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Lambda Legal Sues Houston to Defend Obergefell

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August 10, 2017
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Lambda Legal and co-counsel Morgan, Lewis & Bockius LLP filed a federal lawsuit today on behalf of three married couples against Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner and the City of Houston to preserve health coverage and other benefits for the same-sex spouses of city employees.

These benefits are suddenly at risk after two taxpayers convinced the Texas Supreme Court that Texas cities could defy Obergefell v. Hodges - the United States Supreme Court case that made marriage equality the law of the land - and deny married same-sex couples the rights of marriage.

“Our clients are angered by the notion that in 2017 their marriages would be deemed inferior to other marriages,” said Kenneth Upton, Senior Counsel in Lambda Legal’s South Central Regional Office in Dallas. “Today we are standing up for lesbian, gay, and bisexual Houston city workers and their same-sex spouses against those who seek to demean and diminish them.” 

In Freeman v. Turner and City of Houston, Lambda Legal and Morgan Lewis are representing:

  • Noel Freeman, a division manager for the City of Houston Public Works & Engineering Office and a 13-year employee of the City, who married his husband Brad Pritchett, in Washington, DC in 2010;
  • Yadira Estrada, a City of Houston police sergeant for 10 years who married her partner Jennifer Flores, in Maine in June 2013 after they had been together for seven years; and
  • Ron Reeser, a central network administrator for the City and 12-year city employee who married his husband, Vince Olivier, after they had been together for three years.

The lawsuit also asks the federal District Court to prevent the City of Houston from compelling repayment of employee benefits already provided.

Freeman v. Turner is similar to a lawsuit Lambda Legal filed four years ago against Houston and then-Mayor Annise Parker in response to the original taxpayer lawsuit (Pidgeon v. Parker) that blocked Mayor Parker from extending benefits to the same-sex spouses of city employees. At that time, city officials had determined that an earlier U.S. Supreme Court ruling, U.S. v. Windsor, striking down part of the so-called Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), required that benefits be equally available to the legal different-sex or same-sex spouses of city employees.

A Texas state district judge ruled in favor of the taxpayers, but the Texas Court of Appeals overturned that decision in the wake of the U.S. Supreme Court’s Obergefell ruling. Also after Obergefell, Lambda Legal settled and dismissed its original Freeman lawsuit.

Undaunted, the taxpayers continued to pursue their claims and petitioned the Texas Supreme Court for review. In the fall of 2016, the Texas Supreme Court initially declined to hear the case. However, after a concerted lobbying campaign, the Court reversed itself, heard the case, and reinstated the taxpayers’ lawsuit, signaling that state courts may not necessarily be bound by federal law—a ruling that appears intended to clear the way for state courts to try to avoid Obergefell.

Read the complaint here.