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Bronner v. Burks

Supreme Court of Alabama

December 22, 2017

David G. Bronner, as secretary-treasurer of the Public Education Employees' Health Insurance Plan, et al.
v.
James B. Burks II et al.

         Appeal from Montgomery Circuit Court (CV-14-900964)

          SHAW, Justice.

         This is the second time this dispute related to benefits provided under the Public Education Employees' Health Insurance Plan ("PEEHIP") has come before this Court. See Ex parte Retirement Sys. of Alabama, 182 So.3d 527 (Ala. 2015) ("RSA I"). In the present case, the remaining defendants below, [1] David G. Bronner, as secretary-treasurer of PEEHIP, and the current members of the PEEHIP Board, petitioned this Court, pursuant to Rule 5, Ala. R. App. P., for permission to appeal the trial court's denial of their motion seeking a summary judgment. For the reasons discussed below, we dismiss the appeal.

         Facts and Procedural History

         In RSA I, we set out the pertinent factual and procedural history as follows:

"PEEHIP, which is managed by the PEEHIP Board, provides group health-insurance benefits to public-education employees in Alabama. Each year, the PEEHIP Board submits 'to the Governor and to the Legislature the amount or amounts necessary to fund coverage for benefits authorized by this article for the following fiscal year for employees and for retired employees as a monthly premium per active member per month.' § 16-25A-8(b), Ala. Code 1975. That monthly premium is paid by employers for each of their active members ('the employer contribution'). See § 16-25A-8(a), Ala. Code 1975.
"In addition, '[e]ach employee and retired employee [is] entitled to have his or her spouse and dependent children, as defined by the rules and regulations of the [PEEHIP B]oard, included in the coverage provided upon agreeing to pay the employee's contribution of the health insurance premium for such dependents.' § 16-25A-8(e), Ala. Code 1975. Section 16-25A-1(8), Ala. Code 1975, provides, in pertinent part, that '[i]ndividual premiums may include adjustments and surcharges for ... family size including, but not limited to, a husband and wife both being covered by a health insurance plan as defined herein.' The employer contribution, as well as 'all premiums paid by employees and retired employees under the provisions of this section and any other premiums paid under the provisions of this article, ' are deposited into PEEHIF [Public Education Employees Health Insurance Fund]. § 16-25A-8(f), Ala. Code 1975."

182 So.3d at 530.

         According to the plaintiffs, before 2010, each public-education employee participating in PEEHIP "received" an "allotment" to use to obtain health-insurance coverage from PEEHIP. PEEHIP offered a "hospital plan" and a health-maintenance-organization ("HMO") plan, as well as four "optional" plans that provided supplemental health-care coverage. Public-education employees could use their allotments to select from these plans. A married couple, both of whom were public-education employees, would each have their own allotment to use. Additionally, these couples could "combine" their allotments and receive "family coverage, " which would also cover their dependent children, without paying a premium for such coverage.

         In 2010, the PEEHIP Board began implementing a new policy ("the 2010 policy").[2] According to the plaintiffs, under the 2010 policy, when two public-education employees were married to one another, each could still use his or her allotment to purchase individual coverage or optional, supplemental plans. However, if they had dependents and wanted family coverage, both allotments had to be "combined, " and they now had to pay a premium for family coverage. The couple could not use one allotment to purchase family coverage and the other allotment to purchase optional, supplemental plans.

         In May 2014, James B. Burks II, Eugenia Burks, Martin A. Hester, Jacqueline Hester, Thomas Highfield, Carol Ann Highfield, Jake Jackson, and Melinda Jackson, individually and on behalf of a class of similarly situated individuals who are all public-education employees and PEEHIP participants married to other public-education employees and PEEHIP participants and who have dependent children, sued Bronner and the individual members of the PEEHIP Board, among other defendants. In their complaint, the plaintiffs challenged the 2010 policy changes and alleged, among other things, that the 2010 policy treated them differently from other public-education employees and PEEHIP participants.

         The alleged disparity, as far as this Court can tell from the complaint and other materials in the record, is this: When one spouse in a family is a public-education employee, and thus one allotment is available, that allotment may be used to purchase family coverage, and the family pays the family-coverage premium. When both spouses are public-education employees and wish to purchase family coverage, then both allotments must be used, and the family also pays the family-coverage premium. The couple cannot use one allotment toward the family coverage and use the other allotment to obtain an optional plan. Thus, one of the spouses, it is alleged, is effectively denied the use of an allotment when compared to other public-education employees: The insurance benefits the two married public-education employees receive with both allotments--family coverage--is the same as the insurance benefits a family with one public-education employee receives using one allotment. It also appears that the plaintiffs challenge the fact that, since the 2010 policy changes, they now have to pay premiums for family coverage when, under the prior policy, they could combine their allotments and pay no premiums.[3]

         The plaintiffs alleged that the 2010 policy

"violated Article V, § 138.03, Alabama Constitution of 1901, as well as the public-education plaintiffs' rights to equal protection, due process, and freedom of association under the Alabama Constitution, the United States Constitution, and 42 U.S.C. § 1983. The public-education plaintiffs also alleged that the [2010] policy violated Alabama public policy and their right to family integrity as protected by the Alabama Constitution. The public-education plaintiffs sought relief in the form of (1) a judgment declaring '[the PEEHIP defendants'] practice of denying an allotment for insurance benefits to educators who are married to another educator and who have dependent children to be unconstitutional, discriminatory and unlawful under both State and Federal law'; (2) an injunction preventing the PEEHIP defendants from 'denying an allotment for insurance benefits to educators whose spouse is also an educator in the public school system and who have dependent children'; (3) restitution of 'amounts ... unlawfully withheld and/or ... amounts [the public-education plaintiffs] have paid for insurance that they would not have paid absent [the PEEHIP defendants'] unlawful conduct' or other equitable relief; and (4) costs and attorney fees."

RSA I, 182 So.3d at 531 (footnote omitted).

         In RSA I, we considered the propriety of the trial court's denial of the defendants' motion to dismiss pursuant to Rules 12(b)(1) and 12(b)(6), Ala. R. Civ. P., on the ground of, among other things, the doctrine of State immunity. Noting that the plaintiffs had voluntarily agreed to dismiss some of their claims and further concluding that other claims were barred by State immunity, we granted the petition as to all claims and parties except for the "plaintiffs' claims for injunctive relief, pursuant to § 1983, against the members of the PEEHIP Board and Bronner, in his capacity as secretary-treasurer of PEEHIP." RSA I, 182 So.3d at 530.

         Following this Court's decision in RSA I, proceedings resumed in the trial court on the plaintiffs' remaining federal claims against the PEEHIP Board and Bronner (hereinafter referred to collectively as "the defendants") seeking injunctive relief. The defendants filed a motion requesting a summary judgment as to those claims on various grounds. Specifically, the motion contended that PEEHIP participants did not actually receive an allotment of PEEHIP funds in any particular dollar amount; the employer contribution is actually paid by the employer to the Public Education Employees Health Insurance Fund ("PEEHIF"). The defendants argued that PEEHIP participants instead received insurance coverage. Additionally, the defendants argued that the plaintiffs were unable to establish an equal-protection violation because, they argued, the plaintiffs could not show that they were treated differently from other similarly situated individuals because, after the 2010 policy changes, the plaintiffs now pay the same premiums as other PEEHIP participants for ...


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