Federal Court in Philadelphia Applies Same-Sex Marriage Ruling to Uphold Spousal Death Benefits

By Hillary Scrivani, WLP Legal Intern

Just over a month ago in United States v. Windsor, the United States Supreme Court held that the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), which defined marriage as between a man and a woman for the purpose of federal laws and therefore federal benefits, was unconstitutional.  The Court held that DOMA violated the Due Process Clause of the Constitution because its purpose was based on a desire to harm and was therefore improper.  The Court reasoned that if a state wishes to grant equal marriage benefits to same-sex couples, the federal government has no power to infringe upon that state policy by treating same-sex marriages differently under federal law.  Though the decision is unquestionably a victory for same-sex marriage, it left many questions unanswered.  Already, lower federal courts are beginning to address these questions. On July 29, 2013, Judge Darnell Jones of the Eastern District of Pennsylvania held in Cozen O’Connor v. Tobits that a same-sex marriage that took place in Canada, and was later celebrated in a ceremony in Illinois, would be recognized as valid for the purposes of death benefits for spouses from an employee benefits plan administered in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

The story surrounding the case is heart-wrenching.  Sarah Ellyn Farley married her partner Jennifer Tobits in Canada in February of 2006.  They only got to spend a short amount of time together as a married couple because Ms. Farley was diagnosed with cancer shortly after their marriage, and passed away in September of 2010.  As if the loss of her spouse was not enough, Ms. Tobits had to face a competing claim for the death benefits entitled to surviving spouses under the employee benefits profit sharing plan administered by Ms. Farley’s company.  Ms. Farley’s parents, who under the plan would default to receive the benefits if the deceased employee did not have a spouse, asserted that they were entitled to the benefits because Ms. Tobits should not be viewed as a spouse under the plan.

The Employment Retirement and Income Security Act (ERISA) and the Internal Revenue Code (IRC), both federal laws, require Ms. Farley’s employee benefits plan to meet certain qualifications.  These qualifications include mandatory spousal benefits provisions.  The plan explicitly requires that it be construed in accordance with ERISA and the IRC, meaning that the terms in the plan are to be supplied by ERISA and the IRC if they are not defined within it.

The Tobits court reasoned that because “spouse” is not defined in the plan beyond the requirement that a spouse must have been married to the deceased employee for at least a year before receiving benefits, and the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) was found to be unconstitutional in Windsor, under ERISA and the IRC, and therefore the plan, the word “spouse” now includes a person in a valid same-sex marriage.

The court then assessed whether the marriage between Ms. Tobits and Ms. Farley was valid in order for them to be considered spouses under federal law and in turn the employee benefits plan.  The court stated that because their Canadian marriage certificate was valid, and because they had another ceremony to celebrate their marriage in Illinois (where the couple resided prior to Ms. Farley’s death and where state law would consider Ms. Tobits to be Ms. Farley’s spouse under an employee benefits plan), under the requirement of Windsor that federal laws acknowledge valid state marriages, Ms. Tobits is the surviving spouse of Ms. Farley for purposes of the benefits plan and is entitled to the death benefits.

The decision in Tobits is a step in the right direction for widespread recognition of same-sex marriages.  Given that marriage is mainly governed by state law, it was unclear what impact the holding of Windsor would have on certain benefits for same-sex spouses in other jurisdictions and under different factual circumstances. This case shows Windsor being applied to preserve equal treatment of same-sex marriages in a very specific situation, despite some states’ continuing hostile treatment of same-sex couples seeking equal marriage rights.

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