Judge C. Darnell Jones II of the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania ruled July 29 that Jennifer Tobits is entitled to death benefits administered by her deceased wife Sarah Ellyn Farley's profit-sharing plan. In his ruling, Jones ordered that Farley's employer, Philadelphia-based law firm Cozen O'Connor P.C., pay Tobits the $41,000 in death benefits.
Jones' decision used the recent United States v Windsor Supreme Court ruling that struck down a portion of the Defense of Marriage Act to award the benefits to Tobits. "Following the [Supreme] 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," said Jones in his ruling.
Farley was a partner at the Cozen O'Connor P.C. law offices in Chicago. She died in 2010 at the age of 37 after a four year battle with a rare and aggressive form of cancer.
"I am overjoyed that the court has said my marriage to Ellyn deserves the same respect as everyone else's," said Tobits in a release. "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."
The case arose when Farley's parents, David and Joan, challenged the legality of their daughter's marriage to Tobits. Farley's parents argued that they should receive their daughter's death benefits because they were the surviving family members. They were represented by the Thomas More Society, an anti-gay legal organization based in Chicago.
Cozen O'Connor P.C. argued that DOMA prevented them from awarding the death benefits to Tobits and filed an action in the federal district court to determine who should receive the death benefits, Tobits or Farley's parents.
"We are pleased with the court's decision and intend to pay the money as soon as possible," said Lisa Haas, chief marketing officer of Cozen O'Connor P.C., told Windy City Times.
National Center for Lesbian Rights (NCLR) Legal Director Shannon Minter, who is representing Tobits, said in a statement, "This decision is not only a victory for Jennifer and Ellyn, it is a victory for every married same-sex couple in the country. No longer can employers hide behind DOMA to deny equal benefits to some employees solely because their spouse is a person of the same sex."
"This decision makes clear that federal pension law protects same-sex spouses just as it does opposite-sex spouses," said attorney Teresa Renaker, who also represents Tobits, in a statement. "Under the rationale of this decision, employees can be confident that their hard-earned retirement benefits will be there for their spouses. Protecting the retirement security of spouses is an important part of ensuring that employees get equal benefits from their retirement plans."
Christopher Stoll, senior staff attorney for the NCLR, explained that due to this ruling employers will be required to treat same-sex spouses equally and he hopes that the decision will cause employers to take proactive steps to make sure that they are treating their employee's same-sex spouses fairly.
"We're thrilled to have helped Jennifer achieve this result. Anyone facing a similar situation should feel free to contact our legal helpline at 1-800-528-6257," said Stoll.
When reached for comment, representatives from the Thomas More Society did not respond to queries about the outcome of the case.