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The same-sex partner of a woman who was murdered while working in an Anchorage, Alaska, hotel is eligible for workers compensation death benefits, the Alaska Supreme Court has ruled.
Kerry Fadely was working as a manager at the Millennium Hotel when she was shot and killed in October 2011 by a former hotel employee who had been fired nine days earlier, records show.
Deborah Harris, Ms. Fadely's partner of more than a decade, filed a workers compensation claim for death benefits four months later, according to records. Despite agreeing that Ms. Fadely's death was compensable, Millennium Hotel denied benefits to Ms. Harris because she was an “unmarried co-habitant,” not Ms. Fadely's “wife or husband,” according to court records.
Ms. Harris challenged the constitutionality of the Alaska Workers' Compensation Act that limits eligibility for death benefits to “widows or widowers,” records show. In an affidavit, she described her relationship with Ms. Fadely as “an exclusive, committed, and financially interdependent relationship,” according to records.
She stated that the couple had joint credit cards, shared responsibility for household expenses, raised their children from prior relationships together, and that “they would have married if they had been able to.” Ms. Harris also provided an affidavit of domestic partnership that she and Ms. Fadely completed in 2008 for another employer, which permitted her to enroll in Ms. Fadely's employer's medical and dental plans.
The Alaska Workers' Compensation Board decided that Ms. Harris was not entitled to benefits because, at the time of Ms. Fadely's death, they “were not, and could not be married to one another in Alaska,” records show.
Ms. Harris appealed to the Alaska Workers' Compensation Appeals Commission, which affirmed the board's decision, according to records. She then appealed to the Alaska Supreme Court, arguing that denying death benefits “violates her right to equal protection under both the Alaska and the United States Constitutions.”
The Alaska Supreme Court ruled on Friday that Ms. Harris is eligible for workers comp death benefits because the “restriction on the statutory definition of 'widow' violates the surviving partner's right to equal protection under the law” as “for same-sex couples, marriage cannot serve as the way to determine whether their relationships are 'serious enough' or the survivor is 'sufficiently dependent to justify awarding benefits' and that an individualized inquiry will be needed.”
“We conclude that this restriction on the statutory definition of 'widow' violates the surviving partner's right to equal protection under the law,” the ruling states.
The case has been remanded to the Commission for further proceedings consistent with the Supreme Court's opinion.
Relatives of one of the 19 Arizona hotshot firefighters killed by lightning-sparked wildfire flames this summer are challenging the City of Prescott over its survivor benefits policy.