The lesbian partner of a deceased attorney in Philadelphia-based Cozen O'Connor's Chicago office claims she's entitled to her former partner's profit-sharing plan, even though her partner allegedly designated her parents as beneficiaries.
Now, a federal judge in Philadelphia is being asked to resolve who gets the money - the parents of Sarah Ellyn Farley, or her partner, Jennifer J. Tobits.
In January, Cozen filed a complaint against both parties in federal district court here asking a judge to determine the ownership rights of the plan, valued at $40,820.
Cozen said in its court filing that it had not received a valid designation of beneficiary from Farley prior to her death on September 13, 2010.
Following Farley's death, her parents - David and Joan Farley - presented a beneficiary form to Cozen.
The form purported to show that their daughter had named them as her beneficiaries. They also noted on the form that Farley was "single," according to Cozen's complaint.
Cozen said the form supplied by the parents was dated September 12, 2010 - the day before their daughter's death.
Cozen's complaint says that the form was never signed by the Farleys' daughter. Further, the form contained a notarized signature of their daughter's spouse, Tobits, Cozen said.
Cozen said that was "inconsistent" with the parents' claim that their daughter was single.
Tobits denied she ever signed the designation beneficiary form, according to court documents.
In November, Tobits advised Cozen she intended to file a claim on the profit-sharing plan and presented Cozen with a copy of a marriage certificate that was executed in Toronto, between Tobits and Farley on February 17, 2006.
The profit-sharing plan said that unless otherwise designated, the participant's surviving spouse would have first priority to the deceased partner's death benefit.
Tobits filed her counterclaim Monday. In it, she alleged that her partner was "subject to undue influence, duress and constraints" by her parents when she allegedly signed the form designating them as beneficiaries.
As a result, Tobits claimed Cozen was not bound to release any funds to the Farleys.
Tobits also alleged that Cozen breached its fiduciary duty to her and her partner. Tobits says the law firm did that by failing to inform Farley about provisions in the profit-sharing plan that "might create uncertainty" about whether Tobits would be recognized as the surviving spouse.
Attorneys for the Farleys filed their own counterclaim on Monday.
The Farleys contended that their daughter designated them as beneficiaries of the Cozen profit sharing plan. They also said Tobits is not entitled to it because being married in Canada is not recognized as a legitimate marriage under the federal Defense of Marriage Act, or DOMA, and a companion statute in Pennsylvania.
Both laws define marriage as a legal union between one man and one woman. (In February, the Obama administration said it would no longer defend DOMA in court.)