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N.Y. College grapples with same-sex spousal benefits in lawsuit.

ROCHESTER, N.Y. -- Monroe Community College may be liable for the cost of past health care benefits for an employee's same-sex spouse because the couple married legally in Canada, a New York court has ruled.

The five-judge panel unanimously upheld the college's obligation to provide the same benefits given married heterosexual couples for the female partner of word-processing supervisor Patricia Martinez, who has worked at the college since 1994.

According to Monroe County attorney Daniel DeLaus, the financial damages amount to about $3,300.

"There's not a heck of a lot of money involved, but it's an important issue across the state and, frankly, across the nation," DeLaus said. "We have filed a motion with the New York Court of Appeals, the highest court in the state, asking that the court review the case so we can appeal.

"If the Court of Appeals says 'no,' that would effectively end it," DeLaus added.

The couple were joined in a civil union in Vermont in 2001 and married in Niagara Falls, Ont., in 2004, according to the lawsuit. Martinez provided the college with documentation of the marriage.

New York law doesn't allow same-sex marriages, but the Appellate Division of state Supreme Court said state law does recognize "same-sex marriages solemnized abroad"--at least unless and until the legislature prohibits such recognition.

The decision by the state's mid-level court overturned a trial-court judge's dismissal of Martinez's case against the college, its human resources director and Monroe County.

"By refusing to recognize Martinez's valid Canadian marriage," Appellate Justice Erin Peradotto wrote for the court, the college violated a state law that forbids employers from discriminating against employees in compensation or terms, conditions or privileges of employment because of the employees' sexual orientation.

"The sole reason for the defendants' rejection of Martinez's marital status is her sexual orientation," Peradotto said.

The court also noted that New York has recognized heterosexual marriages performed elsewhere that could not have been performed legally in New York, including marriages between an uncle and his niece, a "proxy marriage," common-law marriages and the marriage of a couple who were too young to wed legally in New York.

Attorney Gen. Andrew Cuomo filed a friend-of-the-court brief in support of Martinez, noting that "in contrast to many other states, New York has no law barring the recognition of same-sex marriages validly performed in other jurisdictions. And far from being abhorrent to public policy, recognizing same-sex marriages validly performed elsewhere is the declared policy of the state."

Martinez's spouse began to get health care benefits as of Jan. 1, 2006, under a new provision in the county's contract with the Civil Service Employees Association. The appellate court returned the case to a lower court to determine whether the college still must pay monetary damages for the period in 2004-2005 before the contract provision took effect.

The American Civil Liberties Union of New York, which represents Martinez, called the ruling "the first known decision in the country to hold that a valid same-sex marriage must be recognized."

Regarding the county's motion to appeal, DeLaus said the county has two main motivations.

"One, we think we have an obligation to the taxpayers to have this issue clarified. From Monroe County's standpoint, if we're going to issue these (health care benefits), we owe this to the taxpayers."

Secondly, "we think this sort of issue is one for the legislature to decide and not the courts." If the college is going to offer same-sex spousal benefits, DeLaus said, "the legislature should redefine" the term of marriage.

ACLU executive director Donna Lieberman said, "it's a sad day when a government entity seeks to eliminate fairness and basic protections for families. We are confident that this important victory for human rights will stand."

The attorney representing Martinez did not return calls requesting comment.
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Title Annotation:around the nation
Author:Freedman, Ian; Freedman, Eric
Publication:Community College Week
Date:Apr 21, 2008
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