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Same-sex spouse fights government denial of death benefits in test for Biden administration

Tina Sammons, left, and Patricia Rolfingsmeyer are shown in this family photograph. Rolfingsmeyer survives Sammons, her late spouse, and is challenging in court the government’s denial of death benefits to a same-sex surviving partner because of a nine-month marriage requirement.
Tina Sammons, left, and Patricia Rolfingsmeyer are shown in this family photograph. Rolfingsmeyer survives Sammons, her late spouse, and is challenging in court the government’s denial of death benefits to a same-sex surviving partner because of a nine-month marriage requirement. (Family photo)

For more than a decade, Patricia Rolfingsmeyer and Tina Sammons lived as a committed couple even when the states where they resided did not recognize their same-sex union. They wore matching diamond wedding bands, bought a house together and declared at a private ceremony, “It may not be legal out there, but it is in here.”

When the laws began to change around the country, the pair drove from their home in Pennsylvania to Maryland, where they were officially married in 2013. Less than three months later, Sammons, a U.S. Air Force veteran and longtime U.S. Postal Service employee, died of metastatic breast cancer.

The couple’s union, according to the federal government, did not last long enough for Rolfingsmeyer to meet the nine-month marriage requirement to claim an estimated six-figure dollar amount in survivor benefits.

Rolfingsmeyer, now 71, is challenging the federal government’s denial of employee death benefits because it was not legally or practically possible for her to obtain a marriage certificate in her home state in the nine months before the death of her partner of 16 years.

Sammons died three months before same-sex marriage became legal in Pennsylvania and the year before the Supreme Court’s 2015 decision legalizing same-sex marriage.

The Biden administration, considered an ally of the LGBTQ community, is deciding whether to continue defending in court the Trump administration’s position backing the Office of Personnel Management’s refusal to pay Rolfingsmeyer. The Justice Department declined to comment, and the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit in Washington postponed oral arguments this month at the government’s request.

The case comes as President Biden and Democrats in Congress have vowed to pass broad legal protections to ensure LGBTQ rights as part of a measure called the Equality Act.

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Rolfingsmeyer’s attorney Jonathan Franklin said this week, “we’re still hopeful the administration will do the right thing” and grant her “the same benefits she would have gotten had she been in an opposite-sex relationship — the benefits she was denied for one reason and one reason only, and that is being unconstitutionally prevented from being married.”

Human rights advocates have urged the appeals court to force the government’s hand. Allowing the denial of benefits, they said in court filings, reinforces lingering discriminatory effects of unconstitutional state bans on same-sex marriage and cuts against the Supreme Court’s landmark ruling that emphasized that same-sex couples had been denied the same “constellation of benefits” available to couples of the opposite sex.

In separate, related cases, federal courts have already struck down as unconstitutional the Social Security Administration’s refusal to pay survivor benefits to same-sex partners based on a similar nine-month marriage requirement.

At least 700 people have been denied such benefits and more are expected to be identified, according to data gathered in cases pending before the California-based U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit.

“Same-sex couples have suffered for decades under discriminatory marriage laws that treated them as second-class citizens, and robbed them of the very safety net benefits to which their spouses contributed to throughout their entire working lives,” according to a brief filed in support of Rolfingsmeyer by the Lambda Legal Defense and Education Fund.

“After suffering a lifetime of being denied the benefits of formal relationship recognition, no survivor should be told that — because of those same discriminatory laws — they must now spend their later years further impoverished or without the same economic security afforded to others.”

Rolfingsmeyer and Sammons had their first date over a game of pool on New Year’s Eve in 1997. For years, they commuted together to work the night shift for the Postal Service and spent weekends camping, fishing and with their dogs. Sammons learned she had breast cancer when she turned 50, and Rolfingsmeyer was at her side through chemotherapy, radiation and a double mastectomy.

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She was still going through treatment when the couple traveled to Maryland to marry in November 2013 at a Baltimore County courthouse. Sammons died in February 2014.

The surviving spouses of federal employees who have worked for the government for 10 years, as Sammons had, are entitled to receive a death benefit and annuity. Regulations require the couple to have been married for at least nine months.

Rolfingsmeyer submitted with her application receipts for their wedding bands from 2003, and noted, “The only reason we were not married any sooner is the laws prohibited us from doing so. As soon as we learned we could ‘legally’ be married we did.”

The Office of Personnel Management recognized Rolfingsmeyer as Sammons’s spouse, but declined in 2016 to reconsider its decision.

“[W]hile we sympathize with the circumstances you have presented, the law is specific on this point, and we have no administrative discretion in this matter. We sincerely regret that we could not provide you with a more favorable response,” the office wrote, according to court filings.

The decision was affirmed in 2017 by an administrative law judge, prompting the appeal to the Federal Circuit.

In court filings in November, the Trump administration said Congress had adopted the time requirement to guard against sham deathbed marriages without regard to gender or sexual orientation.

“All applicants — regardless of gender or sexual orientation, and regardless of the reason why the marriage did not last for nine months — are generally denied benefits when their marriage was shorter than nine months,” according to the government’s lawyers.

The Office of Personnel Management would have granted the application for death benefits, the government said, had the couple married seven months earlier in Maryland, or in any other jurisdiction authorizing same-sex marriages.

Rolfingsmeyer said this week that the only reason she and Sammons were not married sooner is that both states where they lived, Illinois and Pennsylvania, banned same-sex marriage for the duration of their 16-year relationship.

“I understand rules and regulations and I’ve gone by them all my life,” Rolfingsmeyer said of the nine-month requirement.

“I understand that’s for people who come in at the last minute,” she said, pausing and becoming emotional. “But I also understand that this relationship was not [just] nine months.”