Fighting For Important Causes In State And Federal Courts
by Adam Smeltz
The State College Area School District is facing a federal civil action from a school worker and her partner, both alleging that the district discriminates in its employee-benefits policy.
Kerry Wiessmann, who is an elementary-school counselor, and her partner, Beth G. Resko, brought the complaint against the district on Tuesday. Their concern is a district rule that keeps school workers’ same-sex domestic partners from qualifying for the same benefits made available for opposite-sex domestic partners, according to the filing.
In fact, the district’s “refusal to provide Ms. Wiessmann and her partner … with the same family health benefits offered to other employees and their families violates their rights under the First and Fourteenth Amendments to the U.S. Constitution, including the right to equal protection of the laws without regard to sexual orientation or sex, and the right to intimate association; as well as the Equal Rights Amendment of the Pennsylvania Constitution,” the lawsuit reads.
The school district, in discriminating on the basis of sexual orientation, also is in violation of State College borough’s non-discrimination law, according to the litigation. State College attorney Andrew Shubin and several lawyers affiliated with the American Civil Liberties Union and the American Civil Liberties Foundation are representing Wiessmann and Resko in the matter.
Shubin declined to field media questions on Tuesday, but he did issue a news release.
“This is an important case for many reasons,” Shubin said in the release. “It’s about basic fairness, tolerance and equal treatment for hard-working families. It’s about our community and the kind of place it should be — a place where the Constitution and the law protect everyone.”
Local school officials had yet to see the lawsuit Tuesday afternoon, so the district declined to offer immediate comment on the case, a spokeswoman said. The litigation is filed in U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Pennsylvania, which is based in Scranton.
Wiessmann, who works at Ferguson Township Elementary School, joined the district’s workforce in 2003, according to the litigation. She and Resko, her partner of more than 25 years, share their lives, home, financial obligations and parental duties for their two children, it says.
It also quotes the district policy that’s accused of undermining their rights. That policy, which makes full-time employees’ documented domestic partners eligible for district health benefits, specifically excludes partners of the same gender.
As a result, according to the litigation, Resko has not been allowed the benefits that would have been allowed someone in an opposite-gender relationship. The couple has faced “significant cost” for Resko’s health coverage, the lawsuit notes.
Right now, Resko, who had been an independent contractor, is on a group health-insurance plan that costs the couple $6,600 a year for her coverage, the litigation indicates. In order to qualify for the group plan, Resko had to change her employment status and work longer hours “in an effort to maintain the same level of income she earned as an independent contractor,” according to the complaint.
Resko is of retirement age and would like to reduce her hours, but if she does so, she’ll lose her group health benefits, the complaint goes on. “Ms. Resko may not be able to obtain individual health insurance that provides the coverage she needs, or the couple may have to pay exorbitant rates for that insurance, because Ms. Resko has an existing medical condition that requires ongoing treatment.”
The suit also alleges that the SCASD benefits policy “demonstrates disrespect for Ms. Wiessmann as a person and reinforces stigma against her as a member of a minority group.”
“This policy has no purpose other than to treat same-sex couples like second-class citizens,” ACLU attorney Catherine Roper said in the news release.
Resko and Wiessmann are seeking a change in the benefits policy to grant equal treatment to same-sex domestic partners; preliminary and permanent relief that will allow Resko to receive benefits through Wiessmann’s health insurance; and unspecified compensatory damages and attorneys’ fees.
StateCollege.com is continuing to follow this story and will post more information as it becomes available.