Employee Benefits

Locke Lord QuickStudy: City of Houston’s Provision of Benefits to Same-Sex Spouses of City Employees Intact Pending Further Judicial Review

A 2013 change in the City of Houston’s employee benefits policy to extend benefits to the same-sex spouses of City employees, intended to align the City’s policy with what its legal counsel determined was a federal nondiscrimination requirement as a result of the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in U.S. v. Windsor, remains intact pending further judicial review. On June 30, 2017, the Texas Supreme Court delivered a unanimous decision to send the case, Jack Pidgeon et. al. v. Mayor Sylvester Turner et al., back to the trial court for the parties to fully develop their arguments regarding whether the City of Houston’s expenditure of taxpayer dollars to pay for benefits of same-sex spouses of employees is prohibited by the City’s charter or is required by the U.S. Supreme Court’s holding in Obergefell v. Hodges.

As background, in 2001, the City of Houston’s voters signed and then approved a petition to amend the City’s charter to provide that, except “as required by State or Federal law, the City of Houston shall not provide employment benefits, including health care, to persons other than employees, their legal spouses and dependent children.” See City of Houston Charter, Article II, Section 22. Notably, such provision was titled the “Denial of Benefits to Same-Sex Partners and Related Matters.” In 2003, the Texas Family Code was amended to expressly prohibit a political subdivision from giving effect to any “right or claim to any legal protection, benefit, or responsibility asserted as a result of a marriage between persons of the same sex…in this state or in any other jurisdiction.” Texas Family Code Section 6.204(c)(2). In 2005, the Texas Constitution was amended to provide that marriage in Texas was only between the union of one man and one woman, and that a political subdivision may not create or recognize any legal status identical or similar to marriage. Texas Constitution Article I, Section 32. In 2013, the U.S. Supreme Court held that limiting marriage to only opposite-sex couples violated “basic due process and equal protection principals applicable to the Federal Government.” Windsor, 133 S. Ct. at 2693.

As a result of the decision in Windsor, the City of Houston began providing benefits to same-sex spouses of employees. Two taxpayers, Jack Pidgeon and Larry Hicks, swiftly sought an injunction challenging the City’s directive as violating Texas’ and the City’s laws. They argued that the Windsor decision only addressed the federal Defense of Marriage Act (“DOMA”) and did not impact the enforceability of similar state or city laws. While the case was being heard by the state court of appeals, the U.S. Supreme Court issued its decision Obergefell, holding that state DOMA laws violated “the Due Process and Equal Protection Clauses of the Fourteenth Amendment.” The state court of appeals thereafter reversed the trial court’s temporary injunction in Pidgeon and sent the case back to be decided consistent with Obergefell and De Leon v. Abbott (a U.S. Fifth Circuit case holding that the Texas DOMAs violated the federal Constitution and cannot be enforced). Pidgeon submitted an interlocutory appeal to the Texas Supreme Court to review this decision.

In sending the case back to the trial court for further review, the Texas Supreme Court held:

  • The trial court is not bound by the decision in De Leon.
    • In its opinion, the Court noted that De Leon may be instructive and impact relief available on remand since De Leon enjoined the Governor of Texas from enforcing the Texas DOMAs and the State of Texas is providing benefits to state employees’ same-sex spouses.
  • The court of appeals’ judgment does not bar Pidgeon from seeking all appropriate relief on remand or bar the Mayor from opposing such relief on remand. 
  • The court of appeals did not err by failing to affirm the temporary injunction to the extent it required the City to claw-back benefits paid prior to Obergefell.
    • In its opinion, the Court noted that the temporary injunction issued by the trial court was solely prospective, and that Pidgeon failed to request the claw-back of benefits provided pre-Obergefell.
  • It would not instruct the trial court on how to construe Obergefell on remand.
    • In its opinion, the Court noted that it need not instruct the “trial court to “narrowly construe” Obergefell to confirm that Obergefell did not directly and expressly resolve [whether “the Texas DOMAs are constitutional or that the City may constitutionally deny benefits to its employees’ same-sex spouses”]. But neither [would the Court] instruct the trial court to construe Obergefell in any manner that makes it irrelevant to these issues.” 

The Texas Supreme Court reversed the court of appeals’ judgment, vacated the trial court’s temporary injunction order, and remanded the case for further proceedings. As a result, the City continues providing benefits to its employees’ same-sex spouses while the unresolved issues are further litigated at the trial court level.