Another NY Marriage Recognition Win

BY ARTHUR S. LEONARD | In ruling that the agency that administers health benefits for New York State employees can recognize Canadian marriages by same-sex couples, an Albany County trial judge became the second state judge in recent weeks to cite a February 1 appellate ruling upstate mandating such a policy.

Ruling on March 3, Supreme Court Justice Thomas J. McNamara rejected numerous arguments made by the Alliance Defense Fund in its challenge to the extension of health benefits to same-sex spouses of state employees. Alliance has been active nationwide in challenging domestic partnership and marriage rights for gay and lesbian couples.

McNamara explained that the state law authorizes the president of the Civil Service Commission to provide coverage for employees' spouses and dependents as part of the New York public employee health insurance plan. In May 2007, the Department's Employee Benefits Division issued a “revised policy memorandum” stating that it would recognize as spouses any party to a same-sex marriage performed in jurisdictions where they are legal.

Another confirmation that the agency administering health benefits for New York State employees can recognize Canadian marriages by same-sex couples.

Suing on behalf of a few taxpayers, Alliance Defense Fund argued that the memorandum violated various policies, improperly sought to advance a political goal of the governor's, and was inconsistent with a position that the very same department had taken in another case.

Funderburke vs. New York State Department of Civil Service revolved around the efforts of a gay retired public school teacher on Long Island to have benefits extended to his male spouse from a Canadian marriage. When the Uniondale Union Free School District refused, the teacher sued both the school district and the Civil Service Department. In opposing Duke Funderburke's suit, the Department argued that because of the 2006 Hernandez decision by the state's highest court finding no constitutional right for same-sex couples to marry, such marriages could not be recognized in New York State, regardless of where they were performed.

Alliance argued that a doctrine called “judicial estoppel” prevents the Department from making a contrary argument in this case.

McNamara rejected this argument, writing, “This action is neither the same action as Funderburke nor does it arise from the judgment in Funderburke.” He also rejected the argument that the doctrine of separation of powers prevented the administrators of the health benefits plan, who are part of the executive branch, from interpreting the word “spouse” used in state law differently from the traditional definition or existing legislative or judicial pronouncements.

In other words, the court rejected the contention that the law is invariably static and not subject to rethinking by administrators or courts.

The Department's rethinking mainly had to do with a change of gubernatorial administration. The Pataki administration opposed recognition of same-sex marriages from elsewhere, while the Spitzer administration embraced such recognition, as the 2007 revised policy memorandum showed.

McNamara cited Martinez v. County of Monroe, issued on February 1 by the Appellate Division for the 4th Department, in Rochester, a case involving a community college employee.

“In the absence of a contrary holding in this Department,” wrote McNamara, “the ruling in Martinez is binding on this court.” In briefly discussing the Martinez case, McNamara specifically noted that the judge there found that denying spousal benefits to a same-sex couple married in Canada violates the state's human rights law's ban on sexual orientation discrimination.

McNamara rejected the relevance of the governor's political goals in evaluating the Department's 2007 memo, writing, “To the extent that the policy memorandum is consistent with a political objective of the governor, that objective, according to the court in Martinez, is consistent with the New York policy regarding recognition of foreign marriages.”

McNamara noted that as long as the 4th Department's decision stands and until it is rejected by another panel of the Appellate Division or the Court of Appeals, the state's highest, it functions as a statewide precedent.

Monroe County previously had announced its intention to appeal the Martinez ruling to the Court of Appeals.