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Man Sues Late Husband’s Union for Survivor Benefits

SAN FRANCISCO (CN) - A man whose late husband's union pension fund denied him survivor benefits sued in Federal Court, saying the union used a nullified federal law as justification for denying him the annuity.

Robert Pritchard married Thomas Conwell on Aug. 28, 2008, after gay marriage was legalized in California by order of the California Supreme Court.

Conwell had worked for 30 years as a telecommunications engineer at the San Francisco Hilton Hotel. He applied for a disability pension when he fell ill and had to retire, marking himself as married on the application and listing Pritchard as his spouse.

Conwell's health deteriorated and when he died in 2012, the IUOE Stationary Engineers Local 39 Pension Plan said his husband was not entitled to widower's benefits because the plan's terms considered Conwell "single, as a matter of law" at the time he died.

They paid Pritchard a single life annuity of a little over $14,000, which was not the joint and survivor pension required by the plan.

Pritchard says in his lawsuit that he received a letter from the plan on Aug. 14, 2012, saying the plan was "prohibited from recognizing same-sex marriages at this time."

But under the plan's clear terms, a "spouse" is defined as "a person to whom a participant is legally married, and makes no mention of gender, Pritchard says.

The law referenced in the letter was Section 3 of the Defense of Marriage Act, which defined marriage for federal purposes as the union between one man and one woman, and prevented same-sex couples from receiving federal spousal benefits.

Though Section 3 of DOMA was struck down in 2013 by the U.S. Supreme Court in United States v. Windsor, Pritchard's lawyer says it didn't even apply to private pension plans back in 2012.

"This is based on a misunderstanding of the law and a misstatement of the plan," attorney Julie Wilensky with the Civil Rights Education and Enforcement Center, which represents Pritchard, said.

Amy Whelan with the National Center for Lesbian Rights, another lawyer representing Pritchard, said the plan's reasoning was unclear.

"It's rather bizarre, frankly," she said, adding, "This is a case of pure discrimination."

Pritchard appealed the denial in 2015, but was rejected by plan's board of trustees. It asserted that under the plan's terms, Conwell was single when he retired and at the time of his death.

"This is not what the terms of the plan say," Pritchard says in his lawsuit.

While Pritchard asks only for benefits under the Employee Retirement Income Security Act, Wilensky also said the plan's denial had a discriminatory effect.

"It's been a difficult time for him as it would be for anyone," she said. "Losing a spouse is hard, and on top of that he's losing a pension benefit his spouse earned through his 30 years of hard work as a technician."

A pension plan representative did not respond to a phone request for comment.

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