In 2013, the Supreme Court struck down the Defense of Marriage Act in United States v. Windsor. In the wake of the Supreme Court’s decision, same-sex couples around the nation rejoiced in the federal government’s recognition of their marriages and the constellation of federal benefits that come along with that designation. But for those applying for perhaps one of the most quintessential federal benefits – Social Security – their rejoicing quickly turned to frustration. Specifically, people suffering through one of the worst losses of their lives, for example the the loss of a spouse, were met with a painful reality: the Social Security Administration did not recognize their marriage and thus, would not grant Social Security Survivor’s benefits.
Such was the experience of our client, Dave Williams whose story is both inspiring and heartbreaking. Dave met his partner Carl in 1997, at which point Carl had already been diagnosed as HIV-positive. Fully aware of the challenges that lay ahead of them, Dave and Carl married in 2008. Two years later, Carl died and Dave filed for survivor’s benefits. Dave’s application was rejected.
Likewise, another client of ours, Kathy Murphy had also filed an application for survivor’s benefits following the death of her wife, and it too was rejected. The Administration’s rejections were based on a provision of the Social Security Act, which states that for purposes of determining the marital status of a surviving spouse, the Administration need look to the law of the state in which the deceased spouse resided at the time of death. For our clients Kathy and Dave, this meant that although they were lawfully married in Massachusetts and California, because their spouses died while residing in Texas and Arkansas, the Federal Government would not recognize their marriage due to Texas and Arkansas’ refusal to acknowledge same-sex marriage.
Dechert, along with Lambda Legal, filed suit in the U.S. District Courts for the Northern District of Illinois and the District of Columbia on behalf of Dave and Kathy, as well as other similarly situated individuals. The cases were stayed in anticipation of the Supreme Court’s decision in Obergefell v. Hodges, which would decide the constitutionality of state-based restrictions on same-sex marriage. When the Supreme Courtdecided Obergefell, the judgement worked in our favor and affirmed that what the Social Security Administration had done to Kathy and Dave was unconstitutional.
We immediately began discussing the implications of Obergefell with the Social Security Administration and despite the clear unconstitutionality of the laws on which Kathy and Dave’s applications were denied, the Administration was reluctant to retroactively apply the Obergefell decision. As such, we submitted a legal brief to the Administration arguing that, at the very least, the Obergefell decision should be applied retroactively to those cases still pending in litigation or at the administrative level at the time of the decision. In August 2015, after a series of calls with the Administration, we finally got the news that Dave and Kathy had been waiting for: the Administration would apply Obergefell retroactively to all pending claims and would recognize Dave and Kathy’s marital statuses.
In March 2016, the Social Security Administration finally adjusted our client’s monthly SSA benefit to recognize that she was married to her wife and is a widow entitled to the same treatment as other survivors. The SSA also updated its instructions to its staff to manage benefits applications from the LGBT community in accordance with the Obergefell ruling. In a statement by Lambda Legal, “LGBT people, who earned benefits through years of hard work, deserve to receive them without further delay and at long last to have their relationships treated with dignity by the federal government.”