Gay Widower Sues San Francisco Bay Area Union Pension Plan

Thomas Conwell and Robert Pritchard on their wedding day.
Photo: NCLR
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Thomas Conwell and Robert Pritchard on their wedding day.  Photo: NCLR

Thomas Conwell and Robert Pritchard on their wedding day. Robert, his gay widower, is suing for pension plan benefits that he should already receive under the federal rights acquired by the June, 2015 U.S. Supreme Decision.
Photo: NCLR

Pension Plan Refuses to Provide Survivor Benefits After His Husband Died

SAN FRANCISCO—Today, the widower of a hotel telecommunications engineer in San Francisco sued the IUOE Stationary Engineers Local 39 Pension Plan and its Board of Trustees for refusing to provide him with a spousal pension benefit required by the terms of the pension plan and federal law, solely because both spouses are men.

Robert Pritchard and Thomas Conwell met in San Francisco in 2005, quickly falling in love and becoming inseparable. They were soulmates, Robert says, adding that their interests in antiques, church, and historical preservation brought them even closer. The couple married in San Francisco in 2008. Together, they worked on a number of preservation projects across San Francisco, including an effort to save the Sacred Heart Church in the Western Addition neighborhood. [pullquote]Thomas, who worked at the San Francisco Hilton for more than 30 years, passed away from a terminal brain disease in 2012. After Thomas died, Robert, a hospice nurse, sought a spousal survivor benefit under his husband’s pension plan, which defines “spouse” as “a person to whom a participant is legally married.”Even though the two were validly married, the plan refused to provide a spousal benefit to Robert solely because both spouses were men.[/pullquote]

Thomas, who worked at the San Francisco Hilton for more than 30 years, passed away from a terminal brain disease in 2012. After Thomas died, Robert, a hospice nurse, sought a spousal survivor benefit under his husband’s pension plan, which defines “spouse” as “a person to whom a participant is legally married.” Even though the two were validly married, the plan refused to provide a spousal benefit to Robert solely because both spouses were men.

“My husband’s death is the worst thing that has ever happened to me,” Robert said. “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.”

Robert is represented by the National Center for Lesbian Rights (NCLR), the Civil Rights Education and Enforcement Center (CREEC), and Feinberg, Jackson, Worthman & Wasow LLP.

In November 2015, the Board of Trustees refused to provide the benefit by relying on the federal Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), which the U.S. Supreme Court struck down as unconstitutional in June 2013. But DOMA, even while it was in effect, did not prohibit the payment of the benefit to Robert. And federal law requires retirement plans such as this one to recognize the legal marriages of same-sex couples for purposes of survivor benefits.

“Tom worked for many years to earn a pension benefit that would protect himself and his family,” Robert said. “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.” [pullquote]“Tom worked for many years to earn a pension benefit that would protect himself and his family,” Robert said. “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.”[/pullquote]

Julie Wilensky, the Director of CREEC’s California office, who represents Robert, said: “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.”

NCLR Senior Staff Attorney Amy Whelan, who also represents Robert, said: “The Board of Trustees needs to follow its plan and provide this much needed benefit to Robert. While DOMA has been the source of extreme discrimination against LGBT people and their families, it provides absolutely no defense in this case.”

The National Center for Lesbian Rights is a national legal organization committed to advancing the human and civil rights of the lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender community through litigation, public policy advocacy, and public education. 

The Civil Rights Education and Enforcement Center (CREEC) is a membership organization whose goal is ensuring that everyone can fully and independently participate in our nation’s civil life without discrimination based on race, gender, disability, religion, national origin, sexual orientation, or gender identity.

Feinberg, Jackson, Worthman & Wasow LLP litigates on behalf of employees and retirees in the areas of employee benefits, wage and hour law, civil rights, and labor rights.  We are committed to helping clients in these areas and to promoting corporate and fiduciary responsibility. 

[From a News Release]

 

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