Snetsinger v. Montana University System

Decision Date30 December 2004
Docket NumberNo. 03-238.,03-238.
Citation325 Mont. 148,2004 MT 390,104 P.3d 445
PartiesCarol SNETSINGER, Nancy Siegel, Carla Grayson, Adrianne Neff, and Pride, Inc., A Montana Non-Profit Corporation, Plaintiffs and Appellants, v. MONTANA UNIVERSITY SYSTEM, State of Montana, Richard Crofts, in his official capacity as Commissioner of Higher Education, and Margie Thompson, Ed Jasmin, Lynn Morrison-Hamilton, Christian Hur, John Mercer, Richard Roehm and Mark Semmens, in their official capacities as members of the Board of Regents, Defendants and Respondents.
CourtMontana Supreme Court

Holly Jo Franz (argued), Franz & Driscoll, Helena, Montana, Tamara Lange (argued), American Civil Liberties, New York, New York, Beth Brenneman, ACLU of Montana, Helena, Montana, for Appellants.

LeRoy H. Schramm (argued), Montana University System, Helena, Montana, for Respondents.

James P. Reynolds, Reynolds, Motl and Sherwood, Helena, Montana, for Amicus Curiae Northwest Women's Law Center.

Monte Jewell, Jewell Law Office, Missoula, Montana, for Amicus Curiae Montana Human Rights Network, Outfield Alliance, Rainbow Connection, University Congregational United Church of Christ, Missoula, United Congregational United Church of Christ, Butte, and Flathead Valley United Church of Christ, Kalispell.

Jennifer C. Pizer, Lambda Legal Defense & Education Fund, Los Angeles, California, Debra D. Parker; Mark S. Connell, Connell Law Firm, Missoula, Montana, for Amicus Curiae MEA-MFT.

Joan Jonkel, Kimberly P. Dudik, Attorneys at Law, Missoula, Montana, for Amicus Curiae Women's Law Caucus.

Paul Benjamin Linton, Attorney at Law, Northbrook, Illinois, Lance Lovell, The Lovell Law Firm, Billings, Montana, for Amicus Curiae United Families International.

Michael J. Rieley, Attorney at Law, Helena, Montana, for Amicus Curiae The Montana Catholic Conference.

Jason L. Harkins, Attorney at Law, Billings, Montana, Glen Lavy, Alliance Defense Fund, Scottsdale, Arizona, for Amicus Curiae Focus on the Family and Family Research Council.

Bridgitt Erickson, Attorney at Law, Lincoln, Montana, for Amicus Curiae Members of the Leadership of the 58th Montana Legislature.

Patrick F. Flaherty, Attorney at Law, Great Falls, Montana, Steven W. Fitschen, Attorney at Law, Virginia Beach, Virginia, for Amicus Curiae The National Legal Foundation.

Justice JIM REGNIER delivered the Opinion of the Court.

¶ 1 Appellants filed an action in the First Judicial District Court, Lewis and Clark County, seeking a declaratory judgment that the Montana University System's policy prohibiting employees from receiving dependent insurance coverage for their same-sex domestic partners violates their rights under the Montana Constitution. The Montana University System filed a Motion to Dismiss, which the District Court granted.

¶ 2 The sole issue raised on appeal is whether the Montana University System's policy prohibiting gay employees from receiving insurance coverage for their same-sex domestic partners violates their rights under the Montana Constitution.

¶ 3 We reverse the District Court.

BACKGROUND

¶ 4 Carol Snetsinger and Nancy Siegel are same-sex domestic partners, as are Carla Grayson and Adrianne Neff. Snetsinger and Grayson are employees of the Montana University System, but their domestic partners, Siegel and Neff, are not. Snetsinger, Siegel, Grayson, and Neff, along with PRIDE, Inc., a non-profit organization of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender Montanans and their supporters, filed an action in the District Court challenging the University System's policy prohibiting same-sex domestic partners of gay1 employees from purchasing dependent benefits.

¶ 5 Snetsinger and Siegel consider themselves married and hold themselves out to their families and their community as a couple in a committed, marital relationship. They have stated they would marry if legally permitted to do so. They own their home together in joint tenancy with rights of survivorship, have a joint checking account and share all living expenses. Likewise, Grayson and Neff consider themselves married and hold themselves out as such. They own their home together, share living expenses and are raising a child together.

