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Court: DOMA decision requires payment of death benefits to surviving same-gender spouse

PHILADELPHIA -- Chalk up another win in court.

Judge C. Darnell Jones II of the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania today ordered payment of death benefits to Jennifer Tobits, the widow of Sarah Ellyn Farley, under a profit-sharing plan administered by Farley’s employer, the law firm Cozen O’Conner P.C.

The court held that because the federal Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) was recently struck down as unconstitutional by the U.S. Supreme Court, federally-regulated retirement and benefit plans must recognize the legal marriages of same-sex couples for purposes of spousal benefits such as those due to Tobits.

The court’s decision relied on the Supreme Court’s June 26, 2013, decision in United States v. Windsor, which struck down the portion of DOMA that prohibited federal laws from recognizing the legal marriages of same-sex couples.

Referring to the DOMA decision, Judge Jones said: "Following the Court’s ruling, 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.’"

Judge Jones further ruled that federal laws "establish a floor for privately sponsored employee benefit plans with respect to spousal benefits. ... Today’s holding makes clear … that Windsor leveled the floor."

"I am overjoyed that the court has said my marriage to Ellyn deserves the same respect as everyone else’s," Tobits said. "Nothing can ever replace Ellyn, but it’s a great tribute to her that the courts have rejected these challenges to our marriage and recognized our commitment to each other and the life we built together."

The couple married in Toronto in 2006 and lived in Chicago. Two weeks after their wedding, Farley was diagnosed with a rare and aggressive form of cancer. The couple fought the disease together for four years until September 2010, when Farley passed away. She was 37.

Shortly after her death, Farley’s parents told her employer, Cozen O’Connor, that they should receive their daughter’s death benefits under the firm’s profit-sharing plan. Tobits also requested that she receive the benefits because she was the surviving spouse. In January 2011, Cozen O’Connor filed an action in the federal district court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania to determine whether Tobits or Farley’s parents should receive the benefits.

Cozen O’Connor argued in the lawsuit that DOMA prevented the firm from recognizing Farley’s marriage and treating Tobits as a surviving spouse. Farley’s parents also claimed that the Cozen O’Connor profit sharing plan was prohibited from recognizing Tobits as a surviving spouse. Today, the court rejected both of those arguments and ruled that federal law requires the plan to recognize Tobits as the surviving spouse.

National Center for Lesbian Rights Legal Director Shannon Minter, who is representing Tobits, said: "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."

Attorney Teresa Renaker, who also represents Tobits, added: "This decision makes clear that federal pension law protects same-sex spouses just as it does opposite-sex spouses. Under the rationale of this decision, employees can be confident that their hard-earned retirement benefits will be there for their spouses. Protecting the retirement security of spouses is an important part of ensuring that employees get equal benefits from their retirement plans."

NCLR and co-counsel Benjamin L. Jerner and Tiffany Palmer of Jerner & Palmer, P.C. and Teresa Renaker and Nina Wasow of Lewis, Feinberg, Lee, Renaker and Jackson, represent Tobits in the case.

Read the decision HERE.