ERISA Plans Can’t Discriminate Against Domestic Partners, Court Rules

In Washington, and many other states, domestic partners enjoy the same rights and legal protections as spouses.  The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals recently confirmed that domestic partnerships’ equal treatment under state law extends to ERISA plans.

ERISA plans typically give the plan administrator broad discretion to interpret the terms of the plan.  This often means the plan administrator has huge leeway in deciding who qualifies for benefits under the plan.  If the plan document leaves any room for interpretation, courts often defer to the plan administrator’s decision about who gets benefits, even if the decision seems unfair or counter-intuitive.

The Ninth Circuit’s decision in Reed v. KRON/IBEW Local 45 Pension Plan ruled that ERISA plan administrators’ discretion does not extend to discriminating against domestic partners when deciding who qualifies for benefits under the plan.

In Reed, David Reed and Donald Gardner had been in a committed, long-term relationship for decades, ultimately becoming domestic partners.  Gardner subsequently retired and began receiving pension benefits under the ERISA pension plan sponsored by his former employer KRON television.  The KRON ERISA plan entitled the spouses of pensioners who passed away to surviving spouse benefits.

After Gardner passed away, Reed filed a claim for surviving spouse benefits.  KRON’s plan administrator denied Reed’s claim.  The plan administrator claimed it was within its discretion to interpret surviving spouses as excluding domestic partners.

The court acknowledged that ERISA plan administrators are entitled to broad discretion, but nevertheless ruled in Reed’s favor.  The court noted state law “afforded domestic partners the same rights, protections, and benefits as those granted to spouses” and nothing in ERISA required otherwise.  The Court ordered the ERISA plan to pay surviving spouse benefits to Reed.

The Reed case is an important reminder that ERISA plan administrators’ discretion is not unlimited, and also represents an important victory for domestic partners.