Fenwick Employment Brief - July 2013: DOMA and Prop 8 Rulings Clear the Way for Same-Sex Marriages in California and Require Changes in Employee Benefits

In U.S. v. Windsor, the court struck down a portion of the federal Defense of Marriage Act (“DOMA”) as unconstitutional. DOMA, for purposes of federal tax and benefits laws, defined marriage as only between “one man and one woman.” Accordingly, even in states that allowed same-sex marriages, same-sex couples were denied the marital exemption to federal estate tax and other benefits of federal law. The court ruled that DOMA violated the due process and equal protection clauses of the U.S. Constitution.

In a separate but related ruling, the court in Hollingsworth v. Perry considered an appeal of a lower court ruling that California Proposition 8 was unconstitutional. Proposition 8 defined marriage in California as solely between opposite-sex couples. The lower court struck down Proposition 8 as unconstitutional in violation of the due process and the equal protection clauses. Dennis Hollingsworth, a private citizen, appealed seeking to enforce Proposition 8. Rejecting his appeal, the court held that Hollingsworth was not injured by the lower court action and had no “standing” to appeal. As a result, same sex marriages in California are lawful.

As a further consequence, employees in California who are in a same-sex marriage must be afforded the same rights and benefits afforded to employees in opposite-sex marriages. For instance, federal FMLA does not cover an employee’s request for family leave to care for a seriously ill same-sex spouse (although the California Family Rights Act provides family care rights for domestic partners). With the demise of DOMA and Proposition 8, eligible employees will be entitled to family leave to care for a same-sex spouse.