Court Permits Claim Against Employer For Denying Same Sex Spousal Benefit Based on Religious Purposes

A Maryland federal district court has ruled that a Title VII case involving a plaintiff who sued his employer for dropping health care coverage for his same-sex spouse can proceed, while dismissing the plaintiff’s claims for breach of contract, negligent misrepresentation, and detrimental reliance as well as several state wage and collection law claims.

Background

The case — Doe v. Catholic Relief Services — involves a gay cisgender male (John Doe) who is legally married to a man. In 2016, Doe was recruited for a position at Catholic Relief Services (CRS). Doe was offered the position and provided with documents detailing his proposed employment benefits, including a group insurance plan that specified that dependents were covered by the plan. “Dependent” was defined as “wife or husband” in the plan without any reference to sex or gender identity.

Prior to accepting the position, Doe asked the CRS recruiter if his husband would be covered under the plan and the recruiter responded that, “All dependents are covered.” Believing that his husband qualified as a dependent under the Plan, the plaintiff applied for CRS’s health insurance, including coverage for his husband, by submitting his marriage certificate to CRS’s human resources department and registering himself and his husband on the CRS Employee Self-Service website.

Following almost a year of discussions with his employers, Doe was informed by CRS that it had mistakenly provided insurance coverage to his husband and that CRS does not cover same-sex spouses under the plan. Subsequently, CRS terminated health insurance benefits for Doe’s spouse and advised him that his employment would likely be terminated if he sued. 

Doe then filed a charge of discrimination with the EEOC against CRS, alleging discrimination based on sex and sexual orientation, and retaliation under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Equal Pay Act, the Maryland Fair Employment Practices Act, and the Maryland Equal Pay for Equal Work Act.

The Decision

Citing the 2020 U.S. Supreme Court ruling in Bostock v. Clayton County that prohibited discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation, the Maryland district court allowed Doe’s federal law claims to proceed. The court noted that since the case involved a question left unresolved by Bostock as to whether the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) allows an employer to revoke a spouse’s benefits on the basis of sex, it was too early in the proceedings for the court to decide that question. 

In addition, the court allowed Doe’s claims under Maryland unemployment discrimination laws to proceed, despite CRS’ argument that state law exempted the organization from litigation because it is a religious employer.

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