Lambda Legal Urges Alaska Supreme Court to Allow Same-Sex Couples Access to Survivor Benefits

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October 14, 2013
Lambda Legal client Debbie Harris.

Lambda Legal filed a brief with the Alaska Supreme Court asking the Court to hold that it is unconstitutional to deny survivor benefits to Deborah Harris, whose same-sex partner, Kerry Fadely, was shot and killed in 2011 by a disgruntled former employee.

Under Alaska’s workers’ compensation law, the spouse of a person who dies from a work-related injury is eligible to receive survivor benefits, but same-sex couples are excluded from that legal protection.

Read the brief.

Learn more about the case, Harris v. Millennium Hotel.

Peter Renn, Lambda Legal Staff Attorney, said:

Alaska law traps same-sex couples in a Catch-22: they can’t marry, and then the state uses the fact they weren’t married to deny survivor benefits. Incredibly, under Alaska law even divorced couples can sometimes qualify for survivor benefits, while same-sex couples together for life can never do so.  We have a safety net to catch families in crisis moments, and it shouldn’t cut out same-sex couples.

The appeal comes on the two-year anniversary of Fadely’s death, which occurred in October 2011.  At the time, Fadely was employed as the food and beverage manager at the Millennium Hotel in Anchorage, Alaska.  An employee who had been fired days earlier returned to the hotel with a pistol, asked for Fadely, and shot her multiple times.  Alaska’s workers’ compensation law requires employers to provide survivor benefits, which are generally paid by insurance companies, to the surviving spouse of a person who dies from a work-related injury. The benefits minimize disruption to family members who relied upon the deceased worker’s income.

Same-sex couples, however, are categorically barred from accessing legal protections for survivors, because the State of Alaska does not allow same-sex couples to marry or access to the rights and responsibilities of marriage.

Lambda Legal client Debbie Harris said:

When Kerry was killed, it was like a hole had been punched in my heart. We loved and cared for each other for more than a decade. But because we could not marry, I was denied the same financial protections that the state provides to married heterosexual couples. Shortly after Kerry was killed and while I was still grieving, I had to abandon the home that we had shared. The government denied me the dignity of being a widow and instead branded me as a legal stranger to the most important person in my life.

Attorney Eric Croft said:

The government has no business deciding who should get survivor benefits based on what they do in the privacy of their own bedroom. However, the government should encourage family members to care for each other, which is exactly what Debbie and Kerry did, until they no longer could.

Read the press release.