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Achieving LGBTQ Equality Through Litigation, Legislation, Policy, and Public Education

Press Release

Relationship Recognition

Gay Widower Sues San Francisco Bay Area Union Pension Plan for Refusing to Provide Survivor Benefits After His Husband Died

(San Francisco, January 22, 2016) – 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.

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.”

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.”

Read more about the case.

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