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Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Judge Dismisses Federal Family Benefits Case, Invites Lambda Legal to File New DOMA Complaint


(San Francisco, March 16, 2011)—A federal judge has granted a motion by government attorneys to dismiss Lambda Legal's lawsuit on behalf of a federal court employee seeking spousal health benefits for her wife, but invited the organization to file an amended complaint directly challenging the constitutionality of the so-called Defense of Marriage Act, or DOMA.
Before President Obama and Attorney General Eric Holder concluded last month that DOMA is unconstitutional, federal attorneys had argued that the law prohibits equal insurance benefits for Lambda Legal client Karen Golinski. Golinski is a 19-year employee of the U.S. Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, and has been seeking family insurance coverage for her wife, Amy Cunninghis, since 2008.
Lambda Legal and Morrison & Foerster LLP filed suit last year against the federal government on Golinski's behalf. Government attorneys claimed that the Office of Personnel Management (OPM), part of the executive branch of the federal government, has authority over all federal employees but need not participate in hearings of complaints filed by employees of the judiciary, or comply with orders that give them a remedy. Golinski's case requested an order directing OPM to comply with rulings issued by Ninth Circuit Chief Judge Alex Kozinski in Golinski's favor.
Judge Jeffrey White ruled today that OPM has authority to interpret the federal employee health benefits law, including for employees of the judicial branch. At the same time, however, he underscored that both sides now agree that DOMA is discriminatory and unconstitutional: "The parties do not dispute, and the Court finds, that Plaintiff has a clear right to relief. … The Court would, if it could, address the constitutionality of both the legislative decision to enact Section 3 of DOMA to unfairly restrict benefits and privileges to state-sanctioned same-sex marriages or address the conflict regarding the Executive's decision not to defend the constitutionality of a law it has determined appropriate to enforce. However, the Court is not able to reach these constitutional issues due to the unique procedural posture of this matter." Judge White accordingly invited an amended complaint by April 15.
"It's terribly disappointing that Karen and Amy will have to wait even longer for the health benefits that Karen's heterosexual colleagues already receive," said Jennifer C. Pizer, National Marriage Project Director for Lambda Legal. "But we're very encouraged that Judge White has concluded that DOMA 'unfairly restrict[s] benefits' and that Karen has a 'clear right to relief.' He highlighted that all sides agree on DOMA's unconstitutionality, and said he welcomes an amended complaint addressing DOMA itself."
"We filed this case to enforce the court's nondiscrimination rule, knowing DOMA was a lurking problem but pointing out various ways to provide equality. As it's progressed, the dispute between the Judicial Branch and the Executive Branch has become legally complicated, while the blatant way that DOMA discriminates has become all too clear and indefensible. Judge White has zeroed in on the fact that what drives the problem faced by Karen Golinski and thousands of federal employees like her is, in fact, DOMA."
Lambda Legal's Jennifer C. Pizer and Morrison & Foerster's Rita Lin, James McGuire, Gregory Dresser and Aaron Jones represent Karen Golinski.
The case is Golinski v. United States Office of Personnel Management and John Berry, Director of the U.S. Office of Personnel Management, in his official capacity.

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