Gay Marriage Affects Texas Employers

 

Regardless of your political beliefs about gay marriage, you are going to need to start dealing with the legal implications in your business. The U.S. Supreme Court’s two decisions regarding gay marriage, issued June 26, will leave you as an employer with more questions than answers right now. Even though Texas doesn’t recognize same-sex marriages, there are going to be issues raised by your employees about the application of benefits and employment laws to same sex couples even within the 37 states that don’t yet allow gay marriages. As Justice Antonin Scalia wrote in his dissent:

Imagine a pair of women who marry in Albany and then move to Alabama, which does not “recognize as valid any marriage of parties of the same sex.” Ala. Code §30–1–19(e) (2011). When the couple files their next federal tax return, may it be a joint one? Which State’s law controls, for federal-law purposes: their State of celebration (which recognizes the marriage) or their State of domicile (which does not)? (Does the answer depend on whether they were just visiting in Albany?) Are these questions to be answered as a matter of federal common law, or perhaps by borrowing a State’s choice-of-law rules? If so, which State’s?

Justice Scalia could have continued with questions such as: Must an employer offer COBRA continuation coverage of health insurance to a same-sex spouse, since COBRA is federally regulated, not a state issue? Does an employer in Texas have to provide Family and Medical Leave for an employee to provide his same-sex spouse (who legally married elsewhere) with care for a serious medical condition? Again, FMLA is a federal law, not a state one. There is some speculation among lawyers that President Obama will direct federal agencies such as the Department of Labor, when interpreting federal statutes such as FMLA or COBRA, to treat the “State of celebration”, as Scalia called it, as the state that matters, not the state of residence. This could mean that you as a Texas employer could be liable under FMLA, for example, even though gay marriage isn’t allowed in Texas.

In addition, many employee handbooks define “immediate family” for purposes of bereavement leave, personal leave, nepotism and health insurance benefits and include just the word “spouse” without a definition. Are you going to make a distinction in your business that the “spouse” must be an opposite-sex spouse? And if you do, will you at some point face a federal lawsuit for discrimination?

Is your head spinning yet from these questions?

The courts and the administrative branch will eventually give us the answers to these questions, but as an employer, you have to deal with many of them now as best you can. My suggestion is that if any question involving same-sex marriage arises with your employees, you call an employment lawyer immediately to find out the very latest regulations on this issues.

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