Benefits decision establishes pretext basis for Equal Protection claim

by on July 30, 2010  •  In Constitutional law, Employment law

In Collins v. Brewer, [2010 WL 2926131] a U.S. District Court Judge in Arizona ruled that a law rescinding partner benefits for state employees was unconstitutional as applied to same-sex partners because it, together with the ban on same-sex marriage, amounted to a pretext for discrimination based on sexual orientation.  The law would have limited employee benefits to spouses.

The judge noted that because different-sex partners can marry, the effect of dropping partner benefit coverage was to legislate invidious treatment for gay employees. The pretext ruling is an important precedent for other courts to consider when facially neutral restrictions based on marriage are being challenged.

Having reached that conclusion, Judge John Sedwick granted a preliminary injunction against the new law taking effect. One imagines that the state will appeal and seek to lift the injunction while the appeal is pending, but I think chances are good that the Ninth Circuit will leave it in place.

Another significant aspect of Collins is that the court explicitly adopted the heightened rational basis standard of review from Justice O'Connor's concurring opinion in Lawrence v. Texas, noting that it applies when "a classification harms a politically unpopular group or personal relationships." The judge stated that "some form of heightened scrutiny might apply…, but it is unnecessary to decide whether or which type of heightened scrutiny might apply" because plaintiffs had demonstrated a likelihood of success (the standard for a preliminary injunction) based on the rational basis test.

Judge Sedwick considered each of the state's proffered rationales for the change in benefits and found a rational relationship lacking. The state's strongest argument was cost savings, but the court noted that the amount saved from cutting off same-sex partners would be minuscule because they are so few in number.

One downside to the opinion is dicta to the effect that the state's interest in promoting marriage furnished a reasonable basis for dropping different-sex partners. "It is only by denying benefits to heterosexual domestic partners that marriage might be promoted." (The court noted that the cost savings argument did not work as a rationale, because different-sex couples could marry and immediately claim the benefits.)

Congrats to the Lambda Legal team, led by Jenny Pizer, who is representing the plaintiffs.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *