A federal judge in Philadelphia ruled Monday that the lesbian spouse - and not the parents - of a deceased city lawyer should receive the proceeds of her firm's profit-sharing plan.
U.S. District Judge C. Darnell Jones II said the nearly $49,000 payment that Sarah Ellyn Farley earned at Cozen O'Connor belonged to her spouse as a result of the U.S. Supreme Court's decision last month to invalidate the federal Defense of Marriage Act.
"Following the court's ruling," Jones wrote, "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.' "
Farley worked six years at the firm's Chicago office and never in Pennsylvania. She and Jennifer Tobits married in 2006 in Canada and lived in Illinois.
"There can be no doubt that [Tobits] is Ms. Farley's 'surviving spouse' under the plan in light of the Supreme Court's decision," Jones added.
Christopher F. Stoll, a lawyer for the San Francisco-based National Center for Lesbian Rights, which represented Tobits, said Jones' ruling was "a tremendous decision. And it's great for Jennifer."
Aaron H. Stanton, an attorney for her late spouse's parents, David and Joan Farley of Roanoke, Va., could not be reached for comment.
Though the decision was by a federal judge in Philadelphia in a case involving a Center City law firm, Jones' decision's impact on same-sex couples in Pennsylvania is less clear.
Pennsylvania does not recognize same-sex marriages, civil unions, or domestic partnerships. Still, Stoll said he believed same-sex couples here have the right to spousal benefits governed by federal law.
Jones sidestepped the issue, writing that state law "is only applicable to the extent it is not preempted by [federal law]. Here, the court finds that, based on the terms of this plan, ERISA (Employee Retirement Income Security Act) preempts Pennsylvania law entirely."
Jones based his ruling on the definition of spouse in Cozen O'Connor's profit-sharing plan as someone married for a year before receiving benefits.
Soon after Farley married, she was found to have cancer. She died in 2010 at age 37.
In November 2010, Tobits and the Farleys filed claims on her death benefits with Cozen O'Connor. The firm then asked the federal court to shield it from liability and resolve the conflicting claims.
The Farleys, who according to court documents did not approve of their daughter's marriage, challenged Tobits' claim under DOMA. The Supreme Court's U.S. v. Windsor decision enabled Jones to decide the case.
Jones wrote that Windsor opened federally governed benefits to "same-sex spouses in 'otherwise valid marriages.' "
Farley and Tobits were married in Canada, which licenses same-sex marriages, and then celebrated the marriage in a ceremony in Illinois. Illinois does not issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples, Jones wrote, but does recognize same-sex marriages from other jurisdictions.
"Windsor makes clear that where a state has recognized a marriage as valid," Jones added, "the U.S. Constitution requires that the federal laws and regulations of this country acknowledge that marriage."