‘I was outraged.’ Merced same-sex couple says they were denied service at H&R Block

Merced same-sex couple said H&R Block declined service

A Merced couple said the West Main Street H&R Block location refused to recognize their same-sex marriage, as they prepared to file taxes jointly as a married couple.
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A Merced couple said the West Main Street H&R Block location refused to recognize their same-sex marriage, as they prepared to file taxes jointly as a married couple.

A same-sex couple in Merced says they filed a state complaint against a local H&R Block claiming employees discriminated against them and denied them tax services.

Sylvia Valdez said she visited the H&R Block location on 12 W. Main St. in Merced on March 31 to get help filing her and her wife Lynn Werner-Valdez’s taxes as a married couple, filing jointly. The couple was legally married in Washington state in 2013, according to their marriage certificate. And Sylvia provided the last two years of tax returns filed as a married couple to aid H&R Block.

But when a tax preparer noticed Sylvia’s spouse’s name was female, the employee told Sylvia the taxes could get “complicated,” Sylvia said. And after a call to a manager, Sylvia said the employee claimed the couple classified as a domestic partnership and couldn’t file their taxes as a married couple.

The couple moved to Merced, Sylvia’s hometown, from Washington in 2017 to take care of family members. The H&R Block employee, Sylvia claims, also said the couple’s Washington tax returns for 2016 and 2017 were filed incorrectly.

“I was outraged,” Sylvia said. “I felt she was discriminating against me. Why is she questioning the legality of my marriage?”

According to a statement responding to questions about the couple’s treatment and employees’ alleged conduct, H&R Block claims its policy is to serve all clients, as outlined in anti-discrimination and anti-harassment policies including gender identity and expression.

“Our ongoing training works to ensure client experiences reflect our policies,” the statement reads. “We take this matter seriously and our field leadership reached out to the client and assured her the appropriate associate action would be taken.”

Sylvia and Lynn said they filed a complaint with the Department of Fair Employment and Housing, and are in the process of obtaining an attorney.

“It was humiliating having to justify to several people that we are married,” Lynn said. “We’ve never dealt with discrimination as blatant as this.”

A 2013 landmark U.S. Supreme Court decision that ruled in favor of same-sex marriages and the rights of same-sex spouses, eliminating the need for domestic partnership status, according to legal experts.

Two years later, another decision required all states to recognize same-sex marriages and grant them equal rights.

Sylvia and Lynn said officials from the company told them the tax service couldn’t discuss whatever action may have been taken because it was confidential.

Lynn said an H&R Block local manager on April 1 told the couple the denial of service the day before was a “training issue.” They also had a separate conversation with another company official.

“She told us ‘What do you need to make this go away?’” Lynn said. “But it’s not just about us. That’s not the point. We can’t be the only (same-sex) couple who was denied.”

The couple said they waited two days for a response back but didn’t receive anything.

Lynn said the couple was taken aback by their final conversation with H&R Block on April 3.

That day, Lynn posted a message to H&R Block’s Facebook page explaining and complaining about their treatment. The couple says later in the day they received another call from a corporate employee, who told them they “shouldn’t feel bad” because the denial service was again a training issue and that H&R Block will “take care of it.”

H&R Block’s alleged conduct was “clearly against California law,” said Stefan Johnson, director of the national help desk of Lambda Legal, an LGBTQ rights advocacy group that works on national policies and laws.

Johnson said a 2008 California Supreme Court decision in Benitez v. North Coast, clarified that the state’s Unruh Civil Rights Act included protection against discrimination in service based on sexual orientation, gender identity and marital status.

“The law is clear in California,” Johnson said.

If the couple’s treatment wasn’t blatant discrimination, Sylvia said, it was discriminatory negligence on the part of tax professionals at H&R Block to not be informed about the laws regarding same-sex marriage, and of state laws prohibiting discrimination that have been around for five years.

“It’s not just a training issue,” said Eli Sachse, a volunteer with the Merced LGBTQ Alliance. “It’s a huge lack of understanding. That person should have known this law. The onus is on H&R to know the law and they clearly didn’t do their job.”

Sachse said he personally didn’t know of anyone else being denied service in Merced due to their sexual orientation or gender. But he said the local LGBTQ community faces many health disparities and lack of health services.

“It’s sort of a red herring ... disingenuous to say it’s a ‘training issue’ or you didn’t know or are not paying attention to what your corporate entity is saying,” Johnson said, noting that H&R Block has a webpage specifically dedicated to inform same-sex married couples on tax laws.

Lynn said the couple was hoping for a sincere apology and explanation for what steps the tax service was taking to fix the issue and make sure it doesn’t happen again.

“People need to know this cut us pretty deep,” Lynn said, noting it was hard watching her wife break down after coming home from H&R Block. “We’re upstanding members of the community. We pay a lot of taxes. Our neighbors love us and we have no problems.”

The couple, who eventually filed their 2018 taxes through a local CPA, said they decided to speak out about their experience for other same-sex couples who may also have been denied.

“It’s scary, speaking out,” Lynn said. “But (same-sex couples) fought hard for these rights. It may seem small, but it’s huge to us.”