A federal judge has ruled that the U.S. Social Security Administration’s categorical denial of survivor’s benefits to surviving same-sex partners who were barred from marrying due to state bans on same-sex marriage is unconstitutional.
U.S. District Judge James L. Robart, of the Western District of Washington, adopted a recommendation issued by a Magistrate Judge J. Richard Creatura in January that the courts rule against the Social Security Administration, on the grounds that it erred when it denied Helen Thornton, a 65-year-old Washington State resident, survivor’s benefits after she applied for them following the nationwide legalization of marriage equality in 2015.
The Social Security Administration previously argued that because same-sex marriage was illegal in Washington State until 2012, and Thornton’s partner of 27 years, Margery Brown, died in 2006, Thornton should not be considered eligible for Social Security benefits.
Thornton, who is semi-retired and takes care of animals to supplement her own most monthly income form Social Security, sued, alleging that she was being discriminated against because she — and by extension, other same-sex partners — were the only ones barred from marrying legally. Had she been a straight man, she never would have been blocked from marrying Brown before Brown’s untimely death.
In his opinion, Robart found the Social Security Administration’s categorical ban on same-sex partners barred from marrying as unconstitutional, and certified the lawsuit as a nationwide class action lawsuit, although he did adopt Creatura’s recommendation that the “class” be limited to unmarried same-sex partners who had already applied for survivor’s benefits and who were rejected.
He also found that the Social Security Administration’s denial of survivor’s benefits to Thornton violated her right to due process and equal protection rights under the Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments, and reversed the administration’s denial of her application.
“The court agrees with Magistrate Judge Creatura and a number of other courts that the marriage requirement ‘cannot be read in a vacuum’ in this specific context and must instead be read in conjunction with the provisions of state law defining marriage that the Social Security Act incorporates,” Robart wrote. “The Commissioner’s protestations that this reading ‘inappropriately attributes to the Social Security Administration historical discrimination by the State of Washington’ fails to acknowledge the interconnected nature of the statutory scheme at issue. The Social Security Act explicitly states that the validity of a marriage shall be defined by state law.
“To the extent that there is any doubt about whether the Social Security Act and underlying state law are inextricably intertwined, Ms. Thornton’s administrative record eliminates that doubt. The Administration and the ALJ who reviewed Ms. Thornton’s claim for survivor’s benefits repeatedly denied her claim based on Washington’s unconstitutional failure to recognize same-sex marriage,” Robart continued. “Because the Administration repeatedly relied on unconstitutional Washington law to deny Ms. Thornton ‘the constellation of benefits that the States have linked to marriage,’ the court cannot ignore the impact of Washington law when addressing Ms. Thornton’s constitutional challenges.”
Lambda Legal won a separate class action lawsuit against the Social Security Administration in May. However, that case involved same-sex couples who were able to marry after discriminatory bans on same-sex marriage were lifted but were unable to remain married for the requisite nine months needed to qualify for survivor’s benefits before their partners’ deaths.
“We are delighted for Helen and similarly situated same-sex partners nationwide who can no longer be treated as strangers in death to their loved ones,” Peter Renn, counsel for Lambda Legal, which is representing Thornton, said in a statement. “Many of these couples built enduring relationships with each other that spanned decades, and they would have been honored to assume the mantle of marriage, thereby qualifying for survivor’s benefits. Today, one more legacy of discriminatory marriage bans has been struck down and surviving same-sex partners will no longer be robbed of their earned benefits.”
“Margie and I were fortunate to share 27 years of love and commitment together on this earth, and I’m gratified that the judge understood that, even though we were barred from marriage, our love and commitment was no different than that between heterosexual couples who had the freedom to marry,” Thornton said in response to Robart’s decision. “We gladly paid into the Social Security system through our jobs, and it is an enormous relief to know I’m entitled to the same financial protections that are available to surviving spouses.”
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