One day before the U.S. Department of Labor’s Family & Medical Leave Act (“FMLA”) same-sex spouse final rule took effect on March 27, 2015, the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Texas ordered a preliminary injunction in Texas v. U.S., staying the application of the Final Rule for the states of Texas, Arkansas, Louisiana, and Nebraska.  This ruling directly impacts employers within the retail industry who are located or have employees living in these four states.

Background

In United States v. Windsor, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down Section 3 of the Defense of Marriage Act (“DOMA”) as unconstitutional, finding that Congress did not have the authority to limit a state’s definition of “marriage” to “only a legal union between one man and one woman as husband and wife.”  Significantly, the Windsor decision left intact Section 2 of DOMA (the “Full Faith and Credit Statute”), which provides that no state is required to recognize same-sex marriages from other states.  Further to the President’s directive to implement the Windsor decision in all relevant federal statutes, in June 2014, the DOL proposed rulemaking to update the regulatory definition of spouse under the FMLA. The Final Rule is the result of that endeavor.

As we previously reported, the Final Rule adopts the “place of celebration” rule, thus amending prior regulations which followed the “place of residence” rule to define “spouse.”  For purposes of the FMLA, the place of residence rule determines spousal status under the laws where the couple resides, notwithstanding a valid out-of-state marriage license.   The place of celebration rule, on the other hand, determines spousal status by the jurisdiction in which the couple was married, thus expanding the availability of FMLA leave to more employees seeking leave to care for a same-sex spouse.

The Court’s Decision

Plaintiff States Texas, Arkansas, Louisiana, and Nebraska sued, arguing the DOL exceeded its authority by promulgating a Final Rule that requires them to violate Section 2 of the DOMA and their respective state laws prohibiting the recognition of same-sex marriages from other jurisdictions.  The Texas court ordered the extraordinary remedy of a preliminary injunction to stay the Final Rule pending a full determination of the issue on the merits.

The court first found that the Plaintiff States are likely to succeed on at least one of their claims, which assert that the Final Rule improperly conflicts with (1) the FMLA, which defines “spouse” as “a husband or wife, as the case may be” and which the court found was meant “to give marriage its traditional, complementarian meaning”; (2) the Full Faith and Credit Statute; and/or (3) state laws regarding marriage, which may be preempted by the Final Rule only if Congress intended to preempt the states’ definitions of marriage.

The court then held that the Final Rule would cause Plaintiff States to suffer irreparable harm because, for example, the Final Rule requires Texas agencies to recognize out-of-state same-sex marriages as valid in violation of the Texas Family Code.

Lastly, although finding the threatened injury to both parties to be serious, the court decided that the public interest weighs in favor of a preliminary injunction against the DOL.  The court found in favor of upholding “the stability and consistency of the law” so as to permit a detailed and in-depth examination of the merits.  Additionally, the court pointed out that the injunction does not prohibit employers from granting leave to those who request leave to care for a loved one, but reasoned that a preliminary injunction is required to prevent the DOL “from mandating enforcement of its Final Rule against the states” and to protect the states’ laws from federal encroachment.

What This Means for Employers

Although the stay of the Final Rule is pending a full determination of the issue on the merits, the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Obergefell v. Hodges likely will expedite and shape the outcome of the Texas court’s final ruling.  In Obergefell, the Supreme Court will address whether a state is constitutionally compelled under the Fourteenth Amendment to recognize as valid a same-sex marriage lawfully licensed in another jurisdiction and to license same-sex marriages.  Oral arguments in Obergefell are scheduled for Tuesday, April 28, 2015, and a final ruling is expected in late June of this year.

Before the U.S. Supreme Court decides Obergefell, however, employers in Texas, Arkansas, Louisiana and Nebraska are advised to develop a compliant strategy for implementing the FMLA—a task that may be easier said than done.  Complicating the matter is a subsequent DOL filing in Texas v. U.S. where the DOL contends that the court’s order was not intended to preclude enforcement of the Final Rule against persons other than the named Plaintiff States, and thus applies only to the state governments of the states of Texas, Arkansas, Louisiana, and Nebraska.

While covered employers are free to provide an employee with non-FMLA unpaid or paid job-protected leave to care for their same-sex partner (or for other reasons), such leave will not exhaust the employee’s FMLA leave entitlement and the employee will remain entitled to FMLA leave for covered reasons.  We recommend that covered employers that are not located and do not have employees living in one of the Plaintiff States amend their FMLA-related documents and otherwise implement policies to comport with the Final Rule, as detailed in EBG’s Act Now Advisory, DOL Extends FMLA Leave to More Same-Sex Couples.  Covered employers who are located or have employees living in one of the Plaintiff States, however, should confer with legal counsel to evaluate the impact of Texas v. U.S. and react accordingly, which may depend on the geographical scope of operations.

My colleague Lee T. Polk authored Epstein Becker Green’s recent issue of its Take 5 newsletter.   This Take 5 features five considerations suggesting the advantages of employee benefit plans as programs that are beneficial to both employers and employees.

  1. Tax Aspects of Qualified Retirement Plans Can Save Money For Both Employers and Employees
  2. The Benefits of a Contractual Claims Limitation Period
  3. The Benefits of a Contractual Venue Selection Clause
  4. The Standard of Judicial Review in the Context of Top Hat Plan Benefit Disputes
  5. Fiduciary Exception to the Attorney-Client Privilege in Plan Administration

Read the full newsletter here.

Retailers doing business in New York City should take note of a new ordinance Mayor Bill de Blasio signed into law on October 20, 2014 – The Affordable Transit Act. 

The Affordable Transit Act (the “Act”) requires employers in New York City with 20 or more full-time employees to offer pre-tax transit benefits to employees. The Act allows employees to use up to $130 in tax free money towards their transit costs, which is the current IRS limit.  Full-time employees are defined as employees working an average of 30 hours or more per week. 

Penalties for violating the Act are $100-$250 for first time violations and $250 for repeat violations.  Employers, however, have 90 days to cure the first violation before any civil penalties will be imposed and penalties will not be imposed on any employer more than once in any 30-day period.

Employers are exempt from the Act if a collective bargaining agreement covers the relevant employees or where the employer is not required to pay federal, state and city payroll taxes.  In addition, the Department of Consumer Affairs may waive the requirements if an employer demonstrates that offering the benefit is a financial hardship.

According to the Mayor’s office, the legislation is expected to save employees over $400 a year on Metro Card expenses and employers more than $100 per year per employee in tax liability.  The Mayor’s office also predicts that the Act will extend transit benefits to more than 450,000 employees in NYC who are not currently offered them.

The Act takes effect on January 1, 2016 but in order to allow businesses adequate time to adjust to the new law, employers will not be subject to penalties prior to July 1, 2016. 

Employers who do not already offer pretax transit benefits should take the next year to ensure compliance with the new law, assess and make any necessary changes to their payroll and benefits systems, and prepare communications to employees.