Newly-elected Judge Sonya L. Heath of the 310th District Court of Harris County dismissed the Pidgeon case last week after ruling on competing final motions for summary judgment by either party.

In 2013, the Houston Mayor directed that the City provide employee benefits to spouses in same-sex marriages, the same as spouses in heterosexual marriages. Two conservative activists in Houston filed suit against the Mayor and City, arguing that the expenditures violated the state and city defense of marriage act because the City was “expending significant public funds on an illegal activity”. The Plaintiffs alleged that the state and city’s defense of marriage acts remained valid, even in light of the recent Windsor opinion decrying the similar federal law because Windsor didn’t require any state to recognize same-sex marriages from other states.

Interestingly, this case was filed in the family district court where a Republican judge remained on the bench. It was not a family law matter and should have been filed in the civil courts of Harris County. Democrats already predominated the civil benches in Harris County at the time of the filing. I’m not sure how it came to be filed in a family court with a presumably friendly judge.

The trial judge, then Republican Lisa Millard, denied the Mayor/City’s plea to the jurisdiction challenging the Plaintiffs’ standing and granted the Plaintiffs’ temporary injunction prohibiting the mayor from providing the benefits. The Mayor/City sought interlocutory appeal.

While the appeal was pending, the US Supreme Court came out with the Obergefell v. Hodges decision which invalidated the state defense of marriage acts and gave same-sex marriage equal protection status under the law. Both sides argued about the application of Obergefell to the Pidgeon case. The Plaintiffs believed that Obergefell only required the state to recognize same-sex marriages, but not to require the state to pay taxpayer-funded benefits to them.

The court of appeals reversed the injunction and remanded the case back to the trial court, holding that Obergefell controlled and validated the marriages, preventing the Plaintiffs’ recovery.

The Texas Supreme Court undertook review of the case in 2017. The Plaintiffs took issue with the court of appeals ruling to “reverse” the injunction as having preclusive effect to a future application, instead arguing that the court of appeals should have “vacated” the injunction in light of the change in the law and remanded to the trial court for further consideration. The Texas Supreme Court agreed with that argument and held that the injunctions should be “vacated” in light of the change in the law due to Obergefell and sent back to the trial court for further consideration under the new law. The Texas Supreme Court went further and opined that the Obergefell decision did not hold the Texas defense of marriage act unconstitutional and did not hold that states must provide the same publicly funded benefits to all married persons . The Court acknowledged that it was not concluding that the Texas defense of marriage act was constitutional, but just that those issues are in question in light of the Obergefell decision and would not get reached in the Court’s opinion. Because the parties were entitled to an opportunity to fully and fairly develop their positions in light of the Obergefell decision, the right thing to do was to send the case back to the trial court to argue the meaning and ramifications of Obergefell.

Note that many refer to the question existing in the Pidgeon case as the question of the application of the “constellation of benefits” the state or federal government affords to married couples in light of same-sex marriage being recognized — whether equal protection also requires the same constellation of benefits to be afforded to those marriages.

Judge Sonya Heath, 310th Judicial District Court, Harris County, Texas

Upon remand, the parties fully briefed their claims and submitted them to the newly elected Democrat Judge Heath via summary judgment motions. When both sides to a suit submit competing requests for final summary judgments, the case can be decided completely within that procedure and without a trial on the merits. This is because both parties claim that the legal questions control the resolution of the case and that no factual issues remain.

Judge Heath granted the Mayor’s plea to the jurisdiction and motion for summary judgment, effectively denying the Plaintiffs’ competing motions, and ended the case.

To read Judge Heath’s Order Dismissing the suit: Pidgeon Order Dismissing

The Plaintiffs promise to appeal.

To be continued….


To read the Texas Supreme Court’s decision in Pidgeon, click here.

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Photo of Michelle O'Neil Michelle O'Neil

Michelle May O’Neil has 30+ years’ experience representing small business owners, professionals, and individuals in litigation related to family law matters such as divorce, child custody, and complex property division. Described by one lawyer as “a lethal combination of sweet-and-salty”, Ms. O’Neil exudes…

Michelle May O’Neil has 30+ years’ experience representing small business owners, professionals, and individuals in litigation related to family law matters such as divorce, child custody, and complex property division. Described by one lawyer as “a lethal combination of sweet-and-salty”, Ms. O’Neil exudes genuine compassion for her client’s difficulties, yet she can be relentless when in pursuit of a client’s goals. One judge said of Ms. O’Neil, “She cannot be out-gunned, out-briefed, or out-lawyered!”

Family Law Specialist

Ms. O’Neil became a board-certified family law specialist by the Texas Board of Legal Specialization in 1997 and has maintained her certification since that time. While representing clients in litigation before the trial court is an important part of her practice, Ms. O’Neil also handles appellate matters in the trial court, courts of appeals and Texas Supreme Court. Lawyers frequently consult with Ms. O’Neil on their litigation cases about specialized legal issues requiring particularized attention both at the trial court and appellate levels. This gives her a unique perspective and depth of perception that benefits both her litigation and appellate clients.

Top Lawyers in Texas and America

Ms. O’Neil has been named to the list of Texas SuperLawyers for many years, a peer-voted honor given to only about 5% of the lawyers in the state of Texas. Ms. O’Neil received the special honor of being named by Texas SuperLawyers as one of the Top 50 Women Lawyers in Texas, Top 100 Lawyers in Texas, and Top 100 Lawyers in DFW for multiple years. She was named one of the Best Lawyers in America and received an “A-V” peer review rating by Martindale-Hubbell Legal Directories for the highest quality legal ability and ethical standards.

Author and Speaker

A noted author, Ms. O’Neil released her second book Basics of Texas Divorce Law in November 2010, with a second edition released in 2013, and a third edition expected in 2015.  Her first book, All About Texas Law and Kids, was published in September 2009 by Texas Lawyer Press. In 2012, Ms. O’Neil co-authored the booklets What You Need To Know About Common Law Marriage In Texas and Social Study Evaluations.  The State Bar of Texas and other providers of continuing education for attorneys frequently enlist Ms. O’Neil to provide instruction to attorneys on topics of her expertise in the family law arena.