Alaska: Same-Sex Partner of Deceased Worker Entitled to Death Benefits In Spite of State’s “Marriage Amendment”

On Friday, the Supreme Court of Alaska, in Harris v. Millennium Hotel, 2014 Alas. LEXIS 149 (July 25, 2014), held that the state’s workers’ compensation death benefits statute, Alaska Stat. § 23.30.215, which provides survivors benefits only to a deceased worker’s “widow or widower,” may not exclude a deceased worker’s same-sex partner, in spite of (a) the Marriage Amendment to the Alaska Constitution–which defines marriage as “only between one man and one woman”–and (b) Alaska Statute 25.05.013(b), which provides that a “same-sex relationship may not be recognized by the state as being entitled to the benefits of marriage.” The high court left in place an earlier ruling that had excluded the surviving partner of an opposite-sex relationship. 

Background

Kerry Fadely, a manager at the Millennium Hotel, was shot and killed at work in October 2011. Millennium agreed that the death occurred in the course and scope of Fadely’s employment. Deborah Harris filed a workers’ compensation claim for death benefits in March 2012 as Fadely’s “dependent/spouse.” Millennium filed an answer and notice of controversion denying benefits because it “ha[d] not received any documentation” that Harris was Fadely’s wife or husband. It also relied upon Ranney v. Whitewater Engineering, 122 P.3d 214 (2005), arguing that at most Harris was an “unmarried co-habitant” and, therefore, not entitled to benefits.

The Alaska Workers’ Compensation Board denied Harris’s death benefit claim because at the time of Fadely’s death, Harris and Fadely were not, and could not be married to one another in Alaska. The Board declined to address Harris’s constitutional arguments because it lacked jurisdiction to do so. On appeal to the Alaska Workers’ Compensation Appeals Commission, Harris again argued the constitutional issues. The Commission agreed that it lacked jurisdiction to resolve the constitutional question, but it affirmed the Board’s decision that Harris was not entitled to death benefits because she did not qualify as a widow or widower under the state’s Workers’ Compensation Act.

The Supreme Court Decision: Harris’s Equal Protection Claim

The court initially observed that its decision in State v. Schmidt, 323 P.3d 781 (Alaska 2014), had addressed a similar equal protection claim and that the court had rejected the State’s argument that the Marriage Amendment foreclosed an equal protection challenge by same-sex couples to a real property tax statute that gave certain tax-exemption benefits to married couples. In Schmidt, the court indicated that the Marriage Amendment did not explicitly or implicitly prohibit the State from offering the same property tax exemption to an eligible applicant who has a same-sex domestic partner that the State offers to an eligible applicant who has a spouse.

The court observed that in the instant case, the State had argued that the Marriage Amendment must be interpreted as prohibiting the State from offering to same-sex couples any benefits available to married couples, but the court added that the State had provided no legislative history supporting the claim. The Marriage Amendment did not, therefore, bar consideration of Harris’s equal protection claim.

Death Benefits Provision of the Comp Act Violate’s Harris’s Equal Protection Rights under Alaska Constitution

The court continued that, like the tax-exemption statute in Schmidt, the workers’ compensation death benefit statute created a classification between married and unmarried couples and that, as in Schmidt, the statute and Marriage Amendment together prevent same-sex couples from obtaining workers’ compensation benefits to the same extent as married couples because same-sex couples are precluded from marrying in Alaska or having their out-of-state marriages recognized. The court held, therefore, that the death benefit statute discriminated between same-sex and opposite-sex couples.

Cohabiting Opposite-Sex Couples Face No Legal Impediment

The high court agreed with Harris that there was an important distinction between her claim and that of the survivor in Ranney. In the earlier case, there was no dispute that the couple could have married. Indeed, by the time of the man’s death, the two had become engaged, but they had not married. The limitation on benefits to married persons did not violate the surviving woman’s right to equal protection because this was an instance of “permissible legislative line drawing” that bore a “fair and substantial relationship” to the purpose of providing benefits in a manner that is “quick, efficient, fair, and predictable,” at a reasonable cost to the employer.

Marriage As An “Adequate Proxy” to Determine Seriousness of Relationship?

The court added that here “the proper comparison is between same-sex and opposite-sex couples, rather than between married and unmarried couples. The important distinction between this case and Ranney, said the court, was that Harris could not legally marry her partner in Alaska or have an out-of-state marriage recognized because of the Marriage Amendment. In Ranney, the court held that the legislature could have required an individualized inquiry in every workers’ compensation death benefits case but chose rather to use marriage as ”an adequate proxy for the more particularized inquiry concerning whether a relationship is serious enough or the partner is sufficiently dependent to justify awarding benefits. The court acknowledged that marriage might be an “adequate proxy” for opposite-sex couples, but same-sex couples were prohibited from qualifying for the proxy.

In short, the court said, “denying same-sex couples access to death benefits under the workers’ compensation statute does not bear a fair and substantial relationship to the purposes of the act as defined in Ranney. The court, therefore, vacated the decision of the Commission and remanded the case for further proceedings consistent with its opinion.

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