On January 22, 2016, 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.
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.
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.
In March 2016, NCLR and co-counsel resolved this lawsuit on Pritchard’s behalf. The pension plan is now paying Pritchard the spousal survivor benefit‚–a joint and survivor annuity. “Having this case resolved is a great weight off of my shoulders,” said Pritchard. “I can’t thank my attorneys enough for standing by me and fighting for what all spouses deserve.”