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Pennsylvania Court: Lesbian Widow Is Entitled To Survivors Benefits

OpinionThe U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania issued the 12-page earlier today, citing Windsor v. United
 and the death of Section 3 of DOMA as the chief reason why Jean Tobits is entitled to the proper benefits under the Employee Retirement Income Security Act, or ERISA. Tobits' spouse, Sarah Ellyn Farley, succumbed to cancer in 2010, and Tobits has had to fight for her benefits ever since. 

The Washington Blade gives us the background:

"The lawsuit, known as O’Connor v. Tobits, came about in 2011 as the result of Cozen O’ Connor PC, the law firm where Farley worked, filing an interpleader action. Both Tobits and Farley’s parents, who didn’t recognize the marriage of her lesbian daughter, requested payment of the Pre-Retirement Survivor Annuity after Farley’s death that was available under the firm’s profit sharing plan."

The opinion explained that:

“Windsor makes clear that where a state has recognized a marriage as valid, the United States Constitution requires that the federal laws and regulations of this country acknowledge that marriage. In light of that, this Court finds that Ms. Tobits is Ms. Farley’s ‘Spouse’ pursuant to the terms of the Plan.”

What's interesting about this explanation is that Tobits and Farley were not technically "married". Rather, they were recognized in Illinois, their state of residence, as members of a civil union. Illinois is not currently one of the states that recognizes full marriage equality. The two were also "married" in Canada in 2006. Thus, this ruling helps answer one of the main questions that many had in the wake of DOMA's death. Mainly, does the federal government define a couple as "legally married" based on where they had their ceremony, or where they reside?

Doug NeJaime, a gay law professor at the University of California, gave his analysis to the Washington Blade.

“The interesting thing here is that the court finds support for the inclusion of the same-sex spouse based on the couple’s domicile being Illinois, a civil union state. In this sense, the court is suggesting that because civil union statutes give those in civil unions the rights of spouses, that is enough for federal purposes as well.”

Seal_of_the_U.S._District_Court_for_the_Eastern_District_of_PennsylvaniaThis runs somewhat contrary to the Obama administration and the The U.S. Office of Personnel Management. The office's current policy dictates that federal employees must be legally married in the United States, not in a civil union or domestic partnership, to be eligible for partner benefits. NeJaime added:

“The court is saying that the couple with a marriage from Canada residing in Illinois should be treated like spouses, but this does lead to the potential conclusion that those in civil unions in general should be treated like spouses.”

Chris Stoll, a senior staff attorney for the National Center for Lesbian Rights, also agreed that the court's decision sets a promising precedent. 

“The judge noted that Illinois respected their relationship and gave them all of the same rights and benefits as other married couples, but his ruling does not appear to depend on that fact. A couple that was married in any jurisdiction that allows it should be treated the same as any other married couple for purposes of federally mandated employee benefits, regardless of where they live.”

Read the full opinion HERE

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  1. They are validly married - the case striking down the provisions of DOMA do not say that a same-sex wedding has to occur in the United States to be valid for federal purposes, does it? That would be odd, since out-of-country opposite sex marriages are recognized everywhere in the U.S.

    Posted by: E. Dallas | Jul 29, 2013 8:27:49 PM

  2. "Tobits and Farley were not technically 'married'" Huh? Of course they were married. They were married in Canada, the same as Edie Windsor was married in Canada. However, their marriage was only recognized as a civil union in Illinois, and was not recognized at all in Pennsylvania, the state where Farley's pension fund was located. The writer of this article also wrote that they were "'married' in Canada in 2006" (with "married" in quotes), as if the marriage wasn't real. That's the same kind of thing that NOM does when they discuss same-sex marriage.

    Posted by: Alf | Jul 29, 2013 9:24:26 PM

  3. Agreed, @Alf. They weren't "married" in Canada. The post is convoluted. They were married in Canada, even if the marriage wasn't recognized as a marriage in Illinois. As the NCLR attorney says, the ruling depended mostly on the Windsor DOMA decision. (Edie and Thea were also married in Canada; their marriage was recognized in NY.) The fact that their marriage could be recognized as a civil union in Illinois seemed to be more of a side factor, though that too could have implications for the future. It seems to me that the Washington Blade article might be overstating the importance of the CU, but I'll let legal experts address that.

    Posted by: Ernie | Jul 29, 2013 9:45:39 PM

  4. Agree with Alf. Remove the quotes from "married". Not sure why they're there. Also, they were married in Canada. Come on.

    Posted by: Tim | Jul 29, 2013 9:56:29 PM

  5. If this case stands for the proposition that Canadian marriages must be recognized as valid for purposes of ERISA, that's great.

    If this case stands for the proposition that an Illinois civil union gives a couple the same rights (under ERISA) as a married couple, that is a really double-edged sort. The good news is that couples in civil unions might get the same protection as married couples. But the bad news is that this proposition helps undermine the argument that marriage -- and only marriage, NOT civil unions -- is needed to insure that same-sex couples have all of their federal rights. That could lead states to "stop" at civil unions and domestic partnerships, and not extend marriage to same sex couples.

    Posted by: MiddleoftheRoader | Jul 29, 2013 10:25:19 PM

  6. If she survived that she deserves benefits.

    Posted by: Josh | Jul 29, 2013 10:41:29 PM

  7. I haven't posted here in years (and anyone who regularly reads the posts here doesn't have to wonder why), but this is beyond the pale.

    You seriously wrote that they "were not "technically 'married'", regardless of the fact that they were legally married, which you also note? You seriously put quotation marks around their marriage not once, but twice? And yet I'm not on a right-wing hate group site?

    What in the world is wrong with you? How stupid does a gay man living in the real world have to be to do something this horrible? Again: what in the world is wrong with you?

    Posted by: oncemorewithfeeling | Jul 30, 2013 12:36:30 AM

  8. Perhaps more of a confusing way of indicating the couple was actually "married" rather than diminishing the marital status. However, it does seem that a word is actually missing in the first sentence...

    Anyway, great news, and thanks for the post. Living in NJ, under the bigot and bully Christie, we're still paying federal taxes on health insurance thru my partner's (hate that word) employer--$30k and counting.

    Looks like the case didn't address social security survivor's benefits--equaling tens of thousands EVERY YEAR.

    Posted by: rick scatorum | Jul 30, 2013 5:31:03 AM

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