Glossip v. Missouri Department of Transportation and Highway Patrol Employees’ Retirement System: A Denial of Survivor Benefits to the Decedent’s Same-Sex Partner

Lindsay Johnson
58 St. Louis U. L.J. Online 25 | PDF

Introduction

Kelly Glossip’s same-sex domestic partner, Dennis Engelhard, was killed in the line of duty on December 25, 2009, after serving nine years for the Missouri State Highway Patrol.[1] Glossip applied to the Missouri Department of Transportation and Highway Patrol Employees’ Retirement System (“MPERS”) for survivor benefits, pursuant to two Missouri statutes.[2] As part of the application process, Glossip was asked to submit a driver’s license, death certificate, and marriage license.[3] He included the first two and, since he and Engelhard never married each other, an affidavit describing their relationship.[4] The affidavit stated that the two men had lived together and been involved in a relationship since 1995.[5] Furthermore, it stated that the two held themselves out to others as married and that they “would have entered into a civil marriage if it were legal to do so in Missouri.”[6]

Glossip’s application for benefits was denied by MPERS, based on his failure to include a valid marriage certificate with the other application materials.[7] Thereafter, Glossip appealed this denial to MPERS’s Board of Trustees.[8] After the Board denied his appeal, Glossip filed a petition in circuit court requesting declaratory and injunctive relief.[9] He argued that the survivor benefits statutes violate the Missouri Constitution’s equal protection clause.[10] At the trial court level, Glossip filed a motion for summary judgment, and MPERS filed a motion to dismiss for failure to state a claim on which relief can be granted.[11] The court dismissed Glossip’s motion for summary judgment and granted MPERS’s motion to dismiss, and Glossip appealed to the Missouri Supreme Court.[12]

I. Legal Background

Glossip challenged, and the court analyzed, two Missouri statutes. The first statute is § 104.140.3, which provides for death benefits to Missouri highway patrol employees’ spouses upon death in the line of duty, and the second is § 104.012, which defines the term “spouse” as referring only to marriages between a man and a woman.[13] Glossip, however, did not challenge Missouri’s constitutional and statutory provisions banning same-sex marriage.[14]

During this court’s review of Glossip’s claims, the U.S. Supreme Court decided United States v. Windsor.[15] In Windsor, the Court denied plaintiff her deceased same-sex spouse’s benefits and thereafter challenged the federal law refusing to recognize same-sex marriage.[16] The plaintiff won her case, and the Court thereby made it illegal for benefits to be denied to same-sex spouses in certain circumstances.[17]

II. Analysis

A.         Court’s Analysis

The majority opinion began with a discussion of whether Glossip had standing to challenge either or both of the two statutes mentioned.[18] The court found that Glossip had standing to challenge § 104.140 because he was within the class of people he alleges are unconstitutionally denied benefits under this statute.[19] The court concluded, however, that Glossip lacked standing to challenge § 104.012, which defines the term “spouse” for purposes of public retirement systems administration.[20] This conclusion was based on the fact that Glossip and Engelhard never married each other, and therefore they did not fall within the class of persons affected by the statute, namely those married homosexual couples that would be denied benefits based on this definition.[21]

The court next decided what level of scrutiny is required in analyzing the constitutionality of the challenged statute. It noted that, to determine the correct level of scrutiny, the court must decide whether the challenged statute disadvantages a suspect class.[22] Finding that § 104.140 only disadvantages non-married couples of any sexual orientation and that marital status is not a suspect class, it held that the rational basis test was appropriate.[23] Under rational basis scrutiny, the only question was whether the survivor benefits statute’s spousal requirement bears a reasonable relation to legitimate state interests.[24] The court held that this reasonable relationship to state interests exists, and therefore the statute is not unconstitutional.[25] It stated that Glossip and Engelhard were denied benefits solely by reason that they were not married and not because of their sexual orientation.[26]

The court made several other findings and also put forth some alternative outcomes. First, the opinion stated that Windsor did not change the outcome of this case, since the same-sex couple at issue in that case was, in fact, married.[27] Next, the court noted that if Glossip and Engelhard had been married, in addition to having standing to challenge § 104.012, Glossip could have challenged the Missouri constitutional provision prohibiting same-sex marriage.[28] Finally, the court held that it was not enough that Glossip and his partner would have married but for Missouri law because the benefits statutes challenged do not work to prohibit same-sex marriage.[29]

