Federal Court Blocks New Definition of “Spouse” Under the FMLA

Posted on Apr 14, 2015

A Texas federal court blocked changes to the Family and Medical Leave Act (“FMLA”) that require employers to include partners of same-sex marriages in the definition of “spouse” for benefits purposes. The FMLA change would have taken effect today, but the ruling stays any enforcement in states that do not recognize same-sex marriage, including Texas.

The Texas Attorney General filed a lawsuit against the United States last week, claiming that requiring employers to give same-sex couples access to FMLA benefits would force them to recognize same-sex marriages and place state agencies in the position of either violating state law or federal regulations. Arkansas, Louisiana, and Nebraska also joined the suit.

This is a continuation of the on-going states’ rights battle on the subject. In 2013, in United States v. Windsor, the United States Supreme Court declared unconstitutional “Section Three” of the Defense of Marriage Act (“DOMA”), which up to that point had prevented the federal government from recognizing marriages between gay or lesbian couples for the purpose of federal laws or programs, even if those couples were legally married under state law.

Immediately following the Windsor decision, President Obama directed his Cabinet to review all relevant federal statutes to implement the decision. The Cabinet’s review included the FMLA, which allowed eligible employees to leave under the FMLA to care for a same-sex spouse, but only if the employee resided in a state that recognizes same-sex marriage.

In order to provide FMLA rights to all legally married same-sex couples so as to be consistent with the Windsor decision and the President’s directive, the United States Department of Labor (“DOL”) revised the definition of a spouse under the FMLA to include all lawful marriages, regardless of where the employee currently resides. The changes allow eligible employees in legal same-sex marriages to take FMLA leave to care for their spouse, regardless of where they live. The revised definition became effective today, March 27, 2015.

However, on March 26, 2015, the United States District Court for the Northern District of Texas blocked the FMLA’s revised definition of “spouse” from becoming effective in states that do not recognize same-sex marriage. As such, at least for the time that the injunction is in place, the DOL is precluded from enforcing the FMLA’s revised definition of “spouse” in states that do not recognize same-sex marriages, including Texas, Arkansas, Louisiana and Nebraska.

Of course, this is not an exhaustive discussion of the law applicable to these issues. For more information on this topic, please email Sandra White, Labor & Employment Lawyer with BRANSCOMB|PC. Her contact information is swhite@branscomblaw.com or (210) 598-5400.