Chief Judge of Ninth Circuit Orders Spousal Benefits for Lesbian Court Employee

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Karen Golinski to receive back pay and health benefits for wife
November 19, 2009

(San Francisco, November 18, 2009) — Chief Judge Alex Kozinski of the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals today affirmed that a married lesbian court employee is entitled to receive health benefits for her wife, just like married heterosexual court workers, and that the Court has final authority to end benefits discrimination against its employees.

Lambda Legal and the law firm of Morrison & Foerster represented Karen Golinski, a judicial attorney at the court, in her administrative grievance against her employer. In January, 2009, Chief Judge Kozinski ruled that Golinski was entitled to spousal benefits for her wife, Amy Cunninghis. The federal Office of Personnel Management – an agency of the Executive Branch – responded that the law governing federal employees’ health insurance and the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) prevent coverage for the spouses of gay and lesbian federal employees, and instructed Golinski’s insurer not to enroll Cunninghis.

Kozinski ruled today that “for the discrimination she’s suffered in the past, I can offer Ms. Golinski only money. The remedy that’s “appropriate” for the future, however, is enrollment of Ms. Golinski’s wife into the same program an opposite-sex spouse would enjoy.” He went on to say that “In effect, OPM has claimed that its interpretations of the rights and benefits of judicial employees are entitled to supremacy over those of the Judiciary. That’s incorrect, and the Executive must henceforth respect the Judiciary’s interpretation of the laws applicable to judicial employees.”

“We’re pleased that Chief Judge Kozinski once again did the right thing and upheld the right of every court employee to equal pay for equal work,” said Lambda Legal Senior Counsel Jennifer C. Pizer. “This decision is a compelling blend of sound legal analysis and honest, real world observation: withholding health insurance for an employee's same-sex spouse is discrimination without justification, and the true, fair remedy for that discrimination is just to recognize gay employees’ family relationships and provide the insurance all workers need, regardless of their sexual orientation.”

“I’m ecstatic and relieved,” said Karen Golinski. “This insurance is critical for the security of my family. I’m so grateful to work for an institution that is committed to fair treatment of all of its workers.”

Golinski’s grievance was an internal Court procedure and does not set binding legal precedent.

James McGuire, Rita Lin and Sarah Griswold of the law firm Morrison & Foerster LLP were co-counsel on the case.