The dissenting opinion, written by Richard B. Teitelman, recognized that “[t]he plain meaning and intended application” of the two statutes together “is to discriminate specifically against gay men and lesbians by categorically denying them crucial state benefits when their partner dies in the line of duty.”[30] Because of the effect of these two statutes, he states, survivor benefits “are a legal impossibility for all same-sex couples.”[31] Based on his understanding of the statutes, Teitelman called for heightened scrutiny when analyzing the constitutionality of these laws.[32] Furthermore, he concluded that the statutes are not substantially related to the achievement of important governmental objectives and would reverse the judgment dismissing Glossip’s claim.[33]

B.         Author’s Analysis

By analyzing Glossip’s predicament in such a technical and narrow manner, the Missouri Supreme Court missed its opportunity to really contribute to the debate regarding same-sex marriage and, particularly, whether marriage benefits can constitutionally be denied to same-sex couples. The majority denied Glossip’s standing to challenge the critical statutory definition of the term “spouse” located in § 104.012 because Glossip and Engelhard were not married. The two men were not married, however, because it is and always has been illegal in Missouri for them to do so. This decision has the harsh effect of denying Glossip his ability to challenge a discriminatory law in this state without first having travelled into another state with his deceased partner to obtain a document that, upon re-entering Missouri, is not recognized as having any legal effect. In analyzing the standing issue, the dissent correctly approached the problem by considering the legal consequences of the two statutes when read in conjunction. The real effect of these two statutes together is not just to deny benefits to unmarried individuals but also to deny benefits to homosexuals, regardless of their marital status in any other state.

Had the majority analyzed the standing issue as the dissent did, it would have had to consider the more problematic statute defining the term “spouse” to exclude homosexual couples. Because the definition excludes a suspect class in such a way, this statute would likely have warranted a higher level of scrutiny than the rational basis test the majority applied. The majority would clearly have had a much more difficult time analyzing this particular statute, especially under higher scrutiny, and coming to the same conclusion it provided.

Conclusion

In order to resolve an ongoing issue of utmost importance, the Missouri Supreme Court could have and should have analyzed this case in a more lenient, less mechanical manner. By failing to consider the serious underlying issues the case presents, the Missouri Supreme Court has undermined the spirit of the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Windsor, that the denial of benefits to the same-sex partner of a deceased individual should be critically analyzed in light of the equal protection issues involved.

Lindsay Johnson*



[1] Glossip v. Mo. Dep’t of Transp. & Highway Patrol Employees’ Ret. Sys. 411 S.W.3d 796, 800 (Mo. banc 2013).

[2] Id.

[3] Id.

[4] Id.

[5] Id.

[6] Glossip, 411 S.W.3d at 800.

[7] Id.

[8] Id.

[9] Id.

[10] Id. at 801.

[11] Glossip, 411 S.W.3d at 801.

[12] Id.

[13] Id. at 802. Section 104.012 only defines the term “spouse” for purposes of public retirement systems administered pursuant to the particular chapter. Id.

[14] Id. at 801.

[15] Glossip, 411 S.W.3d at 800 n.1.

[16] Id.

[17] Id.

[18] Id. at 803–04.

[19] Id. at 803.

[20] Glossip, 411 S.W.3d  at 803–04.

[21] Id.

[22] Id. at 805.

[23] Id.

[24] Id. at 806.

[25] Glossip, 411 S.W.3d at 806–08.

[26] Id. at 807.

[27] Id. at 800 n.1.

[28] Id. at 799.

[29] Id.

[30] Glossip, 411 S.W.3d at 809.

[31] Id. at 810 (emphasis added).

[32] Id. at 812–13.

[33] Id. at 814.

* J.D. Candidate, 2015, Saint Louis University School of Law. I would like to thank the United States Supreme Court for deciding Windsor and thereby ending some of the injustice in this area of the law. Thanks also to my family and friends for their constant love and support.