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DOMA Ruling Changes Private Companies’ Retirement Plans, Says Federal Pennsylvania Judge

Same-sex spouses are now eligible for death benefits provided by their deceased spouse’s former employer.

On Monday, Judge C. Darnell Jones II, a federal judge in Pennsylvania, ordered that a private company’s retirement plan be interpreted to include coverage for Jennifer J. Tobits, the same-sex wife of Sarah Ellyn Farley, an employee of Cozen O’Connor, a law firm based out of Pennsylvania.

In this case, Farley married Tobits in Canada while working at Cozen O’Connor. The couple lived in Illinois until Farley’s death in 2010. Farley’s parents and Tobits both sought payment of the death benefit under O’Connor’s profit-sharing plan.

Jones reached his decision granting coverage to Tobits after applying the Supreme Court’s DOMA ruling recognizing married same-sex couples to the Employee Retirement Income Security Act (ERISA), an existing federal law that provides tax benefits for private companies’ retirement plans.

Jones wrote:

“Prior to the Court’s decision in Windsor, under the plain language of ERISA, the [tax] Code, and the Plan at issue in this case, qualified retirement plans were under no obligation to provide benefits to same-sex Spouses. 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.’”

ERISA previously excluded same-sex couples from receiving privately sponsored employee benefit plans with respect to spousal benefits, but the Supreme Court’s ruling striking down DOMA as unconstitutional has impacted a variety of federal laws, including those governing ERISA benefits.

The laws of Pennsylvania do not recognize or allow the marriage of same-sex couples. But Jones concluded that the state’s ban on marriage for gay couples was irrelevant to the case of Tobits and Farley because the law firm’s plan was covered by ERISA. ERISA only requires the couple to be legally married, regardless of the marriage laws of the state where a company is based.

This ruling is a huge victory not only for this committed couple, but for every married same-sex couple in the country. Now employers who offer coverage through ERISA can no longer deny equal protections based solely on the sex of one’s spouse.

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