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Frank Bernard and Gloria Allred.
On August 28, 2014, a California man filed a discrimination lawsuit against the Michigan-based parent company of pizza giant Little Caesars over the denial of health benefits to his husband. The suit, which was filed by attorney Gloria Allred on behalf of Frank Bernard in Superior Court in Orange County, California, where Little Caesars' regional headquarters is located, names Little Caesar Enterprises of Detroit and Ilitch Holdings as defendants, and seeks, in addition to damages and costs, a change in the pizza chain's benefits policy that denies health insurance to the spouses of gay employees. The suit is significant because it raises the question of whether a closely held company located in one state can evade the laws of other states in which it operates.
As reported by Matt Reynolds of Courthouse News Service, Bernard, who was legally married in California in 2008, worked for the pizza chain from March to July 2014. He left his job in a matter of months, he says, because the company would not provide health insurance benefits for his husband.
Bernard joined the company as a trainee and was eligible for benefits after 90 days. When he attempted to secure health insurance for his husband, he was told that it was Little Caesars policy not to offer benefits to same-sex spouses. A letter from the company's human resources department said that "Spouse means the one person to whom you are legally married under the laws of the state in which you reside, including a common law spouse, and who is the opposite gender from you."
When Bernard protested, he was told that the company was domiciled in Michigan and did not have to comply with California law that prohibits discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation.
"I was incredibly angry that Little Caesars apparently thought that they did not have to comply with California law, that they could discriminate against me as they pleased, and that there would be no repercussions," Bernard said in a statement.
Ilitch Holdings' principals Mike Ilitch and Marian Ilitch own Little Caesars, the country's third largest pizza chain. In addition, the married couple owns the Detroit Red Wings hockey team, the Detroit Tigers baseball team, the MotorCity Casino, and Champion Foods.
Little Caesars spokeswoman Jennifer Arapoff told Courthouse News that the chain is "very proud of our long-standing commitment to non-discrimination and inclusiveness," but declined to comment on the pending litigation.
Allred said in a statement that Little Caesars' policy hurts gay and lesbian couples "economically and emotionally and denies them respect and dignity."
The lawsuit has, at least potentially, great significance given Little Caesars' claim that they are not bound by California law. While this claim seems laughable on its face, the Supreme Court ruling in the Hobby Lobby case earlier this year may provide closely-held companies like Ilitch Holdings, Inc. a defense. They could conceivably claim that offering benefits to the same-sex spouses of their employees violate their religious beliefs.
However, the companies owned by Ilitch Holdings are so high-profile--especially, the iconic sports teams and the pizza chain--as to be particularly vulnerable to boycotts and other kinds of pressure.
In the video below, Gloria Allred and her client Frank Bernard explain more details of the lawsuit.