7/29/2014 2:54:00 PM,
Jeff D. Gorman
(CN) - An Alaska woman may be entitled to workers' compensation death benefits after her same-sex partner was murdered on the job, the state's highest court ruled.
Kerry Fadely worked as a hotel manager, but she was shot to death at work in October 2011. Deborah Harris filed a workers' compensation death benefit as Fadely's "dependant/spouse."
The Millennium Hotel denied her benefits, stating that it had received no documentation that Harris was Fadely's spouse.
Harris challenged the constitutionality of the Alaska Workers' Compensation Act and noted that she had not been allowed to marry Fadely under state law.
To support her claim, Harris stated that she and Fadely had exchanged rings in 2005 and had been in an "exclusive, committed and financially interdependent relationship" for 10 years. She also included an affidavit that allowed Harris to be enrolled in Fadely's medical and dental plans through her employer.
The workers' compensation board ruled in the hotel's favor, stating that the women "were not, and could not, be married to each other in Alaska."
Harris took her case to the Alaska Supreme Court, which agreed with her that the state's Marriage Amendment did not preclude Harris's equal protection claim.
In a decision written by Justice Joel Bolger, the court also ruled that the Alaska Workers' Compensation Act violated Harris' constitutional rights.
"Committed same-sex surviving partners are similarly situated to widows or widowers, and that the death-benefits provision of the Alaska Workers' Compensation Act, together with the Marriage Amendment, treats these similarly situated groups differently," he wrote.
Bolger added that simply being married was not always enough for even a widow or widower to qualify for death benefits.
"As Harris points out, the statute already requires the Board to make individualized inquiries in some cases because the statute limits benefits to widows and widowers who are 'living with or dependent for support upon' the worker at the time of the worker's death," he stated.
Therefore, according to Bolger, the workers' compensation board would be able to determine whether a same-sex couple is eligible for death benefits. He remanded the case to the board for such a determination.