Philadelphia Judge Reactivates Lesbian Benefits Case
U.S. District Judge C. Darnell Jones 2d has reactivated the case of a lesbian widow who’s seeking the death benefits of her deceased wife.
The matter was held in abeyance for about 10 months, while the Supreme Court considered whether Section 3 of the federal Defense of Marriage Act was unconstitutional.
On June 26, the high court struck down Section 3, and on July 15, Jones reactivated the case.
In 2006, Jennifer Tobits married Sarah Ellyn Farley in Canada.
The women resided in Illinois, where Farley was employed as an attorney for the law firm of Cozen O’Connor, which is headquartered in Philadelphia, until her death in 2010.
Tobits is seeking about $41,000 in death benefits from Cozen, as Farley’s surviving spouse.
In 2011, Cozen filed a court action, asking a federal judge to decide whether Tobits or Farley’s parents should get the money.
Cozen cited Pennsylvania’s DOMA as a reason to not recognize the women’s marriage, in addition to Section 3 of the federal DOMA.
But advocates for Tobits say Pennsylvania’s DOMA isn’t relevant to the case.
“I don’t see any basis for Pennsylvania law affecting a marriage entered into outside Pennsylvania by a couple who never resided in Pennsylvania,” said Susan K. Hoffman, an employee-benefits attorney.
Last month, 23 plaintiffs across Pennsylvania — including 10 same-sex couples, two of the couple’s teens and one widow — filed a constitutional challenge to Pennsylvania’s DOMA.
That case is pending before a federal judge in the Middle District of Pennsylvania.
Hoffman said it’s unnecessary for Jones to wait until that case is completed, prior to ruling on the Tobits matter.
“I would love it if Judge Jones says that Pennsylvania’s DOMA doesn’t apply, because, in my view, it clearly has no relevance as to whether Ms. Tobits gets the money,” Hoffman said.
She said the Farley-Tobits marriage was recognized in Illinois, and Pennsylvania law cannot negate that recognition.
“You can’t apply Pennsylvania marriage law to people who lived in Illinois,” she said.
Cozen can legally interpret its benefits plan in a manner that recognizes same-sex spouses, Hoffman added. “Cozen’s plan administrator can now go back and apply the right law.”
She predicted that more legal pleadings will be filed by the parties before Jones issues a ruling.
Cozen CEO Michael J. Heller had no comment on whether Cozen still views Pennsylvania’s DOMA as relevant to the case.
Christopher F. Stoll, an attorney for Tobits, expressed optimism about the case.
“We hope that the court will move expeditiously to resolve this case, and will award Jennifer the benefits that she’s entitled to under the plan,” Stoll said.
If Jones rules against Tobits, she could appeal to a higher court, or pursue a counterclaim against Cozen for breach of fiduciary duty, Stoll said.
“If it turns out that the plan does prevent this benefit from being paid to a same-sex spouse, then Cozen has breached its fiduciary duty to its plan participants because it didn’t advise them of that fact,” Stoll explained.