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Court rules for same-sex partners denied access to Social Security survivor’s benefits

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SEATTLE — On Friday, a federal district judge adopted the recommendation of a magistrate judge and struck down as unconstitutional the U.S. Social Security Administration’s (SSA’s) categorical denial of survivor’s benefits to surviving same-sex partners who were barred from marrying due to discriminatory state marriage bans.

The court certified the case as a nationwide class action, Lambda Legal said in a press release.

“We are delighted for Helen and similarly situated same-sex partners nationwide who can no longer be treated as strangers in death to their loved ones,” said Lambda Legal Counsel Peter Renn. “Many of these couples built enduring relationships with each other that spanned decades, and they would have been honored to assume the mantle of marriage, thereby qualifying for survivor’s benefits. Today, one more legacy of discriminatory marriage bans has been struck down and surviving same-sex partners will no longer be robbed of their earned benefits.”

The ruling came in Thornton v. Saul (formerly Thornton v. Berryhill), the lawsuit Lambda Legal filed in the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Washington in September, 2018, against SSA on behalf of Helen Thornton, a 65-year-old lesbian seeking spousal survivor’s benefits based on her relationship with her partner of 27 years, Marge Brown, who died in 2006 before same-sex couples in the State of Washington were able to marry. The National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare also joined the case as a plaintiff. In January, a federal magistrate judge recommended finding in favor of Thornton. The magistrate judge also recommended the certification of a class action, although he recommended limiting the class to those who had already presented their claims to the agency.

“Margie and I were fortunate to share 27 years of love and commitment together on this earth, and I’m gratified that the judge understood that, even though we were barred from marriage, our love and commitment was no different than that between heterosexual couples who had the freedom to marry,” said Thornton. “We gladly paid into the Social Security system through our jobs, and it is an enormous relief to know I’m entitled to the same financial protections that are available to surviving spouses.”

Read the opinion here: https://www.lambdalegal.org/in-court/legal-docs/thornton_wa_20200911_order.

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