A Tulsa County District Court judge will likely rule this fall on whether the city of Tulsa discriminated against a gay employee by denying health benefits to the man’s husband and then firing him when he continued to press the issue.
During two days of testimony this week, Steven Martinez alleged that the city of Tulsa intentionally mislead him for months as he sought information about whether his husband could be added to his health plan, then fired him as retaliation.
The city of Tulsa, in testimony given by some of Martinez’s superiors, alleged that it fired him after he acted “belligerent” about being denied health coverage for his husband and then listed his husband on benefit forms anyway. Those employees testified that since same-sex marriage was not recognized in Oklahoma during this time period, that city policies denying health benefits for same-sex spouses were justified.
Martinez’s attorney, Dan Smolen, argued the policies didn’t say anything about same-sex marriages, only “legal” marriages. He argued that terminology should have included Steven and Gregorio’s marriage, given they had been legally married in Washington D.C. during the time and city of Tulsa policies did not state that a marriage had to be legally recognized in Oklahoma.
Martinez and his attorney also alleged the firing was in retaliation for a discrimination complaint Martinez had filed, noting that not long after the complaint was filed, Martinez received an email notifying him that his superiors were looking to see if he had been late for work.
“Within weeks of filing that complaint, he received an email asking if he had missed any ‘time punches,’” Smolen said.
The city of Tulsa, through a spokeswoman, declined to comment on the case given that its outcome was pending. Lawson Vaughn, the attorney representing the city of Tulsa, told the court the case was “uncomplicated,” that the City was “in compliance with state and federal laws at the time,” and Martinez was an “at-will employee fired for his behavior.”
The trial is being heard by Rebecca Nightingale, Tulsa County’s chief judge of the civil division, rather than a jury. Court minutes show the case appeared to be headed for a settlement before the city of Tulsa asked last December for a bench trial.
Testimony in the case ended late Wednesday, and will not resume until late August, the court ruled. Nightingale will render a decision in the case at a later date.
Steven and Gregorio Martinez married in 2013 in Washington D.C., where Gregorio’s friends and family lived. They had moved to Tulsa and adopted a son, Jay, and later began the process of a second adoption.
Tulsa may have seemed like an odd choice for a same-sex couple, but Steven had been to the city before and liked how it felt. He and Gregorio wanted a place where they could settle down, buy a house and raise a family.
Both men worked as landmen, well-paid jobs that required them to purchase land from private citizens on behalf of their employer, but that also required extensive travel. Seeking a job where he could stay closer to home, Steven got a job with the city of Tulsa. It paid less than his previous work but he was home far more often.
When the couple married and finalized the adoption of their first son in 2013, Steven asked at work if he could put his husband on his insurance plan —there was a 30-day window in which to do so. Filings included in his court case against the city of Tulsa indicate he was told that his husband could not be added, and that potentially his son would be excluded as well, given that Steven was married to his same-sex partner.
His son was eventually given coverage, but Gregorio was not. City employees testified this week that their decision to deny Gregorio coverage was due to a combination of city policy and the Oklahoma Constitution, which defined marriage — and still does — as being between “one man and one woman.”
Here, the stories diverge. Steven testified that when he was initially told his husband could not receive health benefits from the city, he asked for a denial letter specifying why in order to appeal the decision. He testified he never received a formal denial letter and was confused as to why he couldn’t add his husband since city of Tulsa policies state spouses with “legal marriage certificates” are entitled to health benefits, and he and Gregorio had legally married in Washington D.C. in December 2013.
Steven testified that in April 2014 he attended an open enrollment meeting held by his employers, and afterward asked Benefits Administrator Jill Turney if he would now be able to add his spouse to the plan.
“Why wouldn’t you,” he said Turney asked him. He testified that when he informed her he was seeking benefits for his husband that Turney, who now works elsewhere, told him he was making people uncomfortable and told him they should discuss that in private. Some city of Tulsa employees testified they believed Turney said that because Martinez might have been acting “belligerent.”
Either way, Martinez filed a discrimination complaint against Turney, which was investigated by the Security Guards at the city of Tulsa because the city’s Human Resources Department essentially recused itself. They found no independent witnesses could be located and closed the complaint.
Meanwhile, the health benefits open enrollment period was quickly nearing an end. Martinez testified he was still unsure whether he could add his husband to the plan as Community Care had told him it would cover his husband if the City of Tulsa would submit the paperwork. Martinez said he had also not yet received a definitive response from the City of Tulsa, so he put Gregorio’s name down on the paperwork and filed it.
Days later he was abruptly called into a meeting. Martinez said he was told that he had falsified a form and was being terminated.
“At first I thought they meant that I had falsified some paperwork for my job, and I knew I hadn’t done that,” Martinez testified. He said he was surprised to find the form he was being accused of falsifying was the insurance document he had filed days earlier.
“Steven did everything the policies asked him to do, and he was fired for it,” Martinez’s attorney Dan Smolen said in court this week.
But some of Martinez’s superiors who testified for the city of Tulsa this week said Martinez had acted “belligerent” at times as he sought benefits for his husband and they were concerned that his attitude might not reflect well on the city.
Nevertheless, the official reason for Martinez’s firing, they agreed, was the document they alleged was “falsified.”
Ken Factor, the city of Tulsa’s compensation manager and policy administrator, testified that it was his recommendation Martinez be fired for allegedly falsifying a form. Factor testified that Martinez was aware he was not supposed to seek benefits for his husband, despite city of Tulsa policies that stated legally-married spouses were eligible for benefits.
Factor disputed that the Martinezs’ had been legally married in 2013 and 2014, saying he believed that because their marriage was not recognized in Oklahoma (the state didn’t recognize same sex marriage until October 2014), it meant the couple was not legally married.
Smolen asked Factor, who said it was “still” his personal belief marriage should only be between a man and woman, what his definition of “legally married” was.
“Marriage recognized in that jurisdiction,” Factor replied, noting the city of Tulsa started offering benefits to same-sex spouses after those marriages were legalized in the state in 2014.
“Where are you getting that from,” Smolen asked in response.
“My brain,” Factor said. “That’s what has development in my mind.”
Smolen pointed to an email Factor had sent to the city’s legal department related to Martinez’s request for health benefits for his husband in which Factor referred to Gregorio as Martinez’s “same sex partner.”
“You wouldn’t even say ‘spouse,’” Smolen said. “Do you think that your personal beliefs (on same-sex marriage) entered in (that email)?”
“Possibly,” Factor replied.