October 13, 2014Client Alert

U.S. Supreme Court Declines to Hear Wisconsin’s Same-Sex Marriage Case: How does this affect the administration of an employer’s employee benefits?

On Monday, October 6, 2014, the U.S. Supreme Court denied certiorari in Wolfe v. Walker. As employers will recall, in June 2014, U.S. District Court Judge Crabb found that Wisconsin’s 2006 constitutional amendment barring recognition of same-sex marriages violated the equal protection clause of the U.S. Constitution. In September 2014, the Seventh Circuit affirmed that decision. The Supreme Court’s action means that Judge Crabb’s decision stands.

What Is the Effect of the Supreme Court’s Ruling? Hereafter, Wisconsin and its respective governmental subdivisions must issue same-sex marriage licenses and must recognize same-sex marriages, whether formed in Wisconsin or in other jurisdictions. Moreover, the ruling affects employer-provided employee benefits.

Eligibility for Health Plan Coverage. The ruling has different implications depending upon the type of health plan at issue. For ERISA plans, there is some uncertainty regarding how this will play out moving forward because of ERISA preemption. Following the 2013 U.S. Supreme Court decision in United States v. Windsor, the Department of Labor announced in guidance that it would interpret the terms “spouse” and “marriage” to include same-sex marriages valid in the state of celebration. However, since it appears that neither Windsor nor Wolf nor the DOL guidance addresses private discrimination or imposes an obligation on employers to provide same-sex benefits, ERISA may still preempt a state discrimination law.

There is an additional nuance under state insurance laws. The Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) has mandated that health insurance issuers providing policies that cover spouses ensure that same-sex spouse coverage is also available to consumers. The guidance HHS provided, however, does not mandate that employers obtaining that coverage actually offer the benefit. It is unclear how this will play out under state insurance law (which applies to insured ERISA plans) and further guidance from the state is required.

For plans that are not subject to ERISA, the preemption argument disappears. Thus, such non-ERISA plans failing to offer such coverage may now violate Wisconsin’s Fair Employment Act, which prohibits discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and marital status. Even so, those plans that are exempt from ERISA because they constitute “church plans” may be able to assert a religious exemption from discrimination rules.

Employers contemplating providing only opposite-sex spousal benefits should be in close contact with their legal counsel regarding the risks associated with such a decision. Further, it will be very important to ensure that “spouse” is defined with precision in the plan materials.

Imputed Income. Previously, the Wisconsin Tax Code treated employer-provided coverage for same-sex spouses of employees as taxable income and Wisconsin employers were required to treat such coverage as imputed income for Wisconsin withholding purposes. Now that Judge Crabb’s decision has been permitted to stand, Wisconsin employers must stop imputing income for state tax purposes to employees who receive coverage for same-sex spouses (and certain dependents). Employers will also need to pay attention to how the Wisconsin Department of Revenue addresses the taxation of income that was previously imputed; that is, how employees and employers might recover excess amounts withheld by the state government based upon imputed income in prior months and years.

Note, nothing has changed as it relates to domestic partners benefits – employees are still subject to imputed income where the employee obtains coverage on behalf of his or her domestic partner.

Family and Medical Leave. As we advised in a June client alert, family and medical leave under the state law is largely unaffected by this decision because domestic partner coverage was already contemplated by the state law and same-sex spouses were deemed domestic partners for such purposes.

On a federal level, this decision accelerates the effective date of proposed regulations issued earlier this year by the U.S. Department of Labor in response to Windsor. Earlier this year, the Department of Labor issued proposed regulations to change the FMLA’s definition of spouse from an individual who is recognized as a spouse under the state law in the place of the employee’s residence to an individual who is considered legally married to the employee based upon the laws of the state of celebration. These regulations are not yet finalized. Nevertheless, the Supreme Court’s decision means that even under the current regulations Wisconsin same-sex married couples will be considered spouses for purposes of FMLA administration.

What should employers do now?

  • Account for those same-sex couples who may have been married in a state that permitted same-sex marriage or who are newly married in Wisconsin;
  • Determine if modification of benefit plan materials may be necessary;
  • Determine the appropriateness of a special enrollment opportunity to couples married in other jurisdictions prior to the Supreme Court’s ruling who would not otherwise be eligible for a HIPAA special enrollment opportunity based upon the date of the wedding; and
  • Determine if modification of FMLA policy/forms is warranted based upon the changes.
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