ERISA and Same Sex Marriage

Here’s a great story out of Boston, by means of the Workplace Prof, that touches on several obsessions of this blog - ERISA, the federal arbitration act, and court review of arbitration awards. As the Prof explains in this post here, a federal judge for the District of Massachusetts is seeking amicus briefs related to whether or not the court should affirm or instead vacate an arbitrator’s finding that an employer could limit ERISA governed health insurance benefits provided to employees’ spouses only to spouses of the opposite sex. The arbitrator had determined that the benefits were collectively bargained for and that the limitation was appropriate under the collective bargaining agreement.

Now, presumably, the matter is before the District Court here on a motion by the losing party in the arbitration to vacate the award, given that the court is asking for amicus to address the question of whether the arbitration award and the employee benefit plan approved of by the arbitrator violate a clear Massachusetts public policy, given the state’s protection of same sex marriages. The court is inquiring as well into the question of whether that public policy, if it can trump the arbitrator’s award and thereby justify setting aside the arbitration award, is itself trumped by ERISA preemption, with the result, presumably, that the benefits offered by the employer have to be left as is.

There aren’t many states where this issue could really come into play, one would think, although I don’t know how many other states other than Massachusetts allow gay marriage, and thus can have employee spouses who are not of the same sex. Beyond that, the court’s response shows a serious involvement by the court in the question of whether an arbitration award was proper, which I have argued before in this blog is the appropriate approach of a court presented with a challenge to an arbitration award. While one might say the court is really reaching out quite far to address this issue, more than one would normally expect from a district court judge, I will take that any day over the situation I have noted in other posts on this blog, where judges sometimes seems to simply reflexively approve arbitration awards, or at least start with some sort of barely rebuttable presumption that the award should be upheld, both of which are approaches that I do not believe are justified under the Federal Arbitration Act. In addition, it is not particularly out of the norm in this particular federal district to reach out for help from the legal and business community in this way in this type of a case, as I can recall other judges in this district requesting amicus briefs on difficult questions involving the interplay of ERISA and federal or state anti-discrimination laws. Moreover, other judges, as discussed in this post of mine from a little while back, in this district are likewise continuing to struggle with the impact of ERISA on employers as they try to figure out how to structure their employee benefits when it comes to spouses, partners and other dependents, in this brave new world we live in here in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts.

Incidentally, the underlying arbitration award is one that I discussed here, in this post, some time ago, in case you want to know more about the underlying controversy.