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FedEx, her late-wife’s employer, claiming she is owed spousal survivor’s benefits that have been denied her based on outdated, unconstitutional pension provisions excluding same-sex couples.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.