Victory! Court Rules for Same-Sex Partners Denied Access to Social Security Survivor’s Benefits

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September 11, 2020

A federal district judge today adopted the recommendation of a magistrate judge and struck 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 the number of states that allowed same-sex couples to marry gradually increased from 2004 until the U.S. Supreme Court struck down all remaining state bans in 2015, that freedom came too late for many couples. The court certified the case as a nationwide class action.

“We are delighted for Helen and similarly situated same-sex partners nationwide who can no longer be treated as strangers in death to their loved ones,” said Lambda Legal Counsel Peter Renn. “Many of these couples built enduring relationships with each other that spanned decades, and they would have been honored to assume the mantle of marriage, thereby qualifying for survivor’s benefits. Today, one more legacy of discriminatory marriage bans has been struck down and surviving same-sex partners will no longer be robbed of their earned benefits.”

Today’s ruling 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 65-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 National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare also joined the case as a plaintiff. In January, a federal magistrate judge recommended finding in favor of Thornton. The magistrate judge also recommended the certification of a class action, although he recommended limiting the class to those who had already presented their claims to the agency. In today’s ruling, the district court judge adopted that recommendation as well. 

“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 it is an enormous relief to know I’m entitled to the same financial protections that are available to surviving spouses.”

Ms. Thornton is semi-retired and takes care of animals to supplement her own modest monthly Social Security income. She applied for survivor’s benefits in 2015, shortly before she would have otherwise been eligible to begin receiving them at age 60 based on Ms. Brown’s more extensive 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.

Read more about the case, Thornton v. Saul (formerly Thornton v. Berryhill).

Lambda Legal also won a separate class action lawsuit on May 27, 2020 against Social Security on behalf of same-sex couples who were able to marry after discriminatory marriage bans were lifted, but were unable to be married for nine months as generally required for survivor’s benefits, which is now pending on appeal. Read about that case here.

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