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Ex-Little Caesar manager sues over denial of same-sex spousal benefits


A former Little Caesar Enterprises Inc. employee has sued the company for denying spousal health insurance to married same-sex couples in California.

Frank Bernard, who was hired as a restaurant manager in June 2014, claims that the Detroit-based pizza chain refused to enroll his husband as a “spouse” under its group health insurance plan on the grounds that Michigan state law does not recognize same-sex marriages, according to documents filed Wednesday in an Orange County, California, Superior Court.

“I was absolutely shocked,” Mr. Bernard said in a statement released on Wednesday. “And I was hurt that this company had absolutely no consideration for myself or my marriage.”

In his lawsuit, Mr. Bernard claims Little Caesars' denial of benefits for his husband forced him to quit the company just one month after he was hired.

“Mr. Bernard felt he had no viable option other than to constructively terminate his employment as he could no longer work for a company that blatantly discriminated against him,” Mr. Bernard's attorney Gloria Allred, a partner at Allred Maroko & Goldberg in Los Angeles, said in a statement.

The lawsuit accuses Little Caesar Enterprises Inc. and its parent company, Ilitch Cos., of violating California state laws that prohibit workplace discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation, and seeks undetermined compensatory and punitive damages for both the discrimination itself and for necessitating his departure from the company.

A spokeswoman for Little Caesars said that the company self-insures its group health care plan, with administrative services provided by Blue Cross & Blue Shield. The company declined to comment on pending litigation.

Whether Mr. Bernard's claims against Little Caesars will withstand judicial review remains to be seen. Although legally wed same-sex couples were recently added to the definitions of “spouse” and “marriage” under certain federal laws following the U.S. Supreme Court's landmark 2013 ruling in United States v. Windsor, legal experts say employers' self-insured group health benefit plans — which are governed by the federal Employee Retirement Income Security Act — were largely unaffected by those changes.

As a result, experts say self-insured employers generally still have discretionary authority to define eligibility for spousal coverage as they see fit, regardless of state marriage laws.

“There is no clear requirement under ERISA that says a self-insured plan has to cover same-sex spouses or same-sex partners of any kind, nor is there any prohibition in the law against defining 'marriage' for the purposes of eligibility as a one-man-one-woman arrangement,” said Todd Solomon, a Chicago-based partner at McDermott Will & Emery L.L.P. “The question is: once you do that, what kinds of potential legal claims are you subjecting yourself to?”