¶ 6 As a benefit of employment, the University System provides a group health insurance plan for its employees and their dependents. The University System pays the premium for the employee; if the employee would like coverage for any dependents, the employee must pay an additional premium. The University System's policy defines dependent eligibility. It states:

An eligible employee ... may enroll the following dependents in the Plan.
1. Spouse — A lawful spouse as defined in Montana law. See 26-1-602, 40-1-301, and 40-1-311 MCA. A Declaration of Common-Law Spouse form may be obtained from the campus payroll/personnel office and must be used if a common-law spouse is to be enrolled in the Plan.
2. Child(ren) — An unmarried dependent child under age 19.
3. Student — An unmarried student under age 25, who is a dependent of the employee and/or spouse and dependent on the employee and/or spouse for support and maintenance, and whose time is principally devoted to the attendance of a school or college. The Claims Administrator may periodically require the submission of proof that student status is maintained.

¶ 7 Snetsinger and Grayson are not permitted to enroll their same-sex domestic partners because they are not "dependents" as defined by the University System's policy. They argue the policy impermissibly discriminates against them based on their sex, sexual orientation and marital status and violates their rights to equal protection and dignity provided by Article II, Section 4, the right to privacy provided by Article II, Section 10, and the rights to pursue life's basic necessities and to seek safety, health and happiness provided by Article II, Section 3, of the Montana Constitution because the policy does not extend coverage to same-sex domestic partners.

¶ 8 The University System filed a Motion to Dismiss in the District Court pursuant to Rule 12(b)(6), M.R.Civ.P., on the ground the Complaint did not state a legal claim upon which relief could be granted. The District Court granted the motion. Snetsinger and the other plaintiffs appeal from the District Court's Order.

¶ 9 We note that an unusual number of Amici Curiae briefs have been filed in this appeal. The following amici have submitted briefs in support of the Appellants: Northwest Women's Law Center; Montana Human Rights Network, Outfield Alliance, Rainbow Connection, University Congregational United Church of Christ, Missoula, United Congregational United Church of Christ, Butte, and Flathead Valley United Church of Christ, Kalispell; MEA-MFT; Women's Law Caucus. Amici who submitted briefs in support of the Respondents are: The Honorable Roy Brown, Duane Grimes, Doug Mood, Fred Thomas, and Corey Stapleton, Members of the Leadership of the 58th Montana Legislature; the Montana Catholic Conference; the National Legal Foundation; Focus On the Family and Family Research Council; United Families International.

STANDARD OF REVIEW

¶ 10 A complaint should not be dismissed for failure to state a claim unless it appears beyond doubt that the plaintiff can prove no set of facts in support of a claim which would entitle the plaintiff to relief. Dukes v. Sirius Const., Inc., 2003 MT 152, ¶ 11, 316 Mont. 226, ¶ 11, 73 P.3d 781, ¶ 11 (citation omitted). A motion to dismiss under Rule 12(b)(6), M.R.Civ.P., has the effect of admitting all well-pleaded allegations in the complaint. Dukes, ¶ 11. In considering the motion, the complaint is construed in the light most favorable to the plaintiff and all allegations of fact contained therein are taken as true. Dukes, ¶ 11 (citation omitted).

¶ 11 The District Court's determination that the Appellants failed to state a claim for which relief was available is a conclusion of law. Our standard of review of a district court's conclusion of law is whether its interpretation of the law is correct. Dukes, ¶ 11.

DISCUSSION

¶ 12 Whether the Montana University System's policy prohibiting gay employees from receiving insurance coverage for their same-sex domestic partners violates their rights under the Montana Constitution.

¶ 13 At the outset, it is important to note what this case is not about. Lest there be any doubt, the Appellants clearly stated, both in their brief and in oral argument, that they are not challenging Montana's marriage laws which provide marriage is available only to partners of the opposite sex. Although the constitutionality of such laws has been attacked in various states recently with much national attention, the Appellants emphasized during oral argument that this case does not present such a challenge. Therefore, we have not been asked nor will we address the question of whether Montana's marriage statutes discriminates against same-sex couples by denying them the right to marry.

¶ 14 Appellants argue that the University System's Policy violates their rights to equal protection and dignity provided by Article II, Section 4, by classifying them based on their sex, sexual orientation and marital status and depriving them, without sufficient justification, of the benefits other employees and their families receive as compensation. They also argue the policy violates their right to privacy provided by Article II, Section 10, and the rights to pursue life's basic necessities and to seek safety, health and happiness provided by Article II, Section 3, of the Montana Constitution.

¶ 15 Article II, Section 4, of the Montana Constitution guarantees equal protection of the law to all persons. It provides that "[n]o person shall be denied the equal protection of the laws." "The Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution and Article II, Section 4, of the Montana Constitution embody a fundamental principle of...

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