Lesbian woman accuses Social Security of survivor's benefits discrimination in lawsuit

Lesbian woman accuses Social Security of survivor's benefits discrimination in lawsuit
© Getty Images

A lesbian woman who was denied survivor’s benefits after her partner of 27 years died is now suing the Social Security Administration (SSA) for discrimination. 

Helen Josephine Thornton, 63 of Washington state, alleges SSA is unconstitutionally excluding same-sex couples from being able to access Social Security survivor’s benefits because they were unable to legally marry their spouse before they died.


Lambda Legal, which on Tuesday filed the lawsuit against SSA's Acting Commissioner Nancy Berryhill on Thornton’s behalf in the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Washington, argues in its 19-page complaint that the agency is violating the rights of same-sex partners to be treated equally under the law.

The LGBTQ rights group alleges SSA is relying on discriminatory state laws that previously barred same-sex couples from marriage, perpetuating the same constitutional violations the Supreme Court already condemned when it ruled in 2013 that the federal government can’t withhold spousal benefits from same-sex couples, and when it legalized gay marriage in 2015.

“SSA’s denial of survivor’s benefits to surviving same-sex partners like Ms. Thornton tells them that they are unworthy of federal recognition and equal treatment and demeans their dignity,” they wrote.

In a statement, Lambda Legal Counsel Peter Renn said the federal government is requiring surviving same-sex partners Thornton to pass an impossible test to access the benefits by having been married to their loved ones.

“We are beyond the day when the government can deny equal treatment to same-sex couples,” he said

“But, by withholding these benefits, the federal government is breathing life into the same discriminatory marriage laws that the Supreme Court has already struck down.”

SSA told The Hill it does not comment on pending litigation.