A federal court awarded surviving spouse benefits to the surviving partner of a same-sex couple who were prohibited from marrying because of now-unconstitutional state law that banned same-sex marriage. Thornton v. Commissioner of Social Security, Case No. C18-1409JLR, (U.S. District Court, Western District of Washington, September 11, 2020)

Helen Josephine Thornton and her partner, Margery Brown, spent 27 years together and “were partners for life in every meaningful way, except sharing a marriage license.” During the time that Ms. Thornton and Ms. Brown were together—from approximately 1978 to 2006, the State of Washington did not allow same-sex marriage. Ms. Thornton and Ms. Brown would have married but for Washington State’s law at the time, which made same-sex marriage illegal.

Ms. Brown passed away in 2006. Approximately one year later, the State of Washington recognized domestic partnerships. Six years later, Washington legalized same-sex marriage.

In January 2015, Ms. Thornton applied for survivor’s benefits from the Social Security Administration (SSA) based on Ms. Brown’s work history. Under the Social Security Act and SSA regulations, the surviving spouse—either a “widow” or a “widower”—of a deceased person is eligible to be paid monthly survivor’s benefits if the deceased spouse would have been insured under the Social Security Act. The Social Security Act further provides that “[a]n applicant is the . . . widow, or widower of a fully or currently insured individual . . . if . . . the courts of the State in which he was domiciled at the time of death . . . would find that such applicant and such insured individual were validly married . . . at the time he died.”

On April 8, 2015, the SSA denied Ms. Thornton’s application for benefits because she was not married to Ms. Brown at the time of Ms. Brown’s death according to Washington law. In the letter denying SSA benefits, the agency stated:

[W]e cannot pay benefits to you because domestic partnership was not recognized in the State of Washington until January 22, 2007 after Margery B. Brown[’s] death. We cannot pay benefits to you because same sex marriage was not recognized in the State of Washington until December 14, 2012 after Margery B. Brown[’s] death.

Ms. Thornton then filed a Request for Reconsideration. On December 8, 2015, SSA denied Ms. Thornton’s Request for Reconsideration because “at the time of Ms. Brown’s death in 2006, the State of Washington did not recognize same-sex marriages.”

Ms. Thornton then requested a hearing in front of an Administrative Law Judge (ALJ), which was held in 2016. In January 2017, the ALJ concluded that Ms. Thornton was not entitled to survivor’s benefits because she was not legally married to Ms. Brown under Washington law at the time of Ms. Brown’s death. Ms. Thornton appealed, but the appeals council denied review.

After SSA denied Ms. Thornton’s request for review, Ms. Thornton filed this action challenging SSA’s denial of her benefits. Ms. Thornton argued that SSA’s application of the regulations to deny survivor’s benefits to her and other same-sex couples who were unable to marry at the time of the decedent partner’s death based on state laws that have now been declared unconstitutional violates the right to equal protection and the right to due process under the Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments of the United States Constitution.

After argument, the Court reversed the SSA’s denial and awarded survivor’s benefits to Ms. Thornton. The Court concluded that, for same-sex partners like Ms. Thornton who were barred from marrying their partner by state law, the SSA erected an unconstitutional barrier to survivor’s benefits by conditioning those benefits on the marriage requirement.

The case is annexed here –

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