Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Domestic Partner benefits lawsuit: the good, the bad and the hopeful

If you haven’t heard the news already, on Friday, May 29th a Wisconsin trial court dismissed the lawsuit that the ACLU of Wisconsin brought on behalf of state workers suing for health insurance and leave protections for their families and same-sex partners.

The bad news: the case was dismissed. The judge was bound by a prior decision from the Wisconsin Court of Appeals back in 1992.

The good news: the written decision is a testament to the unconstitutionality of denying state employees equality in worker benefits for their families.

The Court’s written opinion states: “The plaintiffs have offered a strong showing that the employment benefits in issue have been provided on a discriminatory basis. The defendants’ explanations offered for the continuing discrimination against these plaintiffs are unpersuasive and inadequate.”

“Losing doesn’t get any better than this,” said Larry Dupuis, Litigation Director of the ACLU of Wisconsin. “We knew we had an uphill battle in the trial court because of the earlier case. But the court agreed with us that discrimination based on sexual orientation should be subject to strict judicial review and that it is unconstitutional for the state to deny equal benefits.”

The Court also found that providing the benefits would not be barred by the anti-gay marriage amendment that passed in 2006.

The ACLU filed the lawsuit in April 2005 on behalf of six lesbian state employees and their partners. The lawsuit charges that it is a violation of the state’s equal protection guarantees to deny lesbian and gay state employees access to the same health insurance and family leave protections that it provides to straight employees who are able to cover their spouses. The lawsuit was stalled for years because a number of Wisconsin municipalities tried to inject themselves into the lawsuit. The issue ultimately went up to the Wisconsin Supreme Court, which ruled that they were not entitled to become a party to the litigation.

Governor Jim Doyle has repeatedly stated that he would like to provide lesbian and gay state employees with equal health insurance coverage. There is currently a provision in the Governor’s budget that successfully cleared the Joint Finance Committee. The budget is heading for the state Assembly for a vote. Identical budget bills need to be approved by the Assembly and the Senate before heading back to the Governor to sign. You can find out who represents you in the state Assembly and Senate and tell them how you feel about fairness for domestic partnerships.

“While we are heartened by the court’s decision, we urge the legislature to pass the domestic partner provision in the state budget so there will be no need to appeal,” added Chris Ahmuty, Executive Director of the ACLU of Wisconsin. “Our clients are forced to pay expensive prices for inferior health coverage and sometimes even to forego necessary care. They suffer every day this issue goes unresolved.”

Wisconsin Department of Corrections employee Jayne Dunnum and her partner, Robin Timm, pay nearly $450 a month for private insurance for Timm who works on the couple’s organic farm and food store in Platteville.

“We don’t care if it happens through the courts or the legislature. We just really need the health insurance coverage,” said Dunnum. “It’s a matter of basic fairness. I work just as hard has my straight colleagues and shouldn’t be denied the equal employment benefits.”

The case is Dunnum v. Department of Employee Trust Funds. The couples are represented by John Knight and Rose Saxe of the ACLU’s Lesbian Gay Bisexual Transgender Project, Larry Dupuis of the ACLU of Wisconsin, and cooperating attorneys Linda Roberson and Christopher Krimmer of the Madison law firm Balisle & Roberson.

Biographical information for all of the couples, today’s decision, the complaint, and additional information are available at the ACLU LGBT Get Busy Get Equal case profiles page.