Stacey Schuett and Lesly Taboada-Hall couldn’t wait any longer. The couple had been together for 30 years and hoped to get married when it became legal again in their home state of California. But in June of 2013, it became clear that Taboada-Hall, who was dying of uterine cancer, no longer had the luxury of time. The two wed in their home on June 19, as Taboada-Hall lay on her deathbed.
On June 20, Taboada-Hall died. On June 26, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down the Defense of Marriage Act and cleared the way for marriage equality in California. Taboada-Hall missed the opportunity to see her marriage validated by exactly six days.
Those rulings marked the end of one struggle for Stacey Schuett—and the start of another. Through most of their relationship, Schuett remained at home, raising the couple’s two children, while Taboada-Hall worked at FedEx. After 26 years, Taboada-Hall had built up a sizable pension. But there was a problem: FedEx’s pension plan was governed by a federal law that incorporated DOMA, barring survivor benefits for same-sex spouses. After DOMA’s demise, federally regulated retirement plans (like FedEx’s) were legally required to recognize same-sex marriages vis-à-vis survivor benefits. In other words, thanks to the Supreme Court, FedEx could no longer withhold Taboada-Hall’s pension from Schuett.
And yet, it did withhold the pension—and when Schuett sued, FedEx fought back. Taboada-Hall, FedEx argued, was unmarried at the time of her death and had no surviving spouse “for the purposes of the Plan.” Thus, it has refused to give Schuett and her family access to a penny of the pension that Taboada-Hall built up over her 26 years at the company.
This case could have been a fairly simple debate about the retroactive application of the court’s marriage equality rulings. As several courts and the federal government have already recognized, these decisions must apply retroactively because they implicate “primary, private individual conduct.” In the eyes of the law, neither DOMA nor California’s same-sex marriage ban ever existed. Because Taboada-Hall’s marriage would have been valid but for those unconstitutional laws, FedEx should now be required to recognize the union and pay out the pension.
But the case is moved from the realm of “fairly simple” to “painfully easy” by one crucial fact: Following Taboada-Hall’s death, Schuett actually obtained a marriage license, reflecting the validity of their union. California law allows courts to “establish” the existence of a marriage after the ceremony has taken place. So Schuett asked a superior court to issue an order “Establishing the Fact of Marriage.” The court obliged, declaring the Schuett and Taboada-Hall were married on June 19, 2013, and issuing a delayed marriage certificate.
Schuett informed FedEx about the hearing to establish the fact of marriage. The company declined to intervene—but now it insists that the delayed marriage certificate is void because the marriage itself was invalid. Had Taboada-Hall survived one more week and wed on June 26, FedEx implicitly concedes, the marriage would be legal, and the company would pay the pension. But because Taboada-Hall died shortly before the rulings, FedEx argues, her wife must forever remain a legal stranger.
On Monday, a federal district court ruled against FedEx’s motion to dismiss the case, harshly criticizing the company’s legal argument and possibly presaging an eventual victory for Schuett. That’s a heartening development, and with luck, it might push the company closer to conceding defeat quickly and quietly, before the lawsuit further sullies its reputation. Somehow, FedEx currently boasts an 85 rating on the Human Rights Campaign’s corporate equality index, signaling LGBT-friendly workplace policies. But after this appalling move, it’s hard to imagine any LGBT individual trusting FedEx to treat them with a semblance of basic dignity.