Lesbian couple sues Employee Retirement System of Texas for denying health coverage

By David Yates | Jun 12, 2015

While Texas’ battle to prohibit same-sex marriage continues to be waged in federal courts, a gay couple has opted not to wait on the final outcome, filing suit against the state on Thursday for denying health care coverage.

Through Lambda Legal, Deborah Leliaert and Paula Woolworth filed suit against the board of trustees for the Employee Retirement System of Texas on June 11 in the U.S. District Court for Western Texas, Austin Division.

A national organization, Lambda Legal represents the rights of the gay community through impact litigation.

Leliaert, a University of North Texas administrator, alleges ERS violated the U.S. Constitution by denying spousal health insurance coverage for her same-sex wife, Woolworth.

“Deborah Leliaert and Paula Woolworth are at a point in their lives where they shouldn’t be forced to worry about how they might pay for unanticipated health expenses,” said Lambda attorney Kenneth Upton Jr. in a written statement.

“Deborah has been a loyal and dedicated employee of the University of North Texas. It is demeaning to be forced to purchase a less-robust high-deductible policy for her wife when she knows her similarly situated colleagues with different-sex spouses face no such choice. Perhaps the U.S. Supreme Court in its highly anticipated ruling on state marriage bans expected later this month will force ERS’s hand, but one would think ERS would like to be on the side of justice and equality.”

Leliaert has been an employee of the University of North Texas in Denton for nearly 24 years. Woolworth is retired. They married in California in 2008.

According to the lawsuit, at the time of Woolworth’s retirement, Leiaert was informed by UNT’s Human Resources Department that Woolworth was ineligible for spousal health insurance coverage due to Texas’ marriage restrictions.

“It is difficult to reconcile the fact that numerous Texas county and city retirement and benefits plans have seen fit to treat all employees fairly, yet ERS, which is charged with administering public employee benefit programs to one of the largest group of state employees, refuses to do so,” Upton said. “This not only violates the U.S. Constitution, but also may ignore the requirements imposed on state institutions in conjunction with receipt of federal funding.”

Leliaert tried to enroll Woolworth for coverage after a U.S. district court struck down the state’s marriage bans in 2014, but ERS denied her coverage.

“It is demeaning to know that each of my UNT colleagues is able to enroll his or her different-sex spouse in the health plan, but I can’t enroll Paula (Woolworth),” Leliaert said.

“I love my job, and my colleagues at UNT are supportive, but their hands are tied. It’s distressing that the state I work for treats me like a second-class citizen. It’s hurtful and unfair.”

The plaintiffs seek injunctive and declaratory relief, plus court costs and attorneys’ fees.

Case No. 1:15-cv-00506

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