The case of Cozen O’Connor v. Tobits was on administrative hold by U.S. District Judge C. Darnell Jones II pending the recent U.S. Supreme Court’s decision regarding the Defense of Marriage Act. The Cozen O’Connor case involves the distribution of retirement benefits from a deceased attorney’s profit-sharing plan to her spouse, Jennifer Tobits. The case really deals with ERISA language which controls certain retirement accounts; as a Federal statute, it was uncertain that ERISA law allowed a distribution to a same-sex spouse so long as DOMA defined marriage as between a man and a woman.
When the Supreme Court struck down the definition of marriage in the United States v. Windsor decision, the Eastern District was able to employ what amounts to a gender neutral definition of the spouse; since Ms. Tobits and her spouse, Sarah Ellyn Farley, were legally married in Canada Judge Jones was able to rule that she was the default beneficiary of the profit-sharing plan. This case has been in litigation for a while and in January 2011 we discussed the issues brought before the Court – issues which really were focused on ERISA law, rather than same-sex marriage since both sides believed that this issue could be avoided altogether.
Nevertheless, Judge Jones’ decision to suspend the case pending the Supreme Court’s decision in Windsor gave the Eastern District the advantage of pointing to direct guidence as to whether a Federal definition of marriage existed; finding no such definition, Judge Jones was able to address the case before him without having to address current Pennsylvania law banning same-sex marriage.
As recent events have demonstrated, the issue of same-sex marriage in Pennsylvania is evolving. Though the Cozen O’Connor case has little impact on internal Pennsylvania politics, it is probably one of the earliest decisions to use the precedence set by the Supreme Court in the Windsor case to decide a case.