Wednesday Lambda Legal filed suit against the Social Security Administration (SSA) on behalf of Kathy Murphy, a Texas widow denied spousal benefits after the death of her wife, and the National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare (the National Committee), arguing that denying Social Security benefits to same-sex spouses because they live in states that discriminate against their marriages violates the U.S. Constitution. 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.
“SSA should not be telling widowed lesbians and gay men already grieving the loss of a spouse ‘You live in the wrong state so you don’t get Social Security spousal benefits,’” said Susan Sommer, Director of Constitutional Litigation at Lambda Legal. “Thousands of same-sex spouses, like our client Kathy Murphy, have married, even though their home states refuse to recognize their relationships. Since Windsor, these aging lesbian and gay Americans believe that, at the very least, their marriages finally will be respected by the federal government. But, relying on discriminatory state marriage bans declared unconstitutional by an avalanche of courts around the country, SSA continues to deny same-sex spouses their benefits. Widows, widowers and retirees, wherever they live, need Social Security spousal benefits, earned through years of hard work, to support them as they age. They should not have to wait one more day to be treated with dignity by the federal government.”
For more than 30 years, Texas residents Kathy Murphy, 62, and Sara Barker shared their lives together. Three decades after they first met, Kathy and Sara legally married in Massachusetts in 2010. Like other married couples, they hoped to grow old together and to live out their retirement years in safety, security, and dignity. Tragically, Sara lost her battle with cancer in March 2012 at age 62, leaving Kathy a widow. Because the couple lived in Texas, which refuses to recognize their marriage, SSA also won’t recognize the marriage, denying Kathy spousal survivor’s benefits earned by Sara over a life-time of work.
“Sara and I were blessed with nearly 32 years together, taking care of each other in all the ways any committed couple does – physically, emotionally and financially. Sara wouldn’t have wanted me to be in a position like this – we promised to support each other as a couple and if one of us should pass away. We worked hard to close all the gaps before she died and now the federal government won’t do its part. That money will ensure that I can take care of the home that Sara and I shared together,” Kathy said. “We worked hard to support ourselves, and our dream was to grow old together, side-by-side. My hope now is that I will be treated no differently than any surviving spouse who has faced this same devastating loss.”
“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,” said Max Richtman, President and CEO of the National Committee. “There is no rational reason why a couple living in Texas, or any other state, should continue to face this type of discrimination including the denial of the Social Security spousal benefits they have earned throughout their working lifetimes. It’s long past time to right this wrong.”
The National Committee, the organizational plaintiff in the case, is a Washington, D.C.-based advocacy organization dedicated to protecting Social Security for all generations and communities, including same-sex couples and their families. Kathy Murphy is a member of the National Committee.
The complaint filed in the District of Columbia federal district court Wednesday by Lambda Legal and co-counsel Dechert LLP argues that SSA’s refusal to recognize the marriages of same-sex couples who live in states that discriminate against their marriages, and denial of Social Security benefits to deserving spouses, violates the federal Constitution. SSA should not rely on discriminatory state marriage bans that have been declared unconstitutional by state and federal courts far and wide throughout the country as the basis to deny hard-earned spousal benefits.
Read the complaint to the court here.
Susan Sommer and Karen Loewy are handling the case for Lambda Legal. They are joined by Dennis Hranitzky, Will Sachse and Jason Billy of Dechert LLP.