Monday, August 5, 2013

ERISA Decision Post-Supreme Court DOMA Decision - COTW #154

A Monday Case of the Week!? Yeah, I spoke at an employment law seminar for the folks at Healthcare Human Resources Association in Altoona, PA on Friday. So, the Case of the Week was delayed until today.

One of the topics we discussed was the impact of the Supreme Court's ruling in U.S. v. Windsor, striking down portions of DOMA, on Pennsylvania employers. As luck would have it, we got a great illustration earlier in the week from the Eastern District of Pennsylvania in Cozen O'Connor v. Tobits (opinion here via c2essentials).

The case provides a great illustration of how complicated things can get in this post-Windsor world. The case involved a woman who participated in a Pennsylvania law firm's plan that provided for a survivorship annuity to her beneficiary upon her death. Sadly, she passed away. The issue was whether she has a "spouse," who would be the default beneficiary (if not, the survivor benefits go to her parents). Whether ERISA recognized her same-sex partner as her spouse should give us our winner.

Well, you say, Pennsylvania does not recognize same-sex marriages so the parents must win, right? Not so fast! She was married to a woman in Canada, which does recognize the marriage. But wait, Pennsylvania does not have to recognize that marriage. Well sure, but she and her wife were domiciled in Illinois, so we should look to their laws (at this point, the seminar attendees and I had a good chuckle - Pennsylvania employers deciding beneficiaries based on whether Illinois recognizes Canadian same-sex marriages . . . it's all so simple, right?). Just when you think it can't get any more convoluted, we get one more curve ball: Illinois recognizes the Canadian same sex marriage as a "civil union."

Frankly, the Court's legal analysis was a little thin, dispatching this case in a mere 12 pages. Suffice it to say that the Court concluded the same-sex partner was a spouse under ERISA based on Illinois' recognition of the marriage. DOMA defined "spouse" for over 1,000 federa
l statutes - so expect a lot more cases like this as we wade through these issues.