Judge Sides with Same-Sex Partners Denied Equal Access to Social Security Survivor’s Benefits

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January 31, 2020

A federal magistrate judge today recommended striking down as unconstitutional the U.S. Social Security Administration’s (SSA’s) categorical denial of survivor’s benefits to surviving same-sex partners who were barred from marrying due to discriminatory state marriage bans. While several states began allowing same-sex couples to marry beginning in 2003, and the U.S. Supreme Court struck down all remaining state bans in 2015, for many couples that freedom came too late.

“This is an important and long overdue first step for surviving same-sex partners nationwide, who have been robbed of their earned benefits,” said Lambda Legal Counsel Peter Renn. “Our client, Helen Thornton was in a loving, long-term, and committed relationship of 27 years. And yet, she was denied any pathway to access critical survivor’s benefits, paid for through a lifetime of work, because of discriminatory laws. The judge recognized that it is manifestly unreasonable to hold same-sex couples to a standard that discriminatory marriage bans made impossible to meet.”

Today’s development came in Thornton v. Saul (formerly Thornton v. Berryhill), the lawsuit Lambda Legal filed in the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Washington in September 2018, against SSA on behalf of Helen Thornton, a 64-year-old lesbian seeking spousal survivor’s benefits based on her relationship with her partner of 27 years, Marge Brown, who died in 2006 before same-sex couples in the State of Washington were able to marry. The recommendation by the federal magistrate judge now goes before a federal district judge, who may accept, reject, or modify the recommendation. The magistrate judge also recommended the certification of a class action, ordering SSA to provide surviving same-sex partners barred from marriage across the country with a pathway to qualify for benefits.  

“Margie and I were fortunate to share 27 years of love and commitment together on this earth, and I’m gratified that the judge understood that, even though we were barred from marriage, our love and commitment was no different than that between heterosexual couples who had the freedom to marry,” said Helen Thornton, the lead plaintiff in the Lambda Legal lawsuit. “We gladly paid into the Social Security system through our jobs, and I’m simply seeking the same financial protections that are available to heterosexual couples.”

“This ruling is great news, both for Helen and for the many surviving same-sex partners across the country who were unlawfully barred from marriage,” said Max Richtman, President and CEO of the National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare, an organizational plaintiff in the Lambda Legal lawsuit. “The basic tenets of the Social Security program are that if you contribute to the system throughout your working life, you and your family will receive those earned benefits in retirement, death or disability. Today’s development is a critical first step in ensuring that a pathway to that protection also exists for surviving same-sex partners who were barred from marriage.”

Ms. Thornton, 64, is semi-retired and takes care of animals to supplement her monthly Social Security income. She is also a member of the National Committee. She applied for survivor’s benefits in 2015, shortly before she would have otherwise been eligible to begin receiving survivor’s benefits at age 60 based on Ms. Brown’s work record.  SSA denied her application based on the fact that she and Ms. Brown were not married at the time of Ms. Brown’s death in 2006, even though that was impossible in the State of Washington, which did not permit same-sex couples to marry until 2012.

Lambda Legal’s attorneys working on the case are: Peter Renn, Tara Borelli, and Karen Loewy. They are joined by Robert Thornton and Linda Larson with Nossaman LLP.