Lambda Legal Sues Feds for Spousal Benefits

On January 20, Lambda Legal filed suit against the federal government on behalf of Ninth Circuit judicial attorney Karen Golinski, who was denied spousal health insurance benefits for her wife.

The case, filed in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California, comes after the U.S. Office of Personnel Management (OPM) blocked enrollment of Golinski's wife for coverage under Golinski's family health insurance plan, in defiance of multiple rulings by Ninth Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals Chief Judge Alex Kozinski.

OPM has disagreed with Judge Kozinski's conclusion that insurance can and must be provided to end the sexual orientation discrimination against Golinski. Kozinski ruled that equal health benefits are permissible here given the text of the law governing health insurance for federal employees and the judiciary's independent authority to manage court affairs. OPM asserts instead that the 1996 so-called "Defense of Marriage Act" (DOMA) bars insurance for lesbian and gay employees' spouses, but did not provide any legal analysis in the proceeding before Judge Kozinski or in its public statement.  

"Simply defying [Judge Kozinski's] orders is a slap in the face to Karen and the entire LGBT community and bizarrely disrespects the judiciary," says Jennifer C. Pizer, National Marriage Project Director for Lambda Legal and co-counsel for Golinski. "At a minimum, federal courts have the power and responsibility to end discrimination against their own employees." 

In his November 2009 ruling, Chief Judge Kozinski explained that he has the authority, under both the Ninth Circuit's Employment Dispute Resolution (EDR) Plan and the constitutional separation of powers doctrine, to interpret laws governing the rights of judicial employees. OPM was given 30 days to comply or appeal the ruling, but chose to do neither.

Lambda Legal is asking the federal district court to order OPM to rescind its instruction to Golinski's insurer blocking enrollment of her wife, Amy Cunninghis, in Golinski's family health insurance plan. Golinski has served as a court attorney for seventeen years. She and Cunninghis have been in a committed relationship for 20 years and have a six-year-old son. Because Golinski has not be able to enroll her wife in the family health insurance plan for which she pays monthly premiums, the family must pay substantial additional costs for a separate, less protective insurance policy for Cunninghis.

"I deeply appreciate the commitment of my employer — the Ninth Circuit — to fairness and equality," says Golinski. "And I wish this lawsuit were unnecessary."

The case is Golinski v. United States Office of Personnel Management. Lambda Legal represents Golinski together with James McGuire and Rita Lin of Morrison & Foerster LLP in San Francisco.

January 20, 2010