The plaintiff attorneys in two federal lawsuits seeking retroactive Social Security spousal benefits for same-sex couples said last Thursday that they were told that the Social Security Administration would start processing those claims.
Lambda Legal, which provides legal services in LGBT cases, announced that it was told in a status conference with Justice Department lawyers that the claims of plaintiffs in the cases being heard in a Chicago federal court will now be considered by the SSA. A status conference is a pretrial meeting of attorneys for both sides in a case.
The plaintiffs — Dave Williams, formerly of Arkansas, and Kathy Murphy of Texas — were denied standard spousal benefit claims because their marriages took place in states that had not recognized the legality of same-sex marriage. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in June that state bans against such marriages were unconstitutional. The spouses of both plaintiffs are now deceased.
Susan Sommer, Lambda Legal’s director of constitutional litigation who headed Williams and Murphy’s legal team, said in a statement that the Social Security Administration “will soon announce a change to their spousal benefits policy that could right a wrong for hundreds of same-sex spouses … whose claims are still in the administrative process or in litigation because their home states refused to recognize their marriages.”
Neither the Justice Department nor the Social Security Administration has yet released a statement confirming the policy change.
“With this good news, we are hopeful that widows, widowers and retirees, wherever they lived, who need Social Security spousal benefits earned through years of hard work will soon be able to receive them,” Sommer said.
The Chicago case, Williams v Colvin (Colvin being Carolyn Colvin, acting commissioner of the Social Security Administration), was being heard in federal district court for the Northern District of Illinois, in Chicago, where Williams now lives. According to the complaint, Williams sought a lump-sum death benefit and accrued disability insurance benefits for his deceased spouse, Carl Allen, but was turned down by the SSA citing a ruling in the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) and the SSA’s own regulations that denied the legality of same-sex marriages under Arkansas law.
Murphy’s suit, filed in the DC circuit, similarly sought surviving spousal benefits following the death of her spouse, Sara Barker. Even though Murphy and Barker were legally married in Massachusetts, under SSA regulations Murphy was denied benefits because when she filed for benefits she was living in Texas, which did not allow legal same-sex marriages.