Lambda Legal Sues North Carolina Hospital That Denied Health Coverage to Employee’s Same-Sex Spouse

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February 11, 2016
Sandra Lively (left) and Catherine Hipwell

Lambda Legal filed suit in the U.S. District Court for the Western District of North Carolina, Asheville Division, seeking compensation for Sandra Lively, a registered nurse at North Carolina hospital Park Ridge Health, for the thousands of dollars of expenses she incurred when the hospital refused to allow her to enroll her same-sex spouse in the employee health plan.

Lambda Legal Senior Attorney Tara L. Borelli, who is handling the matter along with Senior Counsel Ken Upton and co-counsel Meghann Burke of Brazil & Burke, P.A., said:

Sandra Lively and her spouse, Catherine Hipwell, were forced to pay thousands of dollars out of pocket because Park Ridge Health for months refused to provide them spousal health coverage in violation of federal law,” said Tara Borelli, Senior Attorney for Lambda Legal. “We are glad the hospital has since changed its policy, but it has an obligation to finish righting this wrong by reimbursing this family. This was a denial of equal pay for equal work, pure and simple.

Sandra Lively and Catherine Hipwell have been a committed couple for 15 years. When Catherine was diagnosed with stage three uterine cancer in 2005, Sandra was at her side through every step of her treatment and recovery. In October 2014, just seven days after the state began permitting same-sex couples to marry; Sandra and Catherine were married in Asheville.  Eager to get Catherine, who is self-employed, access to spousal health insurance, Sandra attempted to enroll Catherine through her employer, Park Ridge Health, where she’s been a registered nurse since September 2012.  Sandra was denied when she attempted to enroll her spouse online, and again after multiple requests for equal treatment from her employer.  

Because Catherine is a cancer survivor, she can’t afford to be without health insurance. The couple found themselves in a catch-22 because, while Sandra’s employer refused to recognize their marriage and provide her with spousal coverage, the federal government had cut Catherine’s subsidy through the Affordable Care Act (ACA) because they were married. Without the spousal coverage or the subsidy, the couple spent thousands of dollars out-of-pocket over the first seven months of their marriage to purchase a private health plan. After Sandra filed a complaint with the EEOC in April 2015, Park Ridge Health changed its policy and allowed Catherine to enroll in May.  However, Park Ridge Health still refuses to reimburse the couple for the expenses they incurred for private coverage while they were denied enrollment in the employee plan.

Sandra Lively said:

I love my job. I love the hospital where I work and I love the people I work with, but when I was denied spousal coverage for Catherine that we desperately needed because of her health history, I felt demeaned in comparison to my co-workers with different-sex spouses who could enroll without a problem. Worrying about a loved one’s health is hard enough, but it’s stressful to have expensive health insurance bills on top of that because your family is being treated differently.  

The complaint filed by Lambda Legal argues that the hospital’s prior policy of denying spousal coverage to married same-sex couples on the basis of sex and religion violated Title VII of the federal Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Equal Pay Act. 

Learn more about the case.