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to Section One | to Arts & Entertainment
posted Friday, January 29, 2016 - Volume 44 Issue 05
Gay man sues pension plan for spousal benefits
Section One
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Gay man sues pension plan for spousal benefits

by Mike Andrew - SGN Staff Writer

A Gay man in San Francisco is suing a union pension fund and its board of trustees to get benefits owed to him as the survivor of his spouse, who was a union member.

Robert Pritchard, the surviving partner, met his husband, Thomas Conwell, in 2005. They immediately fell in love, he says, and married in 2008.

Conwell worked at the San Francisco Hilton Hotel, was a member of the International Union of Operating Engineers (IUOE) Local 39, and was entitled to benefits under the IUOE 39 pension plan.

When Conwell died of a brain disease in 2012, Pritchard applied for spousal survivor benefits. According to the National Center for Lesbian Rights (NCLR), which is representing Pritchard, the IUOE 39 pension plan defined 'spouse' as 'a person to whom a participant is legally married,' and Pritchard qualified as such a person.

But even though the two were legally married, the pension plan refused to provide a spousal benefit to Pritchard 'solely because both spouses were men,' NCLR charges.

In November 2015, the pension plan's board of trustees denied Pritchard spousal benefits, citing DOMA, which was in effect when Conwell died.

Of course, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down DOMA in June 2013. 'But DOMA, even while it was in effect, did not prohibit the payment of the benefit,' the NCLR says. 'And federal law requires retirement plans such as this one to recognize the legal marriages of same-sex couples for purposes of survivor benefits.'

'My husband's death is the worst thing that has ever happened to me,' Pritchard said in a statement.

'To be denied his pension benefits while I mourned his loss and tried to heal from the hole that was left when he died wasn't only demoralizing, it was dehumanizing. My family is just like all other families, and no one should be denied rights because of who they are.'

'Tom worked for many years to earn a pension benefit that would protect himself and his family,' he added. 'All I'm asking is that the plan and the board of trustees do the right thing and recognize our marriage, just as they recognize all other marriages.'

Julie Wilensky, the director of the California office of the Civil Rights Education and Enforcement Center (CREEC), which is also representing Pritchard, said that the pension plan's decision to deny Pritchard benefits had no justification under federal law.

'Federal law requires pension plans to follow their terms, and Robert was Thomas's spouse at all times under the clear language of the plan,' she insisted.

NCLR senior staff attorney Amy Whelan said DOMA could not be used to defend the plan's decision.

'The board of trustees needs to follow its plan and provide this much-needed benefit to Robert,' she said. 'While DOMA has been the source of extreme discrimination against LGBT people and their families, it provides absolutely no defense in this case.'

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