Defensive of Marriage Act Decisions and Impact on Pending Eastern District of Pennsylvania Case

October 2012 PBA Pennsylvania Family Lawyer

Earlier this year two case decisions were rendered which considered the constitutionality of applying the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) to state and federal benefits. Both cases will undoubtedly influence the Eastern District of Pennsylvania’s forthcoming decision in Cozen O’Connor, P.C. v. Tobits and Farley (No. 11-00045-CDJ), which will consider a complicated blend of contract interpretation, federalism and the constitutionality of DOMA.

In order to understand the impact these two previous cases could have on the Cozen case, it is important to understand the sections of DOMA being considered. Section 2 of the DOMA essentially exempts all states from recognizing the legally recognized same-sex marriage of any other state. Section 2 actually defines the world “marriage” as “only a legal union between one man and one woman as husband and wife, and the world “spouse” refers only to a person of the opposite sex who is a husband or wife.”

Losing federal funding or forcing the state to apply two interpretations of the same law is a valid concern for states passing same-sex marriage laws; to legalize same-sex marriage is to invite the federal government’s definition of “marriage” and “spouse” to supersede their own.

In the case of Tobits and Farley, the two women were legally married in Canada, while Farley was an attorney in Cozen’s Chicago office. Farley was diagnosed with cancer shortly after their marriage. A day before her death, Farley purportedly signed a beneficiary designation form naming her parents as the beneficiaries of her profit-sharing plan and listing herself as “single.” She did not obtain Tobits’ signature on the spousal consent form to Cozen after her death. Thereafter, Tobits informed Cozen that she intended to make a claim for the benefit.

The Eastern District is tasked with considering a complicated factual background, contract interpretations and application of federal law to a private employer plan. Among the questions the court will consider are whether Cozen necessarily has to apply DOMA’s definition of “marriage” and “spouse” if its protocol is to refer to ERISA law for enacting its private employer plan provisions and whether Cozen breached a fiduciary duty by failing to notify Farley that Tobits may not be considered her spouse under their private plan.