Citing Supreme Court, Judge Awards Benefits To Same-Sex Widow

Jul 30, 2013
Originally published on July 30, 2013 3:35 pm

Another barrier to recognition of same-sex marriage appears to have fallen. On Monday a federal judge ordered a law firm to pay survivor's benefits to the widow in a same-sex marriage, and on Tuesday the law firm said it was happy to comply and would not appeal.

The decision is the latest in a series of court rulings equalizing benefits for legally married same-sex couples in the aftermath of a U.S. Supreme Court ruling.

U.S. District Judge Darnell Jones II ordered the firm of Cozen O'Connor to pay the widow, Jennifer Tobits, some $40,000 in death benefits under the firm's profit-sharing plan. The judge's decision relied on the Supreme Court's June 26 ruling, which struck down the key provision of the Defense of Marriage Act. DOMA barred federal recognition of legal same-sex marriages.

Tobits and Ellyn Farley, a litigator at Cozen O'Connor, were married in Canada in 2006, and their marriage was recognized under Illinois law. But when Farley died of cancer four years later at the age of 37, her parents told her employer that they, not Tobits, should receive the $40,000 in death benefits under the firm's profit-sharing plan.

In 2011 the Philadelphia-based firm filed court papers asserting that DOMA prevented it from recognizing the marriage as legal and legitimate, that Tobits thus could not be recognized as a spouse under the federal pension and benefits law, meaning that the parents would get the money.

Judge Jones, however, noted that DOMA has now been struck down by the Supreme Court, and the judge thus awarded the death benefits to Tobits. In particular, the judge noted that provisions of the law firm's plan automatically award death benefits to the surviving spouse, unless otherwise specified, and that the federal law governing employment benefits has a similar provision. The question thus was whether the Tobits-Farley union was a valid marriage, and under Illinois law, the judge observed, it was.

"No longer can employers hide behind DOMA to deny equal benefits to some employees solely because their spouse is a person of the same sex," said Shannon Minter, legal director of the National Center for Lesbian Rights, which represented Tobits.

"This decision makes clear that federal pension law protects same-sex spouses just as it does opposite sex spouses," added attorney Theresa Renaker, who also represented Tobits.

Robert Fiebach of Cozen O'Connor said the firm also was pleased at the outcome.

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