Court rules Minn. DOMA doesn’t apply to some transgender marriages
A federal court judge in Minnesota ruled on Monday that a marriage between a man and a transgender woman was legal under Minnesota law and that a health insurance plan could not drop the woman from her husband’s health benefits. The judge said that because one person is male and the other legally transitioned to female, the couple qualifies as legally married under the state’s Defense of Marriage Act.
The case hinged on the marriage of Christine and Calvin Radtke. The two were married in July 2005 in Goodhue County in southeastern Minnesota. Calvin works for United Parcel Service and enrolled himself and his wife in his union’s health plan. Christine had legally transitioned from male to female several years earlier.
But after Christine’s physician mentioned her transgender status in her medical file in 2008, the union’s health plan terminated her coverage.
The Miscellaneous Drivers and Helpers Union Local #638 Health, Welfare, Eye and Dental Fund sent a letter to the Radtkes stating that as of April 2010, Christine would be dropped from her husband’s health-care plan.
“The Fund has learned, for the first time, that Christine underwent a male to female sex reassignment surgery prior to your marriage,” the health fund administrators wrote.
“In reviewing the terms of the Fund, it is the judgment of the Claims Administrator that despite the amendment of Christine’s birth certificate and your subsequent marriage, the basis for your marriage is not one that is currently recognized under any express provisions of Minnesota Law,” the letter said. “Accordingly, Christine is not an eligible dependent under the Fund.
In court, the health fund lawyers argued that Christine was not actually a woman, that she falsified her birth certificate in her home state of Wisconsin and in her resident state of Minnesota, and that her marriage was illegal. They alleged that the Radtkes’ marriage was illegal based on the state’s Defense of Marriage Act.
“Plaintiff obtained benefits from the Fund fraudulently, in particular, Plaintiff with the consent and knowledge of Calvin Radtke wrongfully obtained a replacement birth certificate from the State of Wisconsin, falsely certified on the Minnesota Application for Marriage License that one of the applicants is a man and the other is a woman, fraudulently and illegally obtained a Certificate of Marriage from the State of Minnesota, and by and through her agent Calvin Radtke, falsely represented to the Fund that Plaintiff is the legal spouse of Calvin Radtke,” lawyers for the health fund argued.
The health fund even filed a counterclaim, accusing the Radtkes of fraud and asking them to pay $80,000 in damages.
U.S. Chief Judge Michael J. Davis disagreed. In his decision (PDF), he said that the Radtkes’ marriage was legal. He went on to lecture the health plan administrators for their actions.
“The Fund’s role was to ascertain Minnesota law,” Davis wrote. “It was not the Fund’s role to impose its own definitions of gender and marriage upon its participants. In this case, the Fund ignored all evidence of the State of Minnesota’s view of Plaintiff’s sex and marital status. The Fund’s decision was not only wrong … it was a flagrant violation of its duty under any standard of review.
“The Fund’s interpretation of Minnesota law was unreasonable and wrong,” Davis continued. “Minnesota law recognizes the Radtkes’ marriage as a marriage between a man and a woman because Minnesota law recognizes Plaintiff’s sex as female. Every piece of evidence related to this Plaintiff that was presented to the Fund supported the conclusion that the State of Minnesota recognized her marriage – from her name change order, to her Goodhue County Court order requiring amendment of her birth certificate, to her marriage license and marriage certificate.”
Phil Duran, legal director for OutFront Minnesota, the state’s largest LGBT advocacy organization, said the judge’s decision is an important one for couples in which one partner is transgender. Courts in several states have refused to uphold such marriages.
In Texas last summer, the family of a firefighter who died in the line of duty sued his widow, a transgender woman, for his assets. The judge posthumously voided the marriage because the widow was born male. The court said that the state’s marriage laws apply to the sex a person is assigned at birth, not the one the person has legally transitioned to.
Similar rulings resulted from cases in Kansas and Florida in recent years. Each decision pointed to the states Defense of Marriage Acts or to state constitutional amendments banning same-sex marriage as reasons to invalidate marriages.
Duran said that the decision in Minnesota bucks that trend.
“Chief Judge Davis’ ruling plainly rejects this analysis and potentially sets a new course for understanding the legal rights of transgender people to marry the people they love,” he said. “The entire case also shows, painfully, how statutes that exclude couples from marriage based on their sex can affect all members of the LGBT family.”