Dunnum v. Wisconsin - Questions & Answers about the Case

Document Date: April 19, 2005
Affiliate: ACLU of Wisconsin

Helgeland v. Wisconsin Q & A

Why has the ACLU chosen to file this lawsuit now?

Refusing to allow lesbian and gay state employees the option of including their domestic partners on the state health insurance plan has created very real harm for the plaintiffs in this case, as well as other state employees. These employees, who work just as hard as their straight colleagues, are being denied equal compensation and benefits, causing their families to suffer. University employees have been working tirelessly for 12 years trying to get the benefits. Their efforts have included constant education and lobbying efforts with university officials, politicians and other state agencies. Although supporters were able to get legislation introduced, legislators won’t even conduct a hearing on the bill. This year, Governor Doyle and other political leaders also tried to get the state legislature to take up the issue with regard to University faculty and staff. Again, state lawmakers refused to rectify the problem. Taking the issue to the courts now is the only way to ensure that this unfairness is resolved and that the couples involved in this lawsuit and other state employees are able to secure the health insurance they so desperately need.

Won’t this be a big expense to the state’s taxpayers?

No. When governments and businesses first started offering domestic partnership benefits, opponents often argued that the benefits would be costly. In the two decades since companies and state and local governments have been providing domestic partner benefits, studies have found that there is no significant increase to their healthcare costs. According to a 2003 study by the Institute for Gay and Lesbian Strategic Studies, the average increase in cost to companies required to provide domestic partner benefits under the city of San Francisco’s Equal Benefits Ordinance was only 0.02 to 0.12 percent. A survey conducted by the Society of Human Resource Management revealed that 85 percent of companies that provide domestic partner benefits reported that their health care expenses remained about the same after offering these benefits. In April 2004, a spokesperson for the Madison-based American Family Insurance Company reported that their healthcare costs increased less than one percent since they began offering benefits in 2002. Many employers have found that the competitive advantage of providing the coverage outweighs the minimal costs.

What is preventing the state from offering the benefits now?

There is a Wisconsin law that the state’s intermediate appeals court says prevents the state from providing domestic partner health insurance. By bringing this lawsuit, we are asking the courts to overturn this 12-year-old decision and strike down this law as an unconstitutional violation of the state’s equal protection guarantees. The law denying domestic partner insurance means that the state’s lesbian and gay employees who do just as much work as their straight colleagues are denied equal compensation.

Why are you taking this issue to the courts? Shouldn’t this issue be handled by the state legislature?

Lesbian and gay Wisconsinites have been struggling for over 12 years to get equal health insurance benefits to no avail. Even after the University of Wisconsin became the only Big Ten school to deny benefits and after Governor Doyle proposed offering them, state legislators refuse to end the unfairness against lesbian and gay employees. Under the balance of power set up by our three branches of government, it is the courts’ role to interpret the law and to correct injustice. As we’ve spelled out in our complaint, lesbian and gay state employees are being denied equal compensation although they are performing the same amount of work. Now that the legislature has made it clear that it will not rectify this problem, we must ask the courts to do so in order to end the harm caused to the lesbian and gay families.

How will this case affect other lesbian and gay couples in the state?

If successful, all lesbian and gay employees of the state will be treated equally with their straight co-workers. If their co-workers are entitled to provide health insurance for their spouses, lesbian and gay employees will be entitled to provide health insurance for their domestic partners. The ruling would also extend family leave protection to same-sex couples and their families.

Will this lawsuit affect private employers?

No. This case will only affect lesbian and gay employees of the state. However, a growing number of private employers have recognized the importance of providing domestic partner benefits to their lesbian and gay employees. According to the most recent statistics from the Human Rights Campaign, 40 percent of the Fortune 500 companies offer their employees domestic partner benefits, and 68 percent in the Fortune 50 do so. In Wisconsin, over 100 employers offer domestic partner benefits. Seven of these are among Wisconsin’s 20 largest employers. And now every Big Ten school except for the University of Wisconsin – Madison offers equal benefits.

How do Wisconsinites feel about domestic partner coverage for lesbian and gay employees?

A 2001 statewide poll of 600 people conducted by Chamberlain Research Consultants found a majority (59 percent) of Wisconsinites support domestic partner health insurance coverage for gay couples.

Do other states offer domestic partners insurance benefits to lesbian and gay employees?

Yes. Ten states and the District of Columbia offer their employees domestic partner benefits and 175 city, county and governmental agencies do so, including the City of Madison, the City of Milwaukee, the La Crosse School District, Western Wisconsin Technical College, and other public employers in Wisconsin.

Have other courts ever addressed this issue and found that the state could not deny lesbian and gay employees the option of securing health insurance for their domestic partners?

Yes. In response to a lawsuit brought by the ACLU, the Supreme Court of Montana recently ruled that the University of Montana System can no longer deny lesbian and gay employees the same option of purchasing health insurance benefits for their domestic partners that straight employees enjoy. Other state employees may be affected by this ruling as well. An Oregon court has also ruled that the state must provide lesbian and gay employees with domestic partner benefits. Last year, the University of Pittsburgh ended an eight-year legal battle over benefits by agreeing to provide domestic partner coverage to its lesbian and gay employees. At the time of announcing the decision to give benefits, the chancellor noted that the university needed to provide the benefits in order to remain competitive in recruiting top talent.

Won’t this case open the door for same-sex couples to marry in the state?

No. The complaint filed in this lawsuit makes it very clear that we are only seeking equal compensation and benefits for the state’s lesbian and gay employees. Courts do not address issues that they are not asked to address. Since the issue of Wisconsin’s marriage laws is not before the court, this case won’t impact the rights of same-sex couples to marry.

What happens next in the case?

As required by state law, we filed the case in the trial court in Madison. At this point it is difficult to know how long the case will be in the trial court. We should have a better understanding after the state files its answer to the complaint filed today. The court may simply issue a decision in the case based on legal documents filed by the parties, or there may be a trial. Regardless of what happens at the trial level, this case is most likely headed for the Wisconsin Supreme Court, which will have the ultimate say in the matter. It is likely to be many months before this case gets to the Wisconsin Supreme Court.

Who is working on this lawsuit?

This lawsuit is being litigated by the ACLU’s Lesbian and Gay Rights Project, the ACLU of Wisconsin, and cooperating attorneys Linda Roberson and Christopher Krimmer of the Madison-based law firm Balisle & Roberson. The ACLU has also consulted with Action Wisconsin, the statewide lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender advocacy organization, as well as other allies across the state that oppose unfairness against same-sex couples.

How can I stay informed about developments in this lawsuit?
The ACLU will provide updates about the case at Information will also be available on the ACLU of Wisconsin’s website at

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