In a positively surprising ruling, a federal Court refused to dismiss a hearing where FedEx denied survivor benefits to a same-sex spouse. The Plaintiff is Stacy Schuett and she was in a committed relationship for 27 years with her spouse when they were finally married in a civil ceremony in Sonoma County in June of 2013. A day later, her wife, Lesly Taboada-Hall passed away after a long struggle with cancer. The deceased wife worked for FedEx for 26 years and was fully vested in her company’s retirement plan. It was not until six days after her death that same-sex marriage licenses were available in the state of California. At this time, the surviving spouse, Stacy Schuett, submitted a claim as a surviving spouse entitling her to her deceased wife’s pension plan, but FedEx immediately denied her claim because they said she did not meet the definition of “spouse.”
Many of you may know about ERISA, but for those of you who do not, here is a quick run down:
ERISA is the Employee Retirement Income Security Act of 1974. It is a federal law that sets minimum protective standards for almost all voluntarily established pension plans in the private sector.
Just recently, the D.C. Circuit Court held in Vanderkam v. Vanderkam that ERISA preempts a party’s attempt to use state law to seize a benefit that federal law has vested in a spouse or former spouse entitled to a survivor annuity. ERISA usually bars alienation or waiver of a spouse’s survivor annuity unless the spouse waives the annuity in writing in conformity with section 205 of the content and timing rules of ERISA. This may sound confusing, so let me give some background on this issue…
John Vanderkam was employed by a corporation and was a participant in the pension plan. He married the defendant, Melissa Vanderkam in 1984 and designated her as a 100% beneficiary of his joint and survivor annuity of his pension plan, paid upon his death. John retired in 1994, at which time the survivor annuity vested in Melissa while John began to receive his monthly benefits from the pension plan. In 2002, John and Melissa divorced. This is where it all gets tricky… Continue reading →