Conn. woman sues Brookdale Senior Living over same-sex spousal benefits

Conn. woman sues Brookdale Senior Living over same-sex spousal benefits

HARTFORD, Conn. — A Connecticut physical therapist has filed a sex discrimination complaint against the West Hartford senior living center where she works, saying she is being illegally denied health benefits for her wife.

BrookdaleKerry Considine, 36, of Griswold, Conn., filed the complaint against Brookdale Senior Living on Jan. 17 with the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. Her lawyer said they expect the EEOC will bring the complaint to the attention of the Connecticut Commission on Human Rights and Opportunities.

Considine said she sought the benefits for her wife, Renee, after they were married in November.

She said Brookdale, which owns more than 550 senior living and retirement communities across the United States, told her that the corporation does not offer benefits to same-sex couples. The company is based in Tennessee, where the state constitution defines marriage as between a man and a woman.

Julie Davis, a Brookdale spokeswoman, replied to a request for the company’s policy with a written statement saying it would not comment on the case.

A spokesman for the Connecticut Commission on Human Rights and Opportunities also would not comment on the specific complaint. But he said that, in general, any company with a presence in Connecticut, where gay marriage is legal, cannot discriminate in providing benefits based on sexual orientation.

The EEOC does not comment on specific cases unless it brings a lawsuit. But Jeanne Goldberg, senior attorney adviser for the commission, said little case law exists on the specific issue.

“We are not aware of any court decisions yet on whether it violates Title VII’s prohibition on sex discrimination in benefits for an employer to engage in disparate treatment of married employees based on the sex of their spouse (i.e., providing a benefit only to those employees in opposite-sex legal marriages but not those in same-sex legal marriages), and the Commission has not issued policy guidance on this question,” she said in a written statement.

Janson Wu, a staff attorney with Gay & Lesbian Advocates & Defenders, which assisted Considine in filing her complaint, said many employers believe that if they are a national company or based in a state that does not recognize same-sex marriage, they have the right to deny benefits to same-sex couples.

He said many of these companies have used the federal Defense of Marriage Act to deny benefits.

In June, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that in states where gay marriage is legal, same-sex married couples must be treated the same as other spouses under federal laws governing tax, health care, pensions and other federal benefits.

But the court left intact another provision of the federal anti-gay marriage law that allows one state not to recognize a same-sex marriage performed elsewhere.

“If we’re successful, this case would provide clear guidance to all employers that they can’t discriminate against their gay employees, by refusing to provide them with health benefits,” Wu said.

For the Considines, the issue is much more personal. Kerry Considine said they would like to start a family, with Renee carrying the baby. But as a student, Renee has just basic health care insurance, and they would incur thousands of dollars in health care costs without the joint coverage, Kerry Considine said.

“I work for a company that promotes health, wellness and caring for people,” she said. “To deny me equality and health care for my family has been very challenging for me.”

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