Employee Benefits-New York’s Highest Court Rules In Favor Of Same-Sex Benefits

In Godfrey v. Spano, Case No. 147 and Lewis v. Department of Civil Service, Case No. 148 (New York Court of Appeals. 11/19/09) (both cases decided together), the plaintiff- taxpayers had challenged two directives by executive and county officials- namely, a Policy Memorandum issued by the Commissioner of the New York State Department of Civil Service and an Executive Order issued by the Westchester County Executive-which recognized out-of-state same-sex marriages for purposes of providing public employee health insurance coverage and other benefits (the “Coverage”). The Court dismissed these challenges, thereby upholding the provision of Coverage to partners in such marriages.

As to the challenge to the Westchester County Executive Order, the Court noted that the plaintiffs’ claim is that the Executive Order illegally legislated in the areas of marriage and domestic relations, contrary to General Municipal Law § 51. However, the Court said that to succeed on this claim in the absence of fraud-as here-the plaintiffs must state a claim for illegal dissipation of municipal funds. The complaint does not specify any circumstance where taxpayer funds were expended as a result of the order. The Court ruled that this causes the plaintiffs’ challenge to the Executive Order to fail. Note that Westchester County had been providing Coverage for domestic partners for many years.

As to the challenge to the New York State Commissioner’s Policy Memorandum, the Court first noted that the Department of Civil Service has offered Coverage to domestic partners since the mid-1990s. Next, the Court said that this challenge is based on State Finance Law § 123-b and the separation of powers doctrine. Similar to the above, to bring this claim based on §123-b, there must be some specific threat of an imminent expenditure. As none is alleged, the Court concluded that a claim based on that section fails here.

The Court said that the claim based on the separation of powers doctrine boils down to the claim that the defendants acted inconsistently with the Legislature’s pronouncements on spousal health care benefits, acting in violation of Civil Service Law § 164. However, under § 164 and the legislative history behind it, the Commissioner has broad discretion to define who will qualify for Coverage. As such, there is no conflict between the Civil Service Law and the challenged Policy Memorandum. The practical effect of the upholding the Policy Memorandum is to give an out-of-state document, which formalizes a same-sex relationship, the same weight as the affidavit that an employee must furnish to receive Coverage for a domestic partner. This is a narrow accommodation to state employees in an area where the Legislature has specifically accorded broad discretion to the Commissioner. Therefore, the Court ruled that the claim based on the separation of powers doctrine, and the challenge to the Policy Memorandum, fails.