A federal judge ruled on Wednesday that the Social Security Administration (SSA) can’t deny survivor benefits to same-sex couples who were unable to be married for the required nine months due to gay marriage bans.
Even though marriage equality became the law of the land in June of 2015, some same-sex couples still found a discriminatory barrier in their way when applying for spousal benefits.
Lambda Legal brought a class action lawsuit, Ely v. Saul, which included the case of Michael Ely.
Ely met James Taylor (not the famous musician) in 1971 in California. After 20 years together, the couple moved to Tucson, Arizona, where Taylor found work as a jet mechanic and Ely maintained their home.
Although same-sex marriage wouldn’t arrive in Arizona for several more years, the two men had a commitment ceremony in 2007. And when the state’s marriage laws changed in late 2014, after being together for 43 years, Ely and Taylor exchanged marriage vows and became legally married.
But six months later, Taylor would lose his battle with cancer.
SSA denied Ely survivor’s benefits for not being married for nine months, even though that was legally impossible for him in Arizona.
James Obergefell, the plaintiff in the landmark Supreme Court case Obergefell v. Hodges that ultimately made same-sex marriage legal everywhere in the U.S., was also a plaintiff in Ely v. Saul.
Mr. Obergefell didn’t qualify for a lump-sum benefit from the SSA because when his husband, John Arthur, died they had only been legally married for three months due to Ohio’s marriage laws.
Even though they were together 20 years, 9 months and 22 days, their three-month marriage wasn’t enough for the SSA.
But Judge Bruce G. Macdonald’s decision in the U.S. District Court of Arizona changed all that. Macdonald wrote in his ruling:
“Because same-sex marriage is a fundamental right, and the underpinnings of the duration-of-marriage requirement has relied on the unconstitutional ban of that right, it cannot be said to be rationally related to a legitimate interest to a surviving spouse such as Mr. Ely.”
Peter Renn, one of the Lambda Legal attorneys, told NBC News that even with the Obergefell decision five years ago, the plaintiffs in the case “have been deprived the protections of marriage” and without this court victory they would have been deprived those protections for the rest of their lives.
BREAKING: We just won a class action fight, gaining equal access to Social Security survivor's benefits for same sex spouses across the nation! 💪🏽🏳️🌈
The decision comes in Ely v. Saul. Read the court order here: https://t.co/T0vrMtNjtk
— Lambda Legal (@LambdaLegal) May 27, 2020
“Being able to access survivors benefits can make the difference for whether someone can afford the basic necessities of life, like housing, food and health care,” Renn said.
Because the court’s ruling also certified the case as a nationwide class action, same-sex spouses across the country who were similarly barred from meeting the 9-month requirement by discriminatory marriage bans will have a pathway forward to relief.
One class member, Josh Driggs, from Phoenix, Arizona, already experienced homelessness on two separate occasions after Social Security denied him survivor’s benefits based on his more than 40-year relationship with his husband, Glenn Driggs, and he fell behind in his rent without the financial protection of those benefits.
“While these monthly benefits may seem modest, they can make the life-changing difference between having enough food, medication, or a roof over one’s head,” Driggs said.