Pennsylvania District Court Holds State’s Ban on Same-Sex Marriage Unconstitutional

By: Sally Griffith Cimini, Esq.

In a decision issued on May 20, 2014, the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Pennsylvania held that Pennsylvania’s Marriage Laws were unconstitutional and entered an order to permanently enjoin their enforcement. The result of the ruling in Whitewood, et al. v. Wolf, et al. is that same-sex couples that desire to be married in Pennsylvania can now legally do so. Additionally, the marriages of same-sex couples that were married outside of Pennsylvania will be recognized within the state. Governor Corbett announced he does not plan to appeal the decision and marriage licenses have since been issued to same-sex couples around the state.

Now, under Pennsylvania law, consenting adults of the same sex can be legally married. Accordingly, the term “spouse” applies to same-sex and opposite-sex partners of individuals legally married under both federal and state law. This will have immediate implications for employers. For instance, the change in the definition of “spouse” will impact eligibility for leave under the Family and Medical Leave Act (“FMLA”). The FMLA defines the term “spouse” to mean “a husband or wife as defined or recognized under state law for purposes of marriage in that state where the employee resides, including ‘common law’ marriage and same-sex marriage.” Pennsylvania employers covered by the FMLA must now provide leave to eligible employees that reside in the state who need to care for their same-sex spouse who has a “serious health condition,” or for other qualifying reasons.

In addition to the Whitewood, et al. v. Wolf, et al. decision, the IRS requires employers to recognize same-sex marriages for purposes of federal law (such as federal tax withholding and reporting rules, qualified joint and survivor annuity rules, and minimum required distribution rules) as of September 16, 2013 (with an option to use an earlier date).

This decision also affects the administration of employee benefits; however, there is an open issue as to whether self-funded welfare plans are required to recognize same-sex marriages. Employers should undertake the following actions:

  • Review their retirement, welfare, and fringe benefit plan documents in order to make certain that definitions of “spouse,” “married,” and “dependent” are consistent with the laws. Calendar year plans should be amended by December 31, 2014 to delete references to the Defense of Marriage Act.
  • Make certain that their plan documents correctly reflect how the plans are being administered with respect to same-sex marriage, especially if the employer wants to use a retroactive effective date.
  • Adjust their payroll withholding procedures to be consistent with the decision.
  • Review their summary plan descriptions to determine if changes are needed to reflect the changes regarding same-sex marriage.

Employers also cannot require same-sex couples to provide different or additional information than opposite-sex couples in order to prove they are legally married for purposes of eligibility for any employee benefits.

Pennsylvania is just one of a number of states that has recently recognized same-sex marriage. Employers with operations inside and outside of the Commonwealth need to stay informed about decisions like Whitewood, et al. v. Wolf, et al. in order to revise their policies and avoid liability.

Leech Tishman’s Employment Practice Group is available to discuss with you the implications this ruling may have on your organization as well as any other employment issues affecting employers.

Sally Griffith Cimini and James Silverman are attorneys in the Leech Tishman Employment Practice Group who have contributed to this issue.

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