Lambda Legal filed a lawsuit today (Wednesday, Oct. 22) against the Social Security Administration on behalf of Kathy Murphy of Austin and the National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare, claiming that the SSA’s decision to deny spousal benefits to Murphy after the death of her wife violates the U.S. Constitution. Following the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision last year in United States v. Windsor, in which the court struck down portions of the federal Defense of Marriage Act that denied federal recognition to legally married same-sex couples, Lambda Legal attorneys argue 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,” according to a press statement the organization released this afternoon.
Murphy, 62, and Sara Barker had been together 30 years when they were legally married in Massachusetts in 2010, although they lived in Texas, a non-marriage-equality state. Barker died of cancer in March, 2012 at age 62. But because they lived in Texas, which does not legally recognize their marriage, SSA has refused to legally recognize their marriage, denying Murphy the spousal survivor benefits Barker had earned during her lifetime of work.
Following the SCOTUS ruling in the Windsor case last year, President Obama ordered the U.S. Attorney General’s office to work with other federal agencies and officials to implement the Windsor decision. In implementing that decision, the Department of Justice and most federal agencies depended on the law where a couple’s marriage took place — the “place of celebration” to determine whether the marriage was legal, rather then place where they lived. Under that standard, Murphy’s and Barker’s marriage should be legally recognized by the federal government.
Murphy applied to the SSA for surviving spouse benefits last year after the Windsor decision. But in June of this year, with Murphy’s application for benefits still pending, the Department of Justice announced that the SSA and the Department of Veterans Affairs viewed themselves as being prohibited by statute from using the “place of celebration” rule for certain programs, including the surviving spouse benefits program.
“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 for Lambda Legal. Sommer noted that the SSA is “relying on discriminatory state marriage bans declared unconstitutional by an avalanche of courts around the country” in denying spousal benefits to gay and lesbian widows and widowers.
Murphy noted that she and Barker “were blessed with nearly 32 years together,” and that they had taken 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,” Murphy said. “We worked hard to close all the gaps before she died and now the federal government won’t do its part.”
The National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare is a Washington, D.C.-based advocacy organization dedicated to protecting Social Security for all generations and communities. Murphy is a member.
Max Richtman, the National Committee’s president and CEO, said, “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 Social Security spousal benefits they have earned through their working lifetimes. It’s past time to right this wrong.”