lesbian city employees of spousal benefits, including health insurance coverage, the City not only inflicts severe hardship, but sends a signal that their families are less worthy than those of their co-workers. This the Constitutional does not allow.”