Same-sex marriage recognized in ruling on benefits

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In the wake of the U.S. Supreme Court's decision in United States v. Windsor, a Pennsylvania federal judge has ruled that the wife, not the parents, of a deceased female partner at Cozen O'Connor is entitled to her profit-sharing benefits.

U.S. District Judge C. Darnell Jones II of the Eastern District of Pennsylvania determined that the terms of the federally regulated profit-sharing plan at issue would dictate whether defendant Jennifer Tobits could be considered as the wife of her former partner, Sarah Ellyn Farley, wife for purposes of collecting the benefits. The two were married in Canada in 2006, and the case came down to whether an Employee Retirement Income Security Act-qualified plan requires recognition of a Canadian marriage.

In narrowly tailoring his ruling, Judge Jones said he did not have to decide any issues of Pennsylvania state law, which still defines marriage as between one man and one woman.

"Prior to the court's decision in Windsor, under the plain language of ERISA, the [Internal Revenue] Code and the plan at issue in this case, qualified retirement plans were under no obligation to provide benefits to same-sex spouses," 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.' "

In its June 26 opinion in Windsor, the Supreme Court determined that Section 3 of the federal Defense of Marriage Act defining marriage as between a man and a woman was unconstitutional. While the plan at issue doesn't expressly define "spouse," Judge Jones said there can "be no doubt" that Ms. Tobits is Farley's surviving spouse under the plan in light of Windsor.

"Post-Windsor, where a state recognizes a party as a 'surviving spouse,' the federal government must do the same with respect to ERISA benefits -- at least pursuant to the express language of the ERISA-qualified plan at issue here," he said.

The judge said Illinois, where Farley and Ms. Tobits lived before Farley's death, would recognize Ms. Tobits as Farley's surviving spouse. The judge said the state has done so in declaring Tobits as Farley's sole heir.

After Farley died, Illinois enacted a civil union law that, while not allowing for same-sex marriage, allowed for the recognition of such marriages entered into in other states.

"Windsor makes clear that where a state has recognized a marriage as valid, the U.S. Constitution requires that the federal laws and regulations of this country acknowledge that marriage," Judge Jones said.

He further noted that Cozen O'Connor's plan contains language that mirrors the mandates of ERISA and the Internal Revenue Code and expressly requires the plan be construed according to those laws. He said that means the federal laws supply the meanings to the plan, and not the other way around.

"ERISA and the Code merely establish a floor for privately sponsored employee benefit plans with respect to spousal benefits," Judge Jones said in a footnote. "Privately sponsored plans have discretion to go beyond these requirements -- indeed many do. Today's holding makes clear, however, that Windsor leveled the floor."

Cozen O'Connor, in January 2011, asked the court to decide whether Ms. Tobits or Farley's parents, David and Joan Farley, were entitled to the benefits.

Though both sides argued that the court could answer that question without addressing the constitutionality of DOMA, the issue was extensively briefed. The U.S. Department of Justice declined to argue in support of the law and so the U.S. House of Representatives Bipartisan Legal Advisory Group stepped in to defend DOMA's constitutionality. The group withdrew from the case after Windsor was issued. Judge Jones had placed the case on the suspense docket to await a decision in Windsor.

Outside observers and those involved in the case debated after Windsor was decided whether Farley and Ms. Tobits' Canadian marriage would be recognized as legally valid in this case, in which the plan was administered in Pennsylvania and the couple lived in Illinois.

Teresa S. Renaker of Lewis Feinberg Lee Renaker & Jackson in Oakland, Calif., who represents Ms. Tobits, said in June that nothing in the pension plan requires that the marriage to be recognized by a particular state. She said opposite-sex couples get married wherever they want and don't necessarily live where they were married.

"So I think that certainly from the point of view of administering a pension plan, the most sensible rule is what we would call a 'place of celebration' rule, meaning if the marriage is recognized where it was entered, it's a marriage," Ms. Renaker had said.

H. Robert Fiebach of Cozen O'Connor, who represented his firm, said he was "extremely pleased" with the decision and would pay the benefits into a registry, as the court ordered, immediately.

legalnews

Gina Passarella: gpassarella@alm.com or 215-557-2494. Read more articles like this at www.thelegalintelligencer.com.


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