Alaska Supreme Court rejects denial of survivor benefits to woman whose same-sex partner died


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JUNEAU, Alaska — The Alaska Supreme Court on Friday rejected the denial of survivor benefits to a woman whose same-sex partner was shot to death on the job in 2011.

The high court held that denying benefits to Deborah Harris was a violation of equal protection. It sent the case back to a workers' compensation commission for further consideration.

The state Department of Law was reviewing the decision. Part of the evaluation will be whether law changes or new regulations are needed to comply with the ruling, a spokeswoman said.

The decision is the latest by a court that over the years has chipped away at laws deemed discriminatory against gay couples. In 2005, the high court found it unconstitutional to deny certain benefits to the same-sex partners of state employees. This past April, the court found that gay couples are equally entitled to the same state property-tax exemptions for senior citizens and disabled veterans as married couples.

In the latest case, Harris challenged the constitutionality of state workers' compensation law limiting eligibility for survivor benefits to widows or widowers. Under state law, widows or widowers are entitled to survivor benefits if their husband or wife dies in a work-related injury; children are also eligible but if there are no children and is no surviving spouse, benefits can go to other specified family members who were dependent on the worker.

Same-sex couples have not received such benefits because they are not allowed to marry in Alaska. Voters in 1998 approved a constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage. That ban is being challenged in federal court, with arguments set for October.

Harris said she and her partner, Kerry Fadely, were in a committed relationship for more than 10 years. According to an affidavit cited by the court, they had joint credit cards, raised their children from prior relationships together and would have married if they could have. Fadely was shot to death while at work at the Millennium Hotel in Anchorage.

The supreme court said the hotel at which Fadely worked acknowledged Fadely's death was compensable but argued the couple was not married. Attorneys for the hotel and insurer declined comment.

The case was brought to the supreme court to settle the issue of constitutionality, one the compensation board did not have standing to address.

Attorneys for Harris expect her to present information on her relationship with Fadely to the board once the case is sent back, and that the matter should be cut and dry. Attorney Eric Croft said the major determination for the board is whether an injury is work-related but that's not in question here.

Croft said the denial of benefits was disastrous for Harris, who could not afford the home the two shared after Fadely's death. He said she is now living out of state.

Lamda Legal staff attorney Peter Renn, who also represented Harris, said the decision "contributes to momentum that we've been seeing across the country of courts saying the exclusion of same-sex couples from legal protection, whether it's marriage, as we've seen in a bunch of cases, or the benefits associated with marriage. And that's the category of cases that this case falls into."

Renn said the "most sensible thing to do is to get at the root cause of the problem" — the exclusion of same-sex couples from marriage.

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