Federal Court Finds Employee Benefit Plan Must Recognize Transgender Marriage

Chief Judge Michael J. Davis of the U.S. District Court for Minnesota has ruled that a union employee benefit plan that incorporated by reference Minnesota's statutory definition of marriage to determine spousal eligibility may not substitute its own views on whether a marriage between a man and a transgender woman is valid.  Finding that Minnesota would treat such a marriage as legally valid, Judge Davis ordered the Plan to reinstate Christine Alisen Radtke as a beneficiary.

The April 2, 2012, ruling in Radtke v. Miscellaneous Drivers & Helpers Union Local #638 Health, Welfare, Eye & Dental Fund, 2012 WL 1094452 (D. Minn), takes sides in a very lively dispute between courts of various states about whether a post-operative transgender woman is female for purposes of a state's marriage law.  Some states, including Kansas, Texas, Florida, and Ohio, have produced decisions asserting that sex at birth is the only sex that matters for purposes of marriage, due in large part to their focusing on the procreative aspect of marriage.  An old New Jersey decision, however, rejects that view and holds that a person's sex at the time of marriage depends on multiple factors, not just procreative ability, and this is a view that has now emerged in England (responding to a ruling by the European Court of Human Rights binding on countries signatory to the European Convention on Human Rights) and Australia. 

Christine, identified as male at birth in Wisconsin in 1965, went through a rather prolonged process of transition, being diagnosed as transgender in her twenties, obtaining a legal change of name in 1986 shortly after commencing treatment at the University of Minnesota's Medical School, and getting gel breast implants in 1988 to enhance her female appearance.  However, she didn't undergo sex-reassignment surgery until 2003.  Anticipating her marriage to Calvin Radtke, she obtained a court order in 2005 from the Goodhue County (Minnesota) District Court, ordering the Wisconsin Registrar to issue a new birth certificate reflecting Radtke's name change and appropriate gender. (Wisconsin law provides that the Registrar shall issue such a certificate when ordered by a court of another jurisdiction on behalf of somebody born in Wisconsin.) After submitting the court order to the Wisconsin Registrar, the Radtkes applied for a Minnesota marriage license.  They held their civil marriage ceremony at the Goodhue County Courthouse several weeks after the Wisconsin Registrar had issued Christine's new birth certificate.

The day after they married, Calvin, a driver for United Parcel Service, applied to enroll Christine as a beneficiary under his union's employee benefit plan, attaching a copy of the marriage certificate.  She was enrolled without question and claims were paid out for her medical care for several years without incident, until she sought "pre-authorization" for coverage of replacement of her gel breast implants, which had ruptured.  On the pre-authorization request,  her doctor identified her as transgender, which was the first that the benefits plan administrators knew about her transgender status.  The Plan denied pre-authorization and informed her that it would cancel her coverage, because the Plan did not recognize the validity of the marriage.  The letter to Christine stated, "it is the judgment of the Claims Administrator that despite the amendment of Christine's birth certificate and your subsequent marriage, the basis for your marriage is not one that is currently recognized under any express provisions of Minnesota law."

Minnesota's marriage law specifically bans same-sex marriages, and the Plan took the position in the lawsuit that this was an invalid same-sex marriage.  Christine and Calvin took the position that it was in actuality a different-sex marriage, because Christine was legally female when they wed.  Judge Davis sided with the Radtkes in this dispute.  "The Fund breached the terms of the Plan when it terminated Plaintiff's enrollment based on its erroneous and unreasonable interpretation of Minnesota law," he wrote.  "The State of Minnesota law recognizes the Radtke's marriage as a marriage between a man and a woman because Minnesota law recognizes Plaintiff's sex as female.  Ms. Radtke is Mr. Radtke's legal spouse under Minnesota law and an eligible dependent under the Plan."

Judge Davis found that the plan specifically incorporated Minnesota law as the criterian for spousal eligibility.  "The Fund's role was to ascertain Minnesota law," he wrote.  "It was not the Fund's role to impose its own definitions of gender and marriage upon its participants.  In this case, the Fund ignored all evidence of the State of Minnesota's view of Plaintiff's sex and marital status.  The Fund's decision was not only wrong, under a de novo review, it was a flagrant violation of its duty under any standard of review."  Judge Davis ordered Mrs. Radtke "reinstated as a participant" as of April 19, 2010, the date of the termination of her enrollment.  (The Fund responded to this litigation by counterclaiming for the Radtkes to pay back all the benefits that had been paid out for Christine's treatment, and noted that the Plan does not authorize benefits for sex-reassignment procedures.  Also responding to the litigation, the Fund purported to amend the Plan in July 2011 to exclude transsexual marriages and then argued that the amendment precluded any award of relief by the court.)

This is hardly the end of the matter.  Judge Davis's conclusion is not based on any definitive ruling by a Minnesota court, as the Minnesota courts have not taken a position on this question.  As noted above, courts in other states are split, the majority taking the view that despite sex-reassignment surgery, legal name changes, new birth certificates, and other documentation, for purposes of marriage one's identified gender at birth is dispositive. 

A review of those decisions shows their logical inconsistencies, since some of them premise their conclusions largely on the fact that surgery can't imbue somebody born male with a functioning female reproductive system, and vice versa, while these courts would undoubtedly have no hesitation in finding that there is no test of reproductive capacity when a person-born-male seeks to marry a person-born-female.  (For the Kansas Supreme Court, all of the scientific evidence about transsexuality and sex-reassignment was irrelevant, because that court decided that interpretation of the marriage statute based on legislative intent showed that the Kansas legislature did not intend to let transsexuals marry in their desired gender – because transsexuals were never mentioned during the legislative debate prior to enactment of the state's mini-Defense of Marriage Act!)

It seems likely that the Fund will appeal, raising both the question whether the court failed to apply an appropriately deferential standard of judicial review for the discretionary decision by the Fund Office on the question of Christine's eligibility, as well as the question whether Judge Davis has correctly construed Minnesota's law as departing from the weight of precedent in other states in light of the lack of any binding precedents from the Minnesota courts.  Davis's opinion makes a strong case for finding that the statutes authorizing legal name changes after sex-reassignment treatment and authorizing the issuance of corrected birth certificates, taken in combination, should be construed to mean state recognition of the individual's new gender status for all legal purposes.

Another reason this isn't the end of the legal battle is that while this litigation was going on, as mentioned above, the Fund amended the Plan to provide "for purposes of deciding whether a marriage is between a man and a woman, in all cases, the Board will only recognize the anatomical sex of the individual at the time of birth."  However, Judge Davis pointed out that a court ruling on a claim for benefits under an employee benefit plan focuses on the situation at the time the benefits denial decision was made, before this amendment was adopted.  "The Fund determined Ms. Radtke's eligibility under the Plan language that was applicable to her at the time," he wrote.  "This court has reversed that decision and ordered Ms. Radtke reinstated as of the date of the termination.  The Fund, itself, will have to decided in the first instance what to do with the July 2011 Plan amendment.  The issue of whether the Fund will apply the amended Plan language is not properly before the Court at this time." 

Christine Radtke is represented by Richard D. Snyer, Christopher A. Stafford, and Thomas S. Fraser, Fredrikson & Byran, PA.  The Fund is represented by David Hashmall, Peter M. Rosene, Andrew E. Staab, and Alyssa M. Toft, Felhaber Larson Fenlon & Vogt, PA. 


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