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Kornowicz v. Blue Cross & Blue Shield of Western New York (Challenging denial of health benefits to married same-sex couple)

The NYCLU filed this case after an insurance company in the Buffalo area denied spousal health care benefits to a validly married lesbian couple. 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 of 2008 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. Higgins gave birth to the couple’s daughter, Elizabeth Higgins, in July of 2007, and Kornowicz’s second-parent adoption of Elizabeth was made final in January of 2008. The school district repeatedly asked its insurance carrier, Blue Cross & Blue Shield of Western New York, to grant Kornowicz’s request for spousal coverage. The insurance company refused to comply with the terms of its contract with the district and its legal obligations, as articulated in the Martinez decision, to provide spousal coverage.

On July 9, 2008, the NYCLU filed a lawsuit against the insurance company on Kornowicz’s behalf in Erie County Supreme Court. An amended complaint filed on July 28 added the school district as a defendant. Plaintiffs argued that under the Martinez ruling, the insurance company’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. Less than three weeks after the lawsuit was filed, the health insurance company announced it would begin covering married same-sex couples, and it began providing Kornowicz the coverage she’d requested on Aug. 1, 2008. 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.

On Jan. 21, 2009, Justice John Curran signed a stipulation and order of dismissal. As part of a stipulation agreement, the insurance company agreed, among other things, to continue providing the Korniwcz-Higgins family with health coverage including spousal coverage. 

State Supreme Court, Erie County, Index No. I-2008-7844 (direct).

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