The effect of DOMA’s downfall on Pennsylvania employment law

In a sweeping decision this summer, the Supreme Court invalidated Section Three of the Federal Defense of Marriage Act, signaling a huge victory for gay rights proponents. Most consumers know that the part of DOMA that was ruled unconstitutional prohibited the federal government from recognizing same-sex marriages that were performed validly under the laws of states permitting such unions. But, what is less well known is the breadth of the impact overturning DOMA will have on many areas of the law.

Even in the limited universe of Pennsylvania employment law, the end of DOMA will have implications. However, since Pennsylvania does not recognize same-sex marriage, the case may not have as broad an impact as it likely will in other states.

Ruling has clearest benefit for same-sex couples living in states that recognize their marriage

For same-sex spouses in states that recognize their marriage as valid, the DOMA case has many benefits. Health plan coverage, pensions and other benefits guaranteed to the spouses of federal workers were limited to heterosexual couples prior to the decision; now, same-sex spouses of federal workers are entitled to all the same benefits as their heterosexual counterparts.

The invalidation of DOMA does not just have implications for government employees. Under the Employee Retirement Income Security Act ("ERISA" for short) and the Internal Revenue Code, spouses have numerous rights to benefit from their partners' employer sponsored retirement plan. These being parts of the federal legal code, in reliance on DOMA, most employers were limiting corresponding rights to opposite-sex couples.

So do Pennsylvania and other states that do not recognize same-sex marriage have to treat a same-sex couple married under the laws of another state as a married couple? The answer to that question is not entirely clear yet. Under the latest DOMA case, the Supreme Court only eliminated the portion of DOMA that dealt with the federal definition of marriage. A separate provision of DOMA that permitted states to decline to acknowledge same-sex marriages performed in other states was left intact. This provision could be challenged in a separate case as unconstitutional in its own right; but for now, it seems Pennsylvania may continue to refuse to recognize same-sex marriages performed in other states.

Treated unfairly as a same-sex partner? Talk to an employment law attorney

The full effect of the Supreme Court's decision striking down part of DOMA is complex and will likely be far reaching. But, it is an area of the law that is still developing, and concrete answers are not always a possibility until states refine their laws and more cases work through the courts.

If you are part of a same-sex couple living in Pennsylvania, the DOMA decision might not affect you in the same way as it would if you were a resident of a state that recognizes same-sex marriage. But, that does not mean you are completely devoid of rights and legal remedies. To learn more about the rights of same-sex partners in the employment law context, and to find out whether you may have a valid legal claim, get in touch with a Pennsylvania employment law attorney today.