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June 21, 2010

FMLA leave for domestic partners: the new federal employee leave regulations a stalking horse

FMLA leave for domestic partners: the new federal employee leave regulations a stalking horse
Source: The FMLA Blog - http://federalfmla.typepad.com/fmla_blog/
Copyright © 2010. All rights reserved by Carl C. Bosland, Esq. Reproduced with permission. Mr. Bosland is the author of A Federal Sector Guide to the Family and Medical Leave Act & Related Litigation.

During the last presidential campaign, candidate Obama favored expansion of the FMLA to allow an employee to take job-protected leave to care for a same sex domestic partner suffering with a serious health condition. Pending legislation (H.R. 3047) seeks to make such a change law. Currently, the Defense of Marriage Act excludes same-sex marriages, including civil unions or domestic partnerships, from FMLA coverage (by defining a "spouse" as member of the opposite sex).

Given the President's expressed support for changes to the FMLA, and the Democrats control of Congress (at least until mid-term elections this November), it is possible that legislation to modify the FMLA, including the addition of domestic partnerships, might be seriously considered.

With regard to expansion of the FMLA to cover same-sex partnerships, what that legislation might look like may be gleaned from recent regulatory changes made by the US Office of Personnel Management (OPM) allowing some federal employees to take leave (but not FMLA leave) for a domestic partner. See 75 FR 33491-33497 (June 14, 2010). The regulations are effective July 14, 2010.

On June 17, 2009, President Obama directed OPM to clarify that existing employment benefits enjoyed by federal workers extended to same-sex domestic partners. OPM did so by altering the definition of a "family member" to include a domestic partner in a committed relationship.

The benefits extended included the federal employees ability to use sick leave, funeral leave, voluntary leave transfer, voluntary leave bank, and emergency leave transfer in relation to .
Domestic partner means an adult in a committed relationship with another adult, including both same-sex and opposite-sex relationships.

Opposite-sex domestic partnerships would cover common law marriages in States that do not recognize common law marriages. In States that already recognize common law marriages, the inclusion of opposite-sex domestic partnerships suggests coverage for committed relationships that fall short of a common law marriage.

Committed relationship means one in which the employee, and the domestic partner of the employee, are each other's sole domestic partner (and are not married to or domestic partners with anyone else); and share responsibility for a significant measure of each other's common welfare and financial obligations. This includes, but is not limited to same-ex and opposite-sex relationships granted legal recognition by a State or the District of Columbia as a marriage or analogous relationship (e.g., civil union).

OPM rejected suggestions that it issue regulations governing what documentation an agency may request to substantiate a covered domestic partnership. It noted that agency's typically do not ask for documentation to substantiate leave to prove an employee's relationship with a parent, brother, sister, or spouse. OPM implied that, absent suspicion of leave abuse, it should follow that practice where an employee claims the need for leave for a domestic partner. Where leave abuse is suspected, OPM indicated that agencies have the existing authority to request documentation to substantiate a request for leave, and that they should follow the same procedures for all employees where they suspect leave abuse.

Mr. Bosland Comments: OPM's definition of a domestic partner in a committed relationship is, in my opinion, needlessly vague and over broad. Specifically, it is unclear what it means to "share responsibility for a significant measure of each other's common welfare and financial obligations." The terms are undefined. Other than rejecting application of the definition to a roommate, OPM fails to give examples to animate the meaning of this key phrase. Certainly, the phrase applies to common law marriages, civil unions, or domestic partnerships in States that recognize such relationships. It is unclear, at least to me, why OPM would not adopt a definition that ties the relationship to the attributes of a common law marriage, domestic partnership, or civil union, as those terms have been recognized by some States for years. Absent such a tether, OPM invites a flood of litigation to flesh out the contours of a committed relationship, particularly in the area above roommate and below recognized common law marriage, civil union, or domestic partnership. The point of a regulation is to give employers and employees useful guidance so that they know what to expect and can conform their conduct to meet legal obligations. This regulation, in my opinion, falls short of meeting that standard.

The above regulatory changes do not apply to the FMLA - yet. That will require modification of the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA). If, however, this is any example of the standard to be applied in the event the DOMA and FMLA are modified to include domestic partnerships, employers and employees should be prepared for the tsunami of litigation that will ensue over the level of commitment to the relationship. The good news is that such a change should make the attorneys very happy.

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