Thursday, in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Illinois, Lambda Legal filed a federal lawsuit against the Social Security Administration (SSA) on behalf of Dave Williams, a widower, formerly of Arkansas, now a Chicagoan, who was denied spousal benefits after the death of his husband, Carl Allen. In October, Lambda Legal filed a similar lawsuit in Washington D.C. federal district court on behalf of Texas widow Kathy Murphy and the National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare.
“Dave and Carl were a loving married couple living in Arkansas. After Carl became disabled in 2009, Dave cared for him at home until Carl’s untimely death in 2010. Now the SSA is denying this grieving widower benefits as a spouse, only because this same-sex couple lived in Arkansas, a state that discriminated against their marriage when one of them tragically died,” said Susan Sommer, Director of Constitutional Litigation at Lambda Legal. “Dave is just one of thousands of same-sex spouses who married the love of their life. Widows, widowers and retirees, wherever they live, need Social Security spousal benefits, earned through years of hard work, to support them as they age. No one should have to fight to be treated with respect by their federal government while they grieve the passing of their spouse.”
Dave and Carl met and fell in love in Baltimore, Maryland, in 1997. They thrived together as a couple, eventually settling in Arkansas in 2007. In 2008, before passage of Proposition 8, they traveled to California and got married. Carl was living with HIV when they met, and in 2009 became disabled from AIDS and subsequently stopped working and applied for SSA disability benefits. Dave devoted himself to his husband’s care until Carl’s death in the couple’s Arkansas home in April 2010. Dave moved to Chicago this year to study at the Art Institute.
Following Carl’s death, Dave applied to SSA for back disability benefits due Carl and a lump-sum death benefit, but SSA, at that time citing Section 3 of the federal so-called Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) and Arkansas’s discriminatory marriage laws barring recognition of marriages between persons of the same sex, turned down his request. Even after the U.S. Supreme Court in United States v. Windsor removed DOMA as an obstacle to SSA’s recognition of the couple’s marriage, SSA continued to deny Dave his spousal benefits based on Arkansas’s discriminatory marriage laws. Notwithstanding the May 2014 ruling by the Arkansas Circuit Court declaring Arkansas’s marriage ban unconstitutional, in September SSA notified Dave of the final denial of his claim.
“Carl and I shared a life of great respect, trust, and deep love,” said Dave Williams. “There’s not a day that goes by that I do not think of him. Knowing the state of Arkansas and the federal government have not recognized and respected our marriage – this is something that seems so unfair to me and to his memory. I know Carl would be pleased that we will have our day in court.”
The Supreme Court struck down federal discrimination against same-sex spouses last year in United States v. Windsor; Lambda Legal argues that SSA cannot perpetuate the same kind of discrimination now and leave lesbian and gay spouses without the financial protections of Social Security as they age. The suit argues that denying Social Security benefits to same-sex spouses because they live in states that discriminate against their marriages violates the U.S. Constitution.
Susan Sommer and Karen Loewy are handling the case for Lambda Legal. They are joined by Dennis Hranitzky, Joni Jacobsen and Jason Billy of Dechert LLP.