Charlotte Personal Injury Attorney Matthew R. Arnold of Arnold & Smith, PLLC answers the question “Are the laws or rules applying to a wrongful death claim different from a personal injury not involving death?”
The summer of 2013 was a joyous time for some same-sex couples. When the United States Supreme Court struck down parts of the Defense of Marriage Act (“DOMA”)—a 1996 Act signed into law by then-President Bill Clinton that prohibited the federal government from recognizing same-sex marriages—on equal protection grounds, same-sex couples across the United States became eligible for certain spousal benefits.
A few days before the DOMA decision, a woman named Lesly Toboada-Hall passed away after a long bout with uterine cancer. Hall’s wife—Stacy Schuett—received survivor benefits from FedEx—where Toboada-Hall had worked as a delivery driver for 26 years, but the company told Schuett she was not entitled to receive Toboada-Hall’s pension benefit because Toboada-Hall died six days before the DOMA decision.
Public and private employers as well as federal and state legislatures have struggled with the complex ramifications of the DOMA decision. In some instances, employers merely needed to change policies to comport with the decision, while in others, state and federal statutes and administrative rules were placed in jeopardy and needed to be modified.
The Supreme Court’s 5-4 DOMA decision arose out of a case involving Edith Windsor—whose spouse Thea Spyer died in 2009. Windsor argued that she should not have to pay a $363,053 tax on Windsor’s estate. Federal law provides for an exemption from the tax for spouses. Although Windsor and Spyer married in Canada in 2007, under DOMA, spouses in same-sex marriages could not claim the exemption.
Ms. Schuett—who married Toboada-Hall in the hospital a day before Ms. Toboada-Hall passed away—is relying on the Supreme Court’s decision in the Windsor case to argue that she is entitled to Ms. Toboada-Hall’s pension benefits. She recently brought suit in federal court, arguing that the Windsor decision should apply retroactively.
Ms. Schuett told NBC News that she and Toboada-Hall discovered “at the eleventh hour” that the FedEx would deny the pension benefit—worth around $400,000—on the basis of DOMA. According to Ms. Schuett, Ms. Toboada-Hall was concerned about what would happen to Ms. Schuett and their two children after her death. A California judge ruled that the women’s marriage was valid, after Ms. Toboada-Hall’s death, setting the stage for Ms. Schuett’s lawsuit.
A spokesman for FedEx told NBC News that the company was saddened by Ms. Toboada-Hall’s death, but that the company was “required by federal law to apply the pension plan rules equally to all participants.”
Joanna Youn, an attorney at the Washington, D.C. law firm of Caplin & Drysdale, told the Society of Human Resource Management in 2013 that whether the Windsor ruling provided relief to same-sex couples retroactively was one of the major unanswered questions that arose in the wake of Windsor.
Youn said the Internal Revenue Service would have to issue rules guidance on the more-than 1,000 federal laws that address the treatment of spouses under the federal tax code. Windsor was a tax case, but the ruling probably extends to cases like Ms. Schuett’s that involve the payment of spousal death benefits.
Ultimately, courts, legislatures and rulemaking authorities will have to decide the thorny issues on Windsor’s retroactive application.
If you find yourself facing a complicated personal-injury-law matter, then you need the help of experienced personal-injury law attorneys in Charlotte, North Carolina who can help guide you through the process of holding those responsible for your injuries accountable for their negligent or intentional conduct. Please contact Arnold & Smith, PLLC today at (704) 370-2828 or find additional resources here.
About the Author
Matthew Arnold is a Managing Member of Arnold & Smith, PLLC, where he focuses on the areas of family law, divorce, child custody, child support, alimony and equitable distribution.
Mr. Arnold was raised in Charlotte, where he graduated from Providence Senior High School. He attended Belmont Abbey College, where he graduated cum laude, before attending law school at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill on a full academic scholarship.
A board-certified specialist in the practice of Family Law, Mr. Arnold is admitted to practice in all state courts in North Carolina, in the United States Federal Court for the Western District of North Carolina, in the North Carolina Court of Appeals and Supreme Court, and in the Fourth Circuit United States Court of Appeals in Richmond, Virginia.
In his free time, Mr. Arnold enjoys golfing and spending time with his wife and three children.
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