Stacey Schuett and Lesly Taboada-Hall lived together as a committed couple for nearly three decades. They had two children together. Nearly a quarter of a century into their relationship, Taboada-Hall was diagnosed with cancer. More than two years later, in 2012, the cancer had grown so severe that she took a medical leave of absence from work. As one of her last acts on Earth, Taboada-Hall married Schuett in a California civil ceremony officiated by a county supervisor. Taboada-Hall died the next day.
Yet, because of a coincidence of timing, Taboada-Hall’s former employer, FedEx, now claims that her surviving spouse is not entitled to the survivor’s pension benefits Taboada-Hall earned in her 26 years with the company. Taboada-Hall died six days before United States v. Windsor, the Supreme Court’s decision invalidating the anti-gay Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA). Because Taboada-Hall died just a few days too soon, FedEx now claims that Schuett does not count as her wife.
In the eyes of the law, Schuett and Taboada-Hall are married, and they were married as of the day of their wedding ceremony. Although California law did not permit new marriage licenses to be issued to same-sex couples on the day of their wedding, Schuett successfully filed a “Petition to Establish the Fact, Date, and Place of Marriage” in state court, and the court responded with an order declaring that she and Taboada-Hall were married effective June 19, 2013, the day of their wedding.
Nevertheless, FedEx points to a provision of its pension plan, which defines a worker’s “spouse” to “have the same meaning as set forth in 1 U.S.C.A. § 7 (a person of the opposite sex who is a husband or wife), and shall be deemed to refer solely to the persons who have entered into a marriage, as defined in 1 U.S.C.A. § 7 (a legal union between one man and one woman as husband and wife).” “1 U.S.C.A. § 7” refers to the section of federal law declared unconstitutional in Windsor. They claim that the plan’s definition of “spouse” trumps the Supreme Court’s determination that DOMA is unconstitutional and the state’s determination regarding the date of the couple’s marriage.
Fortunately for Schuett, there is a federal law that protects her from efforts to cut her out of her late wife’s pension. Under the Employee Retirement Income Security Act, covered pension plans must provide that “in the case of a vested participant who dies before the annuity starting date and who has a surviving spouse, a qualified preretirement survivor annuity shall be provided to the surviving spouse of such participant.” After Windsor, moreover, the word “spouse” must be read to include same-sex spouses when it appears in a federal law.
On Monday, a federal court largely embraced this reasoning. Although the court’s opinion dealt only with a preliminary motion filed by FedEx, it now appears very unlikely that the judge in this case will ultimately rule against Schuett.
Nevertheless, after the Court’s decision in Burwell v. Hobby Lobby, which expanded the rights of religious objectors to the law, it is possible that a similarly situated widow or widower could wind up in a much worse position. Hobby Lobby contains language suggesting that “large, publicly traded corporations” such as FedEx may not be able to assert the same religious objections as a family-owned corporation such as Hobby Lobby. Nevertheless, if a widow or widower like Schuett who works for a company like Hobby Lobby brings a similar claim, it is possible that the Supreme Court would hold that Hobby Lobby gives that company the right to discriminate.