Richard L. Seech, 60, has been with his partner since 1996. They share a home in Pittsburgh, maintain joint bank accounts, raise two cats together, and are the primary beneficiaries on each other’s wills. They were married on June 4, 2014, just two weeks after Pennsylvania legalized same-sex marriage and just a year after Seech retired from his job as an art teacher of 34 years in the Gateway School District.
At the time of Seech’s retirement, retiring employees were entitled to certain benefits under the Professional Negotiation Agreement between the Gateway Board of School Directors and the Gateway Education Association. For instance, if the retiring employee elects for spousal coverage, the school district will pay the health insurance premiums for both the retiring employee and his or her spouse. However, electing health insurance benefits for their same-sex spouses or domestic partners was not allowed at this time.
“The way the school district works is, you are entitled to benefits when you are married and you retire,” Seech’s lawyer, Samuel J. Cordes, said. “But he could not get married at that point under Pennsylvania law.”
And so Seech and his partner of 20 years were ineligible for the district’s spousal benefits.
Around June 2014 Seech asked the school district if he could elect the health benefits for his spouse that the Professional Negotiation Agreement offered—he was told yes, but the district refused to pay for the increased premium of about $888 that would result from the election of spousal benefits. After repeating his request to the school district in late 2015 and being refused again, Seech decided it was time to take action.
He filed a civil complaint on April 1, 2016, that claims, “By continually refusing to provide Seech employer-provided health insurance benefits for his spouse at the lower premium rate, [Gateway School District] has denied Seech the same benefits available for opposite-sex couples.” Beyond that, the document adds that by denying Seech such benefits, the school district has also denied him the full privileges of his fundamental right to marry.
Because the complaint is a personnel suit, Gateway School District Superintendent Nina Zetty declined to comment.
Cordes said the case could take anywhere from 18 to 20 months—or longer.
He adds, estimating how long a case will take is “similar to guessing how long someone will live.”
Seech’s case is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the LGBTQ fight for equality in the world of health-care coverage and benefits. Karen Loewy, senior attorney at Lambda Legal, said similar circumstances are popping up across the board in both public- and private-sector jobs.
“What we’re seeing happen often is that same-sex couples who are living in places where there were marriage bans are running into some really boilerplate provisions of retirement systems and health-care systems that had nothing to with same-sex spouses but are having an incredibly harsh impact on those couples who were unable to marry,” Loewy said.
In 2003, Lambda Legal joined the City of New Orleans to defend same-sex couples’ insurance benefits when they were threatened by the Alliance Defense Fund (now the Alliance Defending Freedom). In 2009, Arizona enacted a law meant to strip a number of lesbian and gay state employees of their domestic partner benefits, Lambda Legal sued to block enforcement of this law and in December 2013 the U.S. District Court for the District of Arizona certified the suit as a class action; however, in December 2014, with same-sex marriage now available in Arizona, the case was dismissed as moot.
In some circumstances, Loewy said, employers have the leeway to wave contractual requirements, while in others it would require further amending of the retirement plan.
“Employers can amend the plan or make alternate arrangements to make sure that same-sex spouses are getting equitable benefits,” she said. “Employers need to exercise whatever authority they have, even retroactive, over their plans to recognize the huge barrier that these pose.”