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Same-Sex marriage and employee benefits in Minnesota

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in Employee Benefits Program,Employment Law,Human Resources

In light of the recent California Supreme Court ruling allowing same-sex marriages in that state and legislation in Massachusetts that, in effect, legalizes same-sex marriages, Minnesota employers may wonder whether they now must provide benefits to same-sex partners of employees who were married in those two states.

For employers that don’t have employees working in California or Massachusetts—or that are not registered to do business in those states—the short answer seems to be no.

This is a controversial and emerging area of the law, however, so employers will want to stay tuned to this issue to ensure they understand developments.

Marriage in Minnesota

Minnesota law currently defines marriage as “a civil contract between a man and a woman.” It prohibits “a marriage between persons of the same sex.” In addition, under Minnesota law, “A marriage entered into by persons of the same sex, either under common law or statute, that is recognized by another state or foreign jurisdiction is void in this state and contractual rights granted by virtue of the marriage or its termination are unenforceable in this state.”

Although the Full Faith and Credit Clause of the U.S. Constitution generally requires states to recognize marriages performed in other states, states are not required to do so if the marriage violates a strong public policy of the state. Because of the Minnesota statutes quoted above, it seems unlikely that a court would require Minnesota to recognize same-sex marriages entered into in other states.

On the other hand, Minnesota’s refusal to recognize same-sex marriages performed in other states could be subject to a legal challenge in coming years. Until a court issues a decision, there is no legal certainty regarding the constitutionality of Minnesota’s refusal to recognize same-sex marriages performed in other states.

The Minnesota Human Rights Act (MHRA) prohibits employers from discriminating on the basis of sexual orientation. However, under current Minnesota law, it is unlikely that a Minnesota court would find that the MHRA requires employers to offer benefits to same-sex married couples, because such marriages are not recognized under Minnesota law.

In fact, in Lilly v. City of Minneapolis, the Minnesota Court of Appeals held that the MHRA does not require employers to offer domestic-partner benefits.

Handling benefits questions

Private-sector Minnesota employers may choose to offer domestic-partner benefits. Although Minnesota law does not require employers to recognize same-sex marriage, an employee’s rights to benefits are contractual. That means employers should check the terms of their benefits plans to ensure that the language is consistent with their intent to offer or not offer benefits to same-sex married couples.

For example, if a benefit plan defines “marriage” as a “marriage legally entered into in any state,” it is possible that a court could find that the language of the plan requires the employer to provide benefits to a same-sex spouse as a matter of contract, even if that was not the employer’s intent.    

If employees ask employers about benefits for same-sex married couples, they should respond truthfully but cautiously: State whether such benefits are available under the company’s benefits plans, but avoid sharing personal views on homosexuality or same-sex marriage.

For example, an employer that does not offer domestic-partner benefits may say, “Benefits are currently available only to spouses of employees who are legally married under Minnesota law. Because Minnesota law does not recognize same-sex marriages performed in other states, benefits under our plans are not available to same-sex spouses.”

Avoid making statements that could be seen as evidence of discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation.

Keep in mind that if an employee questions the lawfulness of an employer’s decision not to offer benefits to same-sex spouses, that challenge may constitute “protected activity” under Minnesota’s whistle-blower statute or the MHRA. Therefore, employers should ensure that employees who question such decisions do not experience retaliation.

Final note: Minnesota employers that have employees in California or Massachusetts—or that are registered to do business in California or Massachusetts—may be affected by those states’ recognition of same-sex marriages. Check with legal counsel for answers to specific questions, including those involving taxation of benefits. 

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