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November 30, 2005
What Domestic Partner Benefits Are Required?

On January 1, 2005, when the California Domestic Partner Rights and Responsibilities Act (DPRRA) took effect, domestic partners became entitled to the same rights, duties, benefits, and responsibilities that spouses enjoy under California law. But the DPRRA's impact in the workplace hasn't been entirely clear.

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For private employers, it appeared that the DPRRA required them to give domestic partners the same workplace legal rights and benefits that married couples had, like the right to family and medical leave and the right to be free from discrimination based on domestic partnership status. However, there's been some confusion as to whether the law made domestic partners eligible for all workplace benefits­whether required by law or not­that were available to spouses in a private workplace (although that was the result for public employers).

But now a recent California Supreme Court ruling suggests that DPRRA's scope for even private employers may be very broad. The case, Koebke v. Bernardo Heights Country Club, Calif. Supreme Court No. S124179 (2005), involved a lesbian couple, B. Birgit Koebke and Kendall E. French, who are registered domestic partners and have been in a relationship since 1993. Koebke bought a membership at the Bernardo Heights County Club (BHCC) in the San Diego area in 1987. Membership benefits at the BHCC are extended to a member's legal spouse and unmarried children under the age of 22.

When Koebke began her relationship with French, she asked the BHCC to permit her to designate French as her "significant other" so that they could golf together at the club on the same basis as spouses and without having to pay hefty guest fees each time. But the BHCC refused, stating that nonmarried significant others were not entitled to club privileges.

Koebke and French sued the BHCC, arguing that the California Unruh Act­which prohibits businesses from discriminating­in conjunction with the DPRRA requires businesses to treat domestic partners the same as spouses.

The California Supreme Court ruled that the DPRRA should be read to prohibit discrimination under the Unruh Act against registered domestic partners. According to the court, the Unruh Act bars discrimination based on marital status (even though that category isn't specified in the statute). And because of the DPRRA's stated public policy to treat registered domestic partners and spouses equally, the Unruh Act protections based on marital status now extend to domestic partner status as well.

What's the Workplace Impact?

The new decision doesn't specifically apply to the workplace, but the court's broad reading of the DPRRA is an indicator of how it might rule if presented with the same question regarding how the DPRRA impacts rights under the California Fair Employment and Housing Act. So there's a strong possibility that courts might not look favorably on an employer that extended certain benefits and privileges to spouses but not to registered domestic partners. Thus, employers should exercise caution and conduct a thorough review of all employment benefits and privileges to determine whether there are gaps between what's offered for spouses and registered domestic partners.

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