Lambda Legal filed a complaint [text, PDF] in US District Court on Tuesday against the Social Security Administration in response to the agency’s denial of benefits to the surviving partner of a lesbian couple.
The plaintiff in the case, Helen Thornton, applied for survivor benefits in 2015. Despite extensive documentation of the 27-year relationship between Thornton and her partner Margery Brown, the Social Security Administration determined that Thornton was ineligible for benefits because she and Brown were not married spouses. Same-sex marriage did not become legal in the couple’s home state of Washington until six years after Brown’s death. In a notice informing Thornton that it would not reconsider her benefits application, the Social Security Administration explicitly acknowledged that Thornton was not unmarried by choice; the notice explained that Thornton failed to meet the eligibility criteria to qualify as a widow “because at the time of Ms. Brown’s death in 2006, the State of Washington did not recognize same-sex marriages.”
The complaint points out that two years before the Supreme Court decision in Obergefell v. Hodges [opinion, PDF], in which the Court declared state bans on same-sex marriage unconstitutional, the court ruled in United States v. Windsor [opinion, PDF] that federal agencies could not withhold spousal benefits from same-sex couples.
The complaint alleges violations of equal protection and due process under the Fifth Amendment to the US Constitution. In addition to declaratory relief, it seeks a permanent injunction enjoining the Social Security Administration from denying benefits to same-sex surviving partners who would have married but could not under state law.