Bryce Ginther and Kit Kineef filed suit in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania Feb. 11. Named as defendants are Ginther’s employer, ArcelorMittal, USA, the Steelworkers’ Health and Welfare Benefit Plan and the board of trustees of the Steelworkers Health and Welfare Fund.
The case alleges a violation of the federal Employee Retirement Income Security Act of 1974 — which governs the implementation of many private-sector plans.
Ginther and Kineef have been together for seven years and married May 15 in New York. The same day, Ginther requested to add Kineef as a dependent to his plan, which does not limit the definition of “spouse” as to only an opposite-sex partner.
Ginther is an industrial electrician at ArcelorMittal’s Conshohocken steel mill, and is a member of the United Steel, Paper and Forestry, Rubber, Manufacturing, Energy, Allied Industrial and Service Workers International Union.
Kineef doesn’t have insurance, and Ginther began inquiring in early 2012 about adding him to his plan when they got married.
Despite repeated requests, he did not receive an answer until March 22, at which time Arcelor’s senior legal counsel informed him that “federal law does not recognize civil unions” and that “anyone with whom a person might be party to a civil union is not eligible for the provision of spousal coverage under our ERISA benefit plans.”
Once the pair was legally married and Ginther notified the company, a human-resources official told him to contact UMR, a third-party administrator for self-funded health plans, for changes. UMR requested copies of Kineef’s birth certificate and Social Security card, which Ginther sent, but in September the agency issued him a letter denying his request. UMR said the denial was because “according to ArcelorMittal, same-sex marriage is not covered under your insurance.”
There was no documentation of the plan’s provisions or information about an appeal procedure.
The following day, Ginther contacted both UMR and Highmark Blue Cross Blue Shield about a review process but, despite numerous attempts, has yet to hear back from either company, according to the complaint. In October, he contacted the board of trustees of the Steelworkers Health and Welfare Fund for information on an appeal but also has yet to get a response.
The couple is being represented by Jerner & Palmer, P.C., in Philadelphia, and Lewis, Feinberg, Lee, Renaker & Jackson, P.C., in Oakland, Calif.
Attorney Tiffany Palmer said she believes the case is the first in Pennsylvania in which a married same-sex couple is seeking health benefits under ERISA.
But, with more states legalizing same-sex marriage, Palmer said she expects these filings will become more frequent.
“I think we’ll be seeing more and more of these cases developing because there are so many Pennsylvania couples who are now legally married in other jurisdictions, and they are going to begin requesting rights that they should be entitled to as a married couple in all sorts of different contexts, such as health insurance.”
Julie Wilensky of Lewis, Feinberg said the plaintiffs are primarily aiming to get Kineef health insurance.
“We are seeking to have the plan enforced according to its terms; we’re not asking for any special rights,” she said. “It’s really just that the plan says a spouse is an eligible dependent, so we would like Mr. Kineef to be recognized as a spouse as he should.”
The complaint requests the court declare the defendants violated the plan, find that Kineef is an eligible dependent and enroll him in the plan retroactively to June 1. The filing also requests that the court award attorneys and litigation fees and that the board be liable to Ginther for $110 per day from Oct. 29, when he began requesting documents for an appeal.
The complaint will be served on the defendants summarily and they will have 30 days to respond.
In a statement to PGN, Ginther said his goal is simple.
“I just wanted to be treated the same as my coworkers and have my spouse added to my medical benefits.”