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Federal judge: post-Windsor, same-sex spouses entitled to retirement benefits under ERISA plans

DOMA trials

By Scottie Thomaston

District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania
District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania

Yesterday, a federal district court issued its final decision in Cozen O’Connor v. Tobits, a long-awaited decision in a challenge to Section 3 of the federal Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA). The judge ruled that after United States v. Windsor, the plaintiffs challenging the law should win. The case involved a married same-sex couple who sought retirement benefits from one spouse’s private employer – Cozen O’Connor, a law firm. The Employee Retirement Income Security Act (ERISA) is a federal law that provides a base line for implementing these plans, and it had always used the opposite-sex only meaning of “surviving spouse” provided by Section 3 of DOMA’s restriction of “spouse” to opposite-sex couples. Since Windsor held Section 3’s definition unconstitutional, the judge wrote, ERISA plans can’t block same-sex couples from receiving benefits any longer.

The decision marks a further-reaching outcome than most other challenges to Section 3 of DOMA so far, as attorneys from the National Center for Lesbian Rights told Buzzfeed:

Shannon Minter, the National Center for Lesbian Rights attorney representing Tobits, said the ruling was as broad as Jones had begun describing in his decision—that it applied to all legally married same-sex couples.

“Today’s decision is not only a victory for Jennifer and Ellyn, it is a victory for every married same-sex couple in the country. 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,” Minter said in a statement.
Chris Stoll, another NCLR attorney on the case, compared the decision to the government’s implementation of immigration law and federal employee health insurance benefits, saying, “We see this decision as showing that ERISA is going to be in that category of benefits that are included as long as the marriage was valid in the place of celebration, regardless of where the couple is.”

The case, the judge wrote, comes down to the question of who is a spouse for purposes of the law firm’s ERISA-qualified plan. Since the plan is modeled on ERISA’s baseline, and since there is no definition of “spouse” embedded within the plan’s terms, “[b]ased on the language of the Plan — which Cozen drafted pursuant to ERISA’s mandates — the Court must look to ERISA and then the Code for those definitions.” And DOMA Section 3’s federal definition meant that ERISA considered someone a spouse if they were in an opposite-sex marriage. Windsor‘s decision invalidating that definition means that “the term “Spouse” is no longer unconstitutionally restricted to members of the opposite sex, but now rightfully includes those same-sex spouses in “otherwise valid marriages.””

What’s less clear is how the court decided the couple in this case is married for purposes of ERISA. There are different ways in which someone is considered to be a “spouse”, depending on which federal law is at issue. Sometimes the “place of celebration” is used, meaning that if a marriage was considered legal in the place where it was performed, it’s a legal marriage for purposes of some federal laws. Other times, the “place of domicile” is the key factor: if the marriage is considered legal where the couple lives. The opinion itself uses seemingly different language, writing that “[t]here can be no doubt that Illinois, the couple’s place of domicile, would consider Ms. Tobits Ms. Farley’s “surviving Spouse” — indeed it already has made that specific finding under state law,” but also that “where a state recognizes” the marriage, it is legal.

But the opinion also says that Illinois recognized the couple’s Canadian marriage as a civil union because of a state law laying out how same-sex unions are recognized, though, apparently, under another provision, a spouse is equal to someone in a civil union under Illinois law. And it’s not clear, based on the opinion at least, whether ERISA uses the place of celebration or place of domicile method for determining recognition of a marriage for purposes of issuing retirement benefits.

The bottom line, though, is that the judge held that a same-sex spouse is a spouse for purposes of federal law after the demise of Section 3 of DOMA in Windsor, and ERISA plans have to comply with that constitutional definition.

Thanks to Kathleen Perrin for this filing

2:11-cv-00045 #144 by EqualityCaseFiles

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