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Anderson v. South Dakota Retirement System

Supreme Court of South Dakota

February 20, 2019

DEBRA LEE ANDERSON, Petitioner and Appellant,

          ARGUED JANUARY 8, 2019


          JAMES D. LEACH Attorney for petitioner and appellant.

          ROBERT B. ANDERSON JUSTIN L. BELL of May, Adam, Gerdes and Thompson, LLP Attorneys for respondent and appellee.

          Gilbertson, Chief Justice.

         [¶1.] Debra Lee Anderson and Deborah Cady were committed partners who worked for the Rapid City Police Department (RCPD). Cady retired from the department in May 2012. The couple married on July 19, 2015. Cady passed away on March 10, 2017. Upon Cady's passing, Anderson applied for survivor spouse benefits under Cady's retirement plan with the South Dakota Retirement System (SDRS). The SDRS denied Anderson's application claiming Anderson and Cady were not married at the time of Cady's retirement and Anderson did not meet the definition of a "spouse" needed to qualify for survivor benefits. Anderson appealed to the South Dakota Office of Hearing Examiners (OHE) and then to the circuit court, which both affirmed the SDRS. Anderson now appeals the order of the circuit court. We affirm.

         Facts and Procedural History

         [¶2.] The facts of this case are undisputed. Cady was employed by the RCPD. She was enrolled in the SDRS in 1986 and continued her enrollment for 26 years until her retirement on May 1, 2012. Throughout her service, Cady advanced from sergeant to lieutenant and finally served as one of two captains who reported directly to the chief of police. Cady attained the highest rank of any female officer in the history of the RCPD at the time.

         [¶3.] Cady met Anderson in 1986. The two became good friends and eventually professed their love for one another. The couple started living together in July 1988. Anderson described their relationship as "wonderful" and considered Cady to be her "soul mate." Anderson stated that the couple built and shared a home together, made decisions together, and supported each other's career and personal choices. They considered themselves to be married, even though they were not legally married at the time.

         [¶4.] Anderson was also employed by the RCPD and worked as commander of the uniform division and in supervisory roles. Two chiefs of police under whom Cady and Anderson served stated that the couple was well known in the RCPD to be committed partners. According to the late Craig Tieszen, RCPD Chief of Police from 2000-2007, there were no issues within the department about accepting Cady and Anderson's relationship. Current Chief of Police Karl Jegeris testified that since he began working at the RCPD in 1995, it was very clear that the two were a committed couple and had the same relationship as anyone who was married. Jegeris went so far as to state that "[o]ur department considers them a married couple, period, end of story. I speak on behalf of the department." Anderson also agreed that she and Cady were a well-known couple for many years in the RCPD.

         [¶5.] In 2004, Cady was diagnosed with breast cancer. Anderson stated that she assisted Cady through the difficult ordeal, which included surgery, chemotherapy, a period of remission, the return of cancer and more chemotherapy, and the decision to end chemotherapy. Anderson stated that during this period, she and Cady were "very devoted and very loving to each other." On May 1, 2012, Cady retired from the RCPD due to cancer. Cady then applied for SDRS benefits, listing herself as single on the application.

         [¶6.] Anderson testified that she and Cady had spoken about getting married both when Massachusetts legalized same-sex marriage in 2003, and when Iowa legalized same-sex marriage in 2009. In 2009, Cady surprised Anderson with matching rings. Anderson testified that the couple had "agreed that [they] would marry. But for [them] it was going to have to be when it was either recognized by the State of South Dakota, which is where [they] resided and worked, or by the Federal Government, you know, as a nation as a whole." Anderson stated that she and Cady felt this way because they were employed in law enforcement. Anderson noted that as police officers, she and Cady took an oath to "the U.S. Constitution, the Constitution of the State of South Dakota, and the laws. And at that time, you know, South Dakota wouldn't recognize it." In Anderson's view, "[e]ven if [they] went to Iowa and would have married, it still wouldn't have been recognized in the State of South Dakota."

         [¶7.] In 2015, the United States Supreme Court handed down its decision in Obergefell v. Hodges, __ U.S.__, 135 S.Ct. 2584, 192 L.Ed.2d 609 (2015). In Obergefell, the Court stated:

[T]he right to marry is a fundamental right inherent in the liberty of the person, and under the Due Process and Equal Protection Clauses of the Fourteenth Amendment couples of the same-sex may not be deprived of that right and that liberty. The Court now holds that same-sex couples may exercise the ...

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