A federal judge has ruled in favor of Jennifer Tobits, a lesbian widow who had petitioned for the death benefits of her deceased wife, Sarah Ellyn Farley.
In a 12-page ruling issued July 29, U.S. District Judge C. Darnell Jones 2d awarded Tobits a lump-sum payment of about $41,000.
The women lived in Illinois, where Farley was an attorney at the law firm of Cozen O’Connor, which is based in Philadelphia.
In 2006, they were married in Canada.
After Farley’s death in 2010, Cozen filed a court action in Philadelphia, asking a judge to decide whether Farley’s death benefits should go to Tobits or Farley’s parents.
Cozen cited the federal Defense of Marriage Act and Pennsylvania’s DOMA as reasons to not recognize the women’s marriage.
But a relevant section of the federal DOMA was struck down by the Supreme Court in June, and Jones ruled that Pennsylvania’s DOMA isn’t relevant, since the women lived in Illinois.
The judge also noted that the women’s Canadian marriage was recognized in Illinois.
“There can be no doubt that Ms. Tobits is Ms. Farley’s ‘surviving spouse’ under plan,” Jones wrote.
Additionally, the judge cited the need for “national uniformity” among federally regulated pension plans when dealing with same-sex marriages.
Tobits wasn’t available for a comment, but she issued this statement: “I am overjoyed that the court has said my marriage to Ellyn deserves the same respect as everyone else’s. 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.”
Christopher F. Stoll, an attorney for Tobits, praised Jones’ ruling.
“The judge’s decision indicates that every federally regulated pension plan must recognize a same-sex spouse,” said Stoll.
Stoll expects other judges around the country to rely on Jones’ ruling for guidance when faced with similar cases.
“I think other courts will be influenced by this opinion.”
Tiffany Palmer, another attorney for Tobits, was optimistic that Jones’ ruling will withstand an appeal, if one is filed by the Farleys.
“I think Judge Jones wrote a very clear opinion,” Palmer said. “If the Farleys decide to appeal, I believe the Third Circuit will come to the same conclusion.”
H. Robert Fiebach, a Cozen attorney, said the law firm will place the disputed funds in a court registry shortly.
“We’re pleased with the result, and we’ll pay the money into the court’s registry as soon as possible,” Fiebach said. “Once we pay the money into the registry, the judge said we’re absolved of any liability to either Ms. Tobits or the Farleys.”
The Farleys have 30 days to appeal to the Third Circuit Court of Appeals.
Peter C. Breen, an attorney for the Farleys, issued the following statement:
“We respectfully disagree with the most recent ruling holding that Ms. Tobits is a ‘surviving spouse’ under federal law. The available evidence shows that the deceased, Ms. Farley, who was an accomplished attorney, intended to leave her retirement plan benefits to her parents, and she had otherwise provided for her lesbian partner, Ms. Tobits,” Breen said. “At the time of Ms. Farley’s death, Illinois did not recognize same-sex unions, only months later recognizing civil unions. This ruling also equates a civil union to a marriage, which conflicts with Illinois law and with the Obama administration’s stated position that federal marriage benefits are not available to civil union and domestic partnership participants.”