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.
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.