NYCLU Sues Insurance Company for Failing to Provide Benefits to Married Lesbian Couple

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July 9, 2008 —  Related

  • The Complaint (PDF)
  • Following up on its landmark legal victory that recognized lesbian and gay couples’ valid out-of-state marriages, the New York Civil Liberties Union today filed a lawsuit in the Erie County Supreme Court against an insurance company for denying spousal health care benefits to a validly married lesbian couple.

    Joy Higgins, Elizabeth Higgins and Jeanne Kornowicz (left to right)Click here for a large version of the picture.Jeanne Kornowicz, a school psychologist at the Cheektowaga Central School District, asked her employer to provide health coverage for her wife, Joy Higgins, whom she married in Canada in 2006. She filed for the benefits in February after learning of the NYCLU’s victory in Martinez v. County of Monroe, in which an appeals court unanimously ruled that New York State must recognize valid out-of-state marriages of lesbian and gay couples.

    The school district quickly sought to grant Kornowicz’s request for spousal coverage, fully aware that the Martinez decision required recognition of the couple’s marriage. Despite the school district’s multiple demands that Blue Cross & Blue Shield of Western New York grant Kornowicz’s request for spousal coverage, the insurance company refused to comply with the terms of its contract with the district and its obligations, after Martinez, to provide spousal coverage. Unlike Blue Cross & Blue Shield of Western New York, many other New York insurers, including other insurers carrying the Blue Cross & Blue Shield name, have been recognizing same-sex couples’ valid out-of-state marriages for years.

    “As spouses and parents, Jeanne and Joy deserve the same protections that every other family in New York State enjoys,” said Donna Lieberman, NYCLU executive director. “Blue Cross & Blue Shield of Western New York must follow the laws of New York State and treat them as they do every other married couple.”

    Kornowicz and Higgins have had a committed relationship since 1998. In April 2006 the couple married in Ontario, Canada. Higgins gave birth to the couple’s daughter, Elizabeth Higgins, in July 2007, and Kornowicz’s second-parent adoption of Elizabeth was made final in January of this year.

    “All we want is for our family to be treated fairly,” Kornowicz said. “It’s heartbreaking that we need to go to court so our family can find some security.”

    In the Martinez case, the appeals court affirmed that the century old “marriage recognition rule” applies to valid out-of-state marriages of lesbian and gay couples. This time-honored legal principle requires that New York State recognize valid marriages that occur outside the state. The Martinez court also ruled that failure to recognize such marriages violated the state Human Rights Law’s prohibition against discrimination based on sexual orientation. Following Martinez, Gov. David Paterson’s lead counsel recently issued a memo to counsel at state agencies calling on them to follow the law and revise their policies and regulations to recognize all valid same-sex marriages performed in other jurisdictions, including Massachusetts, Canada and now California.

    The lawsuit asserts that under the Martinez ruling, Blue Cross & Blue Shield of Western New York’s denial of Kornowicz’s request for benefits violates New York’s “marriage recognition rule.” It also violates the prohibition against sex discrimination set forth in the state's Human Rights Law.

    “The Martinez decision was an important step toward the day when all of New York’s families can live with respect and dignity,” Lieberman said. “We must now ensure the law is enforced so that all of New York’s married couples are treated fairly, and lobby our legislators to pass the marriage bill so that no New Yorkers have to leave the state to protect their families.”

    Serving as counsel on the case are Matt Faiella, Palyn Hung, Arthur Eisenberg, Christopher Dunn and cooperating attorney Richard Lipsitz.