Federal District Court Awards Pension Benefit to Same-Sex Spouse

The U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania has ordered a profit sharing plan to pay death benefits to the same-sex spouse of a deceased employee. This decision is the first to address same-sex marriage since the U.S. Supreme Court’s recent ruling in U.S. v. Windsor that Section 3 of the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), which defines marriage as between a man and a woman only, was unconstitutional.

In Cozen O’Connor P.C. v. Tobits, both the spouse and the parents of the deceased claimed the full death benefit under the employee plan of the deceased’s employer. The plan, which was generally governed by Pennsylvania law except to the extent preempted by ERISA, required the death benefit to automatically pass to the surviving spouse. The court concluded that because the plan was subject to ERISA, the federal definition of "spouse" was controlling, based on the Windsor ruling. Accordingly, the deceased’s same-sex spouse was entitled to the death benefit.

The couple in Tobits, married in Canada, resided in Illinois, where their marriage was recognized as a valid civil union under state law. The opinion does not address a situation in which an employee lives in a state that prohibits same-sex unions, such as Pennsylvania, often referred to as a "mini-DOMA state." According to the court, however, "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." This seems to suggest that the court would also acknowledge a valid marriage license for a same-sex couple issued in any state.