On May 16, 2019, in Reed v. KRON/IBEW Local 45 Pension Plan, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit reversed a district court decision to deny a domestic partner from receiving the pension benefits upon an employee’s death. The court ruled that the pension plan committee abused its discretion in the denial and remanded with instructions to determine the payments owed to the plaintiff.
In this case, the plaintiff (Reed) registered as a domestic partner with the (now deceased) Gardner in 2004. At that time, Gardner worked for a television station and was a participant in the company’s pension benefit plan. Gardner retired in April 2009 and began receiving pension benefits. Gardner and Reed married in May, 2014, and Gardner passed away five days later. The pension payments ceased upon Gardner’s death.
Reed submitted a claim for a survivor-spousal benefit, but it was denied, because the plan terms had “consistently interpreted the term spouse to exclude domestic partners.” Reed sued the plan committee that made the decision. The plan argued that the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), which was in place at the time of Gardner’s retirement, prohibited the plan from recognizing Reed as Gardner’s spouse. The district court found in favor of the plan committee stating that it did not abuse its discretion in denying Reed’s claim for benefits.
In considering the appeal, the ninth circuit focused on the plan document’s choice-of-law provision that stated the plan was to be “administered and its provisions interpreted in accordance with California law.” The ninth circuit determined that the plan committee should have awarded spousal benefits to Reed, because in either time the committee reviewed the case, in 2009 (at the time of Gardner’s retirement) and 2016 (at the time of Gardner’s death), California law afforded domestic partners the same rights, protections, and benefits as those granted to spouses. The fact that DOMA was law at the time of Gardner’s retirement did not supersede the plan’s terms.
This case serves as a good reminder of the protections extended to domestic partners in certain states, including CA. Plan administrators should know and understand the implications of applicable state laws when interpreting a plan’s terms.
Source: NFP BenefitsPartners