January 19, 2022

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January 19, 2022

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January 18, 2022

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First Post-Supreme Court Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) Case Rules in Favor of Same-Sex Spouse

In one of the first post-Supreme Court DOMA cases, the Eastern District of Pennsylvania, applying Illinois state law, held that the surviving same-sex spouse of a deceased participant in an employer sponsored pension plan was entitled to the spousal death benefit offered under the plan. See Cozen O'Connor, P.C. v. Tobits, Civil Action No. 11-0045; 2013 WL 3878688 (E.D. Pa., July 29, 2013).

This case is significant because it is the first case after the Supreme Court's June 26, 2013 decision in United States v. Windsor, 133 S. Ct. 2675 (2013) to grapple with choice of law in determining whether a marriage is valid for purposes of obtaining spousal benefits under an ERISA-covered plan. While Windsor ruled that Section 3 of DOMA defining marriage only as between persons of the opposite sex unconstitutional for purposes of applying federal law, it did not address or invalidate Section 2, which permits states to decline to recognize same-sex marriages performed in other states.

Case Background

In 2006, Sarah Farley and Jean Tobits were married in Canada. Shortly after they were married, Ms. Farley was diagnosed with cancer, and she died in 2010. At the time of her death, Ms. Farley was employed by the law firm of Cozen O'Connor and a participant in the firm's profit sharing plan (the Plan). The Plan provided that a participant's surviving spouse would receive a death benefit if the participant died before the participant's retirement date. If the participant was not married or the participant's spouse waived his or her right to the death benefit, the participant's designated beneficiary would be entitled to the death benefits. The Plan defined "Spouse" as "the person to whom the Participant has been married throughout the one-year period ending on the earlier of (1) the Participant's annuity starting date or (2) the date of the Participant's death."

Ms. Farley's parents and Ms. Tobits both claimed a right to the Plan's death benefits. Ms. Farley's parents claimed that they had been designated as the beneficiaries, but it was undisputed that Ms. Tobits had not waived her rights to the death benefits. Cozen O'Connor filed an interpleader action in the Eastern District of Pennsylvania asking the court to determine who was entitled to the benefits. Therefore, the case focused on whether Ms. Tobits qualified as a "Spouse" under the Plan and thus was entitled to the death benefits.

The Court's Ruling

The court noted that Windsor "makes clear that where a state has recognized a marriage as valid, the United States Constitution requires that the federal laws and regulations of this country acknowledge that marriage" irrespective of whether the marriage is between a same-sex couple or a heterosexual couple. With Windsor's emphasis on states' rights to define marriage, lower courts are left with the complicated task of deciding which state law applies when determining whether a same-sex spouse is entitled to benefits under federal law in those instances, as in Cozen, where multiple jurisdictions with different laws on same-sex marriage are implicated.

Apparently, because Cozen O'Connor is headquartered in Pennsylvania, the Plan is administered there, and the Plan's choice of law provision references Pennsylvania law, the Farleys asked the court to apply Pennsylvania state law to determine the validity of the marriage. Pennsylvania's mini-DOMA statute expressly defines marriage as between a man and a woman. The court concluded that ERISA preempted Pennsylvania law. It reasoned that if courts were required to look at the state in which the plans were drafted, plan administrators might be encouraged to forum shop for states with mini-DOMA laws to avoid paying benefits to same-sex couples. The court thought this kind of forum shopping would upset ERISA's principle of maintaining national uniformity among benefit plans. Without further analysis, the court concluded Pennsylvania state law was not an option for determining Ms. Tobits' status as a spouse within the meaning of the Plan.

Instead, the court applied Illinois law, the state where Ms. Farley and Ms. Tobits had jointly resided until Ms. Farley's death. It was undisputed that Ms. Farley and Ms. Tobits had a valid Canadian marriage certificate. The court concluded that the marriage was valid in Illinois and that Ms. Tobits was Ms. Farley's spouse within the Plan's definition. Accordingly, the court held that Ms. Tobits was entitled to the Plan's death benefit. Although not entirely clear, the court presumably came to this conclusion based on Illinois' civil union statute (even though it was enacted after Ms. Farley's death). The statute provides that (i) same-sex marriages and civil unions legally entered into in other jurisdictions will be recognized in Illinois as civil unions and (ii) persons entering into civil unions will be afforded the benefits recognized by Illinois law to spouses. See 750 Ill. Comp. Stat. An. 75/5 and 75/60 (West 2011).

Impact of Cozen on ERISA Benefit Plans

Cozen is the first ruling in the wake of Windsor to address which state law might apply when there are conflicting state laws as to whether a valid marriage is recognized for the purpose of being a "spouse," and therefore whether the spouse is entitled to benefits under an ERISA-covered plan. In Cozen, Ms. Farley and Ms. Tobits were lawfully married in Canada, and the court ruled that Illinois's civil union law recognizes lawful marriages performed in other jurisdictions. The court applied the law of the domicile state to support its holding that Ms. Tobits was a surviving spouse entitled to the Plan's death benefit.

The Cozen decision may have little value outside of cases where a valid same-sex marriage is performed in one state (the "state of celebration") and the state where the couple is domiciled recognizes same-sex marriages. In other situations, faced with a choice of law where the law of the state of domicile conflicts with the law of the state of celebration, the outcome could be different, because Section 2 of DOMA survives after the Windsor decision. Unless the federal government creates a uniform method of determining the choice of law question, ERISA cases raising benefit entitlement questions in the context of same-sex marriages are likely to continue to complicate plan administration, and ERISA's goal of maintaining national uniformity in the administration of benefits will remain elusive.

© 2022 Schiff Hardin LLPNational Law Review, Volume III, Number 227
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About this Author

Schiff Hardin attorneys have successfully defended plan trustees, sponsors and administrators, investment managers, broker/dealers and other fiduciaries in all aspects of Employee Retirement Income Security Act (ERISA) and employee benefits litigation in state and federal courts across the country.

Among other things, we have represented plan trustees and investment managers in investigations and lawsuits brought by the U.S. Department of Labor (DOL); plan sponsors in connection with putative class actions and individual claims brought by plan participants; plan fiduciaries and...

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