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Lambda Legal announced on Nov. 1 that the Justice Department has dismissed two pending appeals to the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco, paving the way for the enforcement of warrants by federal courts in Washington and Arizona state in favor of Lambda’s claim that same-sex partners who would have married their spouses before marriage should be entitled to statutory survivor benefits under the Social Security Act (SSA).
The SSA states that if a married Social Security beneficiary dies, the surviving spouse is entitled to a small death benefit and a continuation of the monthly benefits their deceased spouse had received. When marriage equality began to take off at the state level, starting with Massachusetts, where same-sex couples could marry as of May 2004, their right to spouse survivor benefits should have been expanded, but the federal Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) stood in the way, preventing the Social Security Administration from recognizing such marriages.
By the time DOMA was declared unconstitutional in 2013, marriage equality had been won in several states and the Social Security Administration had begun awarding benefits to surviving same-sex spouses of SSA eligibility recipients who had been legally married for at least nine months before their spouses left. dead. The required duration of nine months is enshrined in law and introduced to prevent fraudulent attempts by people to marry dying people in order to claim spousal support.
In 2015, the Supreme Court ruled in the Obergefell case that same-sex couples have the same right to marry as opposite-sex couples under the age of 14.e Amendment to the Constitution, which was passed in 1868. The question remained whether this newly discovered right could be retroactively extended in an old constitutional provision to grant marital status to same-sex couples who allegedly married but were barred from doing so by state law, a problem especially acute. has occurred in states that recognize common law marriages, where old same-sex partners make claims based on equality relationships before marriage. The two Lambda lawsuits related to this issue under the SSA survivor benefits.
A class of survivors whose claims for partner benefits were denied were represented in a 2018 case that Lambda filed on behalf of Michael Ely in the Arizona court. Ely married his 43-year-old partner James Taylor in 2014, after the state of Arizona complied with a court ruling on marriage equality. Ely and Taylor had moved in together in California in 1971 and moved to Arizona in the early 1990s. Taylor was the “breadwinner” and Ely the “housewife” in their relationship. They often talked about getting married during their long relationship, and even considered going to California to get married when it became possible there earlier, but decided not to do so until their marriage was recognized in Arizona. It was Taylor whose payroll taxes qualified him as a Social Security beneficiary. He was diagnosed with cancer in 2013.
When the men married on November 14, 2014, Taylor had only six months to live. After Taylor died, Ely filed for spouse benefits, which the Social Security Administration rejected, even though the federal government was required to recognize the marriage as a result of the Windsor Supreme Court decision of June 2013. The benefits were denied because the men had been married less than nine months when Taylor died. Lambda’s lawsuit alleged that because the inability for these men to marry earlier was due to an unconstitutional Arizona law, Ely would have to qualify based on evidence of their relationship showing that they would have married much sooner if it were legal. been.
U.S. Magistrate Judge Bruce G. Macdonald, who was designated by the district court to rule on the preliminary investigation claims, ruled on May 26, 2020, that Lambda was right. He declared the case a class action by people who were in a similar situation to Ely and Taylor, who were married when it became legal, but whose marriage was terminated by the death of the Social Security beneficiary less than nine months after their marriage, but to the exclusion of people who would be part of the class action in the Thornton case, as described below. One of the members of the class is James Obergefell, the lead prosecutor in the Supreme Court’s 2015 marriage equality case, who married James Arthur shortly before Arthur’s death in 2013 and then filed a lawsuit seeking to marry off their home state of Ohio. to be recognized and to file a marriage equality request. case that went to the Supreme Court.
After certifying the class, Judge Macdonald issued an injunction forbidding the Social Security Administration “from denying benefits from classmates without considering whether survivors of same-sex couples banned by unconstitutional laws from marrying for at least nine months would otherwise be in eligible for survivor benefits,” and sent the case back to Social Security for calculation and award of benefits to Ely. Under Macdonald’s ruling, members of the class can apply (or reapply, as the case may be) and receive benefits accordingly to request.
The second class of survivors — in a separate lawsuit filed by Lambda in Washington state in 2018 — were represented by Helen Thornton, who lived for 27 years in a marriage-like relationship with Margery Brown that would be legalized if marriage equality was available. in Washington State when Brown died in 2006. That was a year before Washington recognized domestic partnerships and six years before it allowed same-sex marriages. In January 2015, Thornton applied for a survivor’s benefit based on Brown’s track record. To determine whether to sue, the government admitted the women would have married had it been possible.
Social Security rejected Thornton’s application, stating that because the women were not married when Brown died, she could not recognize Thornton as a legally surviving spouse and, at the time of her death, Washington State did not recognize same-sex marriage. Lambda’s lawsuit argued that because not allowing or recognizing same-sex marriages was unconstitutional, the government should grant surviving spouse status to those who can prove they would have been married had it been possible. The court referred the case to Magistrate Judge J. Richard Creatura.
Judge Creatura recommended certifying a class made up of “all individuals throughout the country who apply for Social Security survivor benefits based on the employment history of their same-sex partner and who do not meet the marriage requirements.” could qualify for such benefits due to applicable laws prohibiting “sex marriage,” but excluding people whose disqualification was due to the nine-month rule for being classmates in the Ely case. The judge also advised the district court to sue the government. to reconsider classmates’ claims and not deny benefits to classmates without verifying that they “would have met marriage requirements, but for applicable laws prohibiting same-sex marriage.”
On September 11, 2020, District Judge James L. Robart accepted Judge Creatura’s report and recommendations and issued the appropriate warrants. The Trump administration promptly appealed both decisions to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit.
The Biden administration’s decision to withdraw the appeals means that both decisions can take full effect. In an announcement released Nov. 1, Lambda stated, “For the first time, surviving same-sex partners who were not allowed to marry while their partners were alive have the same avenue to benefits if they apply now or in the future, if those which are protected by last year’s Thornton ruling, which was limited to people who had previously applied until November 20.” Lambda has published guidelines on the implementation of the rulings on its website, lambdalegal.org.
The Biden administration’s decision to go beyond the scope of the Thornton ruling, which was based on the composition of the proposed class at the time Judge Robart signed his warrant, is an application of President Biden’s general policy. on inauguration day when he passed executive orders mandating federal government equal treatment for LGBTQ people and instructed federal agencies to adjust their policies accordingly.