Can Partners Healthcare Systems Provide Different Benefits to Different Kinds of Partners?

Judge Tauro of the United States District Court for the District of Massachusetts issued an interesting opinion this week as to the power, if any, of the Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination to continue to investigate whether an employer, in this instance Partners Healthcare Systems - which operates major teaching hospitals, among other operations - violates state anti-discrimination laws by granting employee benefits to the unmarried partners of employees only in cases of same sex partners and not in cases involving heterosexual unmarried partners. As the court described the facts, Partners Healthcare “offers its employees a variety of health and welfare plans, which it alleges to be regulated by ERISA. Under these plans, [Partners Healthcare] offers employee benefits to unmarried same-sex domestic partners of its employees, but not to unmarried heterosexual domestic partners. . . . [An] employee of [Partners Healthcare] who has a heterosexual domestic partner, filed a charge of discrimination.”

At issue in the court’s opinion was whether the federal court should enter an order barring the state agency from investigating or taking other action against Partners Healthcare for the alleged discrimination on the ground that such state action would be precluded by ERISA preemption; the agency responded that the doctrine of Younger abstention - one of those doctrines that most of us never come across again once we have finished our law school exams - actually precludes the court from intervening with the agency’s investigation, regardless of the possibility of ERISA preemption.

Where did the court come out? It concluded that, in this circuit anyway, abstention is not appropriate where there is a facially conclusive case of preemption under ERISA, and that to the extent the agency is investigating ERISA governed plans offered by Partners Healthcare, the agency is barred from taking action; at the same time, however, the agency was free to proceed with regard to any benefits provided by Partners Healthcare that allegedly discriminate in the manner charged by the complainant where those benefits are not provided under an ERISA governed plan.

Although I admit I have little knowledge of the underlying employee benefit plans at issue, I doubt the ruling leaves much, if any, of the employee benefits offered by Partners Healthcare open to the state agency’s jurisdiction.

The case is Partners Healthcare System v. Sullivan, available right here.