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.

 By Anna A. Cohen

In its Agency Rule List for Spring 2014, the U.S. Department of Labor (DOL) has proposed to amend the Regulations implementing the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) by revising the definition of “spouse” in light of the United States Supreme Court’s decision in United States v. Windsor, No. 12-307 (U.S. June 26, 2013).   In Windsor, the Supreme Court struck down the provisions of the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) that denied federal benefits to legally married, same-sex couples.  The FMLA entitles eligible employees of covered employers to take unpaid, job-protected leave for specified family and medical reasons. Eligible employees may take FMLA leave, among other reasons, to care for the employee’s spouse who has a serious health condition.

1. Place of Residence Definition

In August 2013, the DOL issued updated FMLA guidance documents as a result of President Obama’s directive to the DOL to coordinate with other federal agencies to implement the Windsor decision.  This initial guidance removed references to DOMA, affirming the availability of spousal leave based on same-sex marriages under the FMLA; however, the DOL only expanded benefits to same-sex married couples residing in states that recognize same-sex marriage.  For example, updated DOL Fact Sheet # 28F: Qualifying Reasons for Leave under the Family and Medical Leave Act defines a “spouse” as “a husband or wife as defined or recognized under state law for purposes of marriage in the state where the employee resides, including ‘common law’ marriage and same-sex marriage.”  This narrow definition of “spouse” is significant to retailers with locations in multiple states since only 19 states, to date, recognize same-sex marriage, whether by court decision, legislation or popular vote.  If the DOL codifies the place of residence definition of “spouse,” retailers with employees in a same-sex marriage who work in a state where their marriage is legally recognized, but live in a state where it is not, would not be entitled to FMLA benefits to care for their spouse. 

2. Place of Celebration Definition

Another option would be for the DOL to broaden the definition of “spouse” to recognize legally married individuals under any state law, regardless of the employee’s residence.  This definition would be consistent with the DOL’s September 2013 Guidance to employee benefit plans, which took a “place of celebration” approach to the definition of “spouse” and “marriage” for purposes of the Employee Retirement Income Security Act (ERISA).  In its ERISA Guidance, the DOL defined the term “spouse” as any “individuals who are lawfully married under any state law, including individuals married to a person of the same sex who were legally married in a state that recognizes such marriages, but who are domiciled in a state that does not recognize such marriages.”  If the DOL were to adopt the broad place of celebration definition of “spouse” contained in its ERISA Guidance when it amends the FMLA Regulations, FMLA benefits would be available to all legally married spouses, regardless of the definition of “marriage” in the state where the employee lives or where the employer operates.  Accordingly, employers would look to the place of celebration to determine whether employees are entitled to spousal benefits under the FMLA.  For example, retailers with employees who legally enter into a same-sex marriage in the Northeast would be considered legally married for purposes of the FMLA in all of the retailer’s locations, even if they subsequently live or work in a state which does not recognize that marriage.  

Regardless of the definition adopted by the DOL, employers in all states must be alert to this impending change.  Once the FMLA Regulations are amended, employers should review all FMLA-related policies, procedures, forms and notices.  Employers should also be aware of their obligations under state and local leave laws that may provide greater leave rights than the FMLA, such as leave to care for same-sex partners in civil unions or domestic partnerships. We will continue to monitor the DOL’s position on same sex marriage as it affects the FMLA and other laws and regulations.