Equal Rights Fight Brewing in San Francisco

Widower says he's not getting the spousal benefits he deserves after the death of his same-sex partner

A San Francisco widower says he's not getting benefits he deserves after the death of his partner.

It's been more than two years since the U.S. Supreme Court overturned the law that defined marriage as the union between one man and one woman. Still, attorneys for Bay Area widower Robert Pritchard say it's not stopping pension plan leaders from using the law to get out of paying benefits.

After a four-year battle with a board of trustees, Pritchard is suing.

"Robert and Tom got married in 2008 in San Francisco," attorney Julie Wilensky said. "They shared a love of historic preservation. They worked together on a campaign to try to preserve the Sacred Heart Church."

Four years after Tom Conwell died of a terminal brain disease, his husband Robert is still trying to collect.

Conwell was a union man and had worked as a telecommunications engineer for the Hilton San Francisco for more than 30 years. He and his husband, Pritchard, applied for disability pension benefits together after Conwell first got sick.

"So Mr. Conwell passed away in 2012 and Mr. Pritchard was denied a spousal benefit because the couple was in a same-sex marriage," Wilensky said. "He was denied the benefit even though the plan defined spouse as the person of whom the participant is legally married."

Wilensky on Pritchard's behalf, trying to get the estimated $900 a month she says he is owed.

"The whole thing's been very hard for him," Wile sky said. "He was getting these letters that his husband was considered single when the plan knew that they were married."

Wilensky says the union and the Hilton are not involved, only the pension plan and its board of trustees, who are using the Defense of Marriage Act, deemed unconstitutional in 2013, to avoid paying.

"It's very clear that DOMA's been unconstitutional for more than two years, and so to rely on it now, when it never even barred paying the benefit in the first place just doesn't make sense," Wilensky said.

Wilensky says, if this wasn't a same-sex couple, this would be a different story.

"Tom was approved for a disability pension, and if he had been married to a woman, it would have been a joint pension for both of their lifetimes," Wilensky said. "But because he was married to a man he was treated as single."

Attempts to contact attorneys for the pension plan were unsuccessful.

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