A Sebastopol woman has filed a federal lawsuit against FedEx, her late-wife’s employer, claiming she is owed spousal survivor’s benefits that have been denied her based on outdated, unconstitutional pension provisions excluding same-sex couples.
The suit filed by Stacey Schuett in U.S. District Court is the latest development in a case that reflects the real-life impacts of changing access to marriage and spousal rights in California.
But Schuett’s situation is all the more complicated because her wife, Lesly Taboada-Hall, 56, died of cancer exactly one week before the U.S. Supreme Court cleared the way in June 2013 for same-sex couples to marry, though a Sonoma County probate judge later ruled the vows they exchanged on the eve of Taboada-Hall’s death were valid.
“She gave her 100 percent to FedEx, and she thought she was providing for us,” Schuett said of her wife. “In so many ways, things are changing for families like ours, and then every so often you run into things like this that still are not right.”
Schuett’s case is one of many percolating through the legal community and the courts in the wake of landmark 2013 rulings in which the U.S. Supreme Court conferred new rights on gay and lesbian couples that have not always translated easily into practice.
But hers is also factually unique and should be clear from a legal standpoint, the lead member of her legal team said.
FedEx “never once made the argument that they didn’t have a valid marriage,” said Nina Wasow, an Oakland-based attorney.
What the company has said, according to Wasow, is the new rights for same-sex couples aren’t applicable in this case because its pension plan at the time of Taboada-Hall’s death incorporated language from federal law defining spouses as one man and one woman — a definition of marriage since struck down by the Supreme Court.
The two women were a couple for 30 years before Taboada-Hall’s June 19, 2013, death. They raised two children together, with Taboada-Hall as the main breadwinner and Schuett, an artist and children’s book illustrator, a largely stay-at-home mom.
They missed out on a short window in 2008 during which same-sex marriages were performed in California.
The women had registered as domestic partners under California law in 2003, assuming the law meant what it said and granted them “the same rights, protections, and benefits . . . as are granted to and imposed upon spouses,” the Jan. 14 lawsuit states.
Taboada-Hall, a FedEx employee since 1987, was diagnosed in 2010 with metastatic uterine cancer. In 2012, the progression of her illness forced her to take medical leave from her delivery job, though she remained a FedEx employee.
Around February of the following year, Taboada-Hall began asking questions of FedEx to ensure her benefits would pass to Schuett in the event of her death, but she was unable to get a clear answer about the defined benefit in her pension plan, according to the suit.
On June 3, 2013, Taboada-Hall’s doctor informed the couple that no more could be done for her.
Four days later, they learned there would be no survivor benefit for Schuett as a domestic partner. Ten days later, they learned there was no spousal benefit, either, as the pension plan incorporated language from the federal Defense of Marriage Act, or DOMA, defining marriage as a bond between one man and one woman.
Taboada-Hall’s fragile condition prevented travel to a state where same-sex marriages were permitted, the suit says.
But with a ruling expected from the nation’s highest court on the constitutionality of DOMA and on California’s Proposition 8, which prohibited same-sex marriages in the state, the couple exchanged vows June 19, 2013, before about 50 family members and friends. Taboada-Hall died the next day.
Last June, the Supreme Court struck down both federal and state bans on same-sex marriage. In September, a local probate judge granted a posthumous marriage license to Schuett dated June 19, validating the couple’s vows.
The federal Department of Labor issued an order after the high court ruling specifically requiring the Employee Retirement Income Security Act of 1974, under which pension plans are regulated, to reflect the new recognition of same-sex spouses.
But while Taboada-Hall’s 401(k) and life insurance benefits were passed to Schuett, she was denied the survivor pension that she and her wife anticipated would help provide for the family in the event Taboada-Hall died, the suit states.
“It’s not a lot of money to FedEx, but it’s significant to us,” Schuett said. “We have one child in college and another coming up in a couple of years, and that’s tough now that we’re down one income and we’re not receiving Lesly’s pension that I thought would be available for us.”
In a statement issued by a spokesman, FedEx said: “Lesly Taboada-Hall was a valued, long-term FedEx Express employee for 26 years, and we are saddened by her passing. Ms. Schuett’s claim has been carefully reviewed, and while we are sympathetic to her situation, we are required by federal law to apply the pension plan rules equally to all participants.”
But Schuett’s legal team, including local attorney, Tate Birnie, Wasow and the National Center for Lesbian Rights, contend FedEx’s dependence on an unconstitutional law in denying the pension benefit violates Schuett’s civil rights
“They seem to be taking the position that their hands are tied,” attorney Wasow said.
But the Schuett case, “is about a mandatory benefit. If you are enrolled in a pension plan and you die, your spouse has to get the survivor benefit.”