Two engineers for BNSF Railway have filed a federal discrimination lawsuit against the company — one of the country’s largest rail carriers — alleging it refuses to provide medical benefits to their same-sex spouses.
The lawsuit claims the employees — one a gay man, the other a lesbian — have repeatedly attempted to obtain coverage since the state legalized same-sex marriage, but have been told that the railroad has a “stated policy” that “marriage is between one man and one woman.”
“BNSF does not get to judge what marriage is,” the lawsuit states, alleging that there are “numerous or hundreds” of same-sex railway employees who live in states where their marriages are legally recognized, or who have applied for coverage since the U.S. Supreme Court struck down the Defense of Marriage Act, which allowed states to refuse to recognize same-sex marriages.
The lawsuit, filed in U.S. District Court in Seattle, is asking the judge to certify it as a class-action to include all same-sex couples who have been denied benefits by the railway.
The lawsuit was filed by BNSF engineer Michael Hall and his spouse, Elijah Uber Hall, and engineer Amie Garrand and her spouse, Carol Garrand.
But a company spokesman said Tuesday that benefits are governed largely by language in union contracts, which can be modified only through collective bargaining.
According to the employees’ lawsuit, Michael Hall, a Pierce County resident, joined the company in November 2010 “in part due to its stated anti-discrimination policy.” He works as a locomotive engineer, driving mile-long freight trains on a three-day loop from Auburn over Stampede Pass to the Tri-Cities area, then along the Columbia River to Vancouver, and back to Seattle or Auburn.
Amie Garrand, who lives in Clark County, has been a BNSF employee for more than 12 years and has worked as both an engineer and a conductor, the lawsuit says.
Michael Hall was married on Jan. 21 and has since repeatedly attempted to have health insurance extended to Elijah Hall, who has HIV and medication costs of nearly $2,400 a month.
The Garrands tried and failed to obtain coverage for the birth of their son, the lawsuit alleges. Carol Garrand gave birth earlier this year, according to the lawsuit.
In both instances, the couples say they have been told by the insurer, United Healthcare, that BNSF has instructed them not to extend coverage to same-sex couples.
Gus Melonas, a spokesman for the railway, said the company hasn’t seen the lawsuit and can’t discuss its specifics.
However, Melonas said that “benefits are available to same-sex spouses” of BNSF employees if the couple was married in a state where such unions are recognized. Both couples were married in Washington, according to the lawsuit.
Melonas said that union contracts govern much of the language when it comes to benefits and that changes to plans can be made in many cases “only through the collective-bargaining plan.”
Cleveland Stockmeyer, the attorney who filed the lawsuit, said those are “phony excuses.”
The benefits state “any wife or husband is covered ... without limiting this to opposite-sex marriage,” he said. It’s not the plan that’s discriminating, he said, it’s the company.
The plan — included as an exhibit — says benefits are available to a husband or wife and, according to the lawsuit, nowhere does it say same-sex couples are excluded.
The lawsuit details numerous emails, letters and phone calls made by the couples seeking coverage and repeatedly being denied.
Garrand claims an employee at the insurer, United Healthcare, told her the benefit book states that same-sex spouses do not qualify as dependents, according to the lawsuit.
Stockmeyer calls the United Healthcare employee’s comment “untrue.”
BNSF is one of the country’s largest rail carriers, moving freight on 32,000 miles of track in 28 states, according to the lawsuit. It recently was named in another federal lawsuit, this one filed by the Sierra Club, over plans for three new coal export terminals in Washington and Oregon.