Since 1996, the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) has dictated the definition of "marriage" for all federal laws, including access to and eligibility for spousal benefits under federal programs such as Social Security or the Federal Employees Health Benefit Plan. Most employer-sponsored benefit plans that are governed by the Internal Revenue Code (the Code) or ERISA are also subject to DOMA — unless the plan sponsor has specifically amended its plans to cover non-DOMA spouses or partners (e.g., same-sex spouses or opposite-sex domestic partners). In Massachusetts v. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Nos. 10-2204, 10-2207 and 10-2214, 2012 U.S. App. LEXIS 10950 (1st Cir. May 31, 2012, as amended on June 7, 2012), the U.S. Court of Appeals for the First Circuit held that Section 3 of DOMA is unconstitutional, becoming the first federal appeals court to do so.
This article provides a brief overview of DOMA and the First Circuit's holding and discusses its impact for employee benefit plan sponsors. At this point, the impact is mostly academic, even for the plaintiffs in Massachusetts, since the court of appeals' holding stays the mandate pending further review at the district court level. Further, the First Circuit opinion indicates that final resolution of the constitutionality of DOMA rests with the U.S. Supreme Court.
Also discussed below are various other recent district court decisions holding that Section 3 is unconstitutional. Finally, a brief summary of state laws on same-sex marriage is provided.
Overview of DOMA
DOMA was passed and signed into law in 1996 by President Clinton. Massachusetts involves the constitutionality of only Section 3 of DOMA, which defines "marriage" as "only a legal union of one man and one woman as husband and wife." Section 2 of DOMA (absolving states from recognizing same-sex marriages from other jurisdictions) was not at issue in this case.
DOMA does not prohibit states from allowing same-sex marriage or civil unions. However, DOMA's pervasive reach across various federal laws results in adverse consequences for same-sex married couples that impair the rights granted by a state to married residents.
The Challenge to DOMA in the District Court
In 2010, the United States District Court for the District of Massachusetts decided two cases involving the constitutionality of Section 3 of DOMA. The first case involved individual plaintiffs attempting to claim benefits for their same-sex spouses and asserted that DOMA prohibited equal protection under the law. (In Goodridge v. Dept. of Public Health, 798 N.E.2d 941 (Mass. 2003), the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court had validated same-sex marriage in the commonwealth.) The individual plaintiffs cited disadvantages from not being able to file joint federal tax returns or collecting Social Security survivor benefits.
The second case was brought by the Commonwealth of Massachusetts contesting...