Why Lambda Legal is Suing the Social Security Administration

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November 7, 2014
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Susan Sommer, Director of Constitutional Litigation

In the past few weeks, Lambda Legal has filed two lawsuits against the Social Security Administration (SSA), one in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia, and the other in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Illinois, seeking to compel SSA to provide critical Social Security benefits to the surviving same-sex spouses of a Texas lesbian and a gay man from Arkansas.  Citing Texas’s and Arkansas’s discriminatory marriage bans, SSA has persisted in denying these benefits even after Section 3 of the federal so-called Defense of Marriage Act was struck down by the U.S. Supreme Court more than one year ago.  Both bans have been declared unconstitutional by trial courts in recent rulings.

For more than 30 years, Texas resident Kathy Murphy, 62, built her life together with her late spouse Sara Barker.  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. Dave Williams and Carl Allen 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 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.

Because Kathy and Sara lived in Texas, and because Dave and Carl lived in Arkansas, two states that refuse to recognize their marriages, SSA also won’t recognize their marriages, denying Kathy and Dave spousal survivor’s benefits earned by Sara and Carl over lifetimes of work.

In the two lawsuits Lambda Legal has filed – the one on behalf of Kathy Murphy together with the National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare in the DC federal district court and the other on Dave Williams’s behalf (who now lives in Chicago) in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Illinois – we argue that that denying Social Security benefits to same-sex spouses because they live in states that discriminate against their marriages effectively incorporates that discrimination into federal law and violates the U.S. Constitution. Lambda Legal argues that after the Supreme Court struck down federal discrimination against same-sex spouses last year in United States v. Windsor, 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’. Thousands of same-sex spouses, like our clients Kathy and Dave, 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.

Those with questions or concerns about discrimination or denial of a protection to which they are entitled should contact Lambda Legal’s Help Desk at 1-866-542-8336 or visit www.lambdalegal.org/help.