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Supreme Court Declines to Hear Texas Same-Sex Benefits Case

Recent Events: On December 4, 2017, the United States Supreme Court rejected the City of Houston’s request to review the decision reached by the Texas Supreme Court in Pidgeon v. Turner, which ruled that Obergefell did not answer whether a State must treat married couples equally in the provision of marital benefits. The case is currently scheduled to begin trial on January 7, 2019.

History: In November 2013, the then mayor of Houston, Annise Parker, directed the City of Houston’s Human Resources Department to offer the same benefits afforded to spouses of a heterosexual marriage to homosexual spouses of city employees who had obtained marriage licenses from states and foreign jurisdictions that recognized same-sex marriage. The City of Houston began offering those benefits soon after Mayor Parker issued her directive. A month later, Houston residents, Jack Pidgeon and Larry Hicks (collectively “Plaintiff”) sued the City and the Mayor (collectively “City”) in Texas state court, arguing that the City’s directive violated Texas law and therefore the City was illegally spending public funds.

The trial court issued a preliminary injunction against the City that prohibited the City “from furnishing benefits to persons who were married in other jurisdictions to City Employees of the same sex.” The City quickly appealed the trial court’s decision. While the appeal was pending, the United States Supreme Court issued its decision in Obergefell, concluding that states may not exclude same-sex couples from civil marriage on the same terms as opposite-sex couples and may not refuse to recognize a lawful same-sex marriage performed in another state.

Shortly thereafter, the Texas Court of Appeals reversed the trial court’s preliminary injunction noting “the substantial change in the law regarding same-sex marriage since the temporary injunction was signed” and remanded the case for further proceedings consistent with Obergefell and De Leon (a Fifth Circuit case invalidating Texas laws banning same-sex marriage). Plaintiff’s appealed to the Texas Supreme Court, arguing that the Court of Appeals improperly instructed the trial court to rely on federal court decisions that are non-binding to Texas State Courts.

In its June 2017 opinion, the Texas Supreme Court agreed with Plaintiff’s that the Houston trial court is not bound by the Fifth Circuit’s decision in De Leon and the Texas Court of Appeals should not have instructed the trial court to conduct further proceedings “consistent with” De Leon. However, the Texas Supreme Court encouraged the trial court to proceed “in light of” De Leon as persuasive authority. The Texas Supreme Court discussed questions about the Obergefell opinion at length, ultimately concluding that Obergefell “did not hold that states must provide the same publicly funded benefits to all married persons.” The Texas Supreme Court emphasized that Plaintiff’s suit against the City is starting from scratch and the trial court must consider both parties’ arguments and may grant whatever relief is then appropriate.