Utah same-sex couple threaten Social Security with lawsuit over denied benefits

Same-sex married couples in Utah are still being turned away at Social Security Administration offices statewide, despite five days passing since the U. S. Supreme Court decision overturning Utah’s ban on those marriages, nine months since U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder ordered all federal agencies to recognize same-sex marriages performed in Utah and 15 months since the Supreme Court’s Windsor ruling declaring much of the Defense of Marriage Act unconstitutional. At least one of those couples is now threatening a federal lawsuit if they are not granted their legal benefits.

Austin and James Vance, who were legally married back in December of 2013, hand-delivered a letter today from their attorney to the Salt Lake City Social Security office, notifying them that if they did not grant their legal benefits and issue them new social security cards as they are required to do for married couples, the office could be facing a federal constitutional rights lawsuit.

The letter, drafted by Salt Lake attorney Danielle Hawkes, condemns the Utah SSA for dragging their heels on an issue she says should have been resolved a long time ago.

“The law on this issue has been clearly established for 15 months, giving the agency ample opportunity to correct its discriminatory practices. In June 26, 2013, the Supreme Court in United States v. Windsor held that the Defense of Marriage Act is unconstitutional, […] On October 6, 2014, the United Supreme Court refused to hear Utah’s appeal of the Kitchen v. Herbert case. At that point, the 10th Circuit’s holding became law for the State of Utah. […]”

But instead of accepting the letter and issuing the benefits, the Vances were handed a written memorandum from SSA, claiming that more time is needed to streamline procedures for issuance of SSA Cards, eligibility and benefits.

Hawkes says that’s nonsense. “The SSA system is federal, and it’s the exact same system as every other state that has already implemented these changes. … This is demeaning and demoralizing, plain and simple.”

After the Supreme Court’s Windsor decision late last year, the U. S. Department of Justice sent a memo that instructed all federal agencies to grant equal marriage benefits to legally wed same-sex couples. In Utah’s case, those benefits were put on hold for the 1,300 couples who married in December of 2013, while the Supreme Court weighed whether to take the case. But once the case was rejected by the high court, and the stay was lifted, benefits should have been immediately available.

The disparity in overseeing of federal benefits was also echoed by U. S. Senator Dianne Feinstein, (D-Calif.), in a letter to the Obama administration Thursday, writing, “same-sex couples who paid into the system like everyone else, or who served in the military, continue to be denied the equal benefits they have earned.”

An attorney for the social security administration Friday refused comment other than to state that SSA officials will fully comply with federal guidelines and laws. The attorney refused, however, to say when that would happen.

“The bottom line here is that this is either a procedural issue, in which case it’s unjustified and needs to be corrected today,” says Hawkes, “or this is animus from Social Security, and that’s unconstitutional and needs to be remedied immediately.”

Eric Ethington

Eric Ethington has been specializing in political messaging, communications strategy, and public relations for more than a decade. Originally hailing from Salt Lake City, he now works in Boston for a social justice think tank. Eric’s writing, advocacy work, and research have been featured on MSNBC, CNN, Fox News, CNBC, the New York Times, The Telegraph, and The Public Eye magazine. He’s worked as a radio host, pundit, reporter, activist and electoral campaign strategist. He also writes at NuanceStillMatters.com

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