Lambda Legal Seeks Survivor Benefits for Lesbian Partner of Shooting Victim in Alaska

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"The safety net to catch families in times of crisis should not have a gay exception."
September 24, 2012
Peter Renn

"Imagine losing the person you love most in your life, under the most horrifying of circumstances, and then imagine the government telling you that, legally, your relationship meant nothing.  That's what same-sex couples in Alaska face."

(Anchorage, AK, September 24, 2012) - Lambda Legal filed a legal challenge today on behalf of Deborah Harris, whose same-sex partner, Kerry Fadely, was shot and killed one year ago by a disgruntled former employee whom Fadely had fired.  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.

"When Kerry was killed, it was like a hole had been punched in my heart," Harris said.  "We loved each other and were together for more than a decade in a committed relationship.  But because we could not marry, I was unable to receive the same financial protections that the state provides to married heterosexual couples.  As a result, shortly after Kerry was killed and while I was still grieving, I had to abandon the home that we had shared."

The filing comes just shy of the one-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 whom Fadely had fired nine 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 and thus vary in amount depending on the worker’s salary.

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.  Harris is not challenging the State's exclusion of same-sex couples from marriage, but she is challenging the State's exclusion of same-sex couples from eligibility for survivor benefits.  Unlike several other states, Alaska does not even provide same-sex couples with access to the rights and responsibilities of marriage through a secondary status such as registered domestic partnerships or civil unions.

"The safety net to catch families in times of crisis should not have a gay exception," said Peter Renn, Lambda Legal Staff Attorney.  "Imagine losing the person you love most in your life, under the most horrifying of circumstances, and then imagine the government telling you that, legally, your relationship meant nothing.  That's what same-sex couples in Alaska face."

Lambda Legal claims that the discrimination violates the constitutional guarantees of equality secured by both the Alaska and U.S. Constitutions.  It filed legal papers today with the Alaska Workers' Compensation Board commencing a constitutional challenge.  Because the Board and its appeals commission cannot decide constitutional issues and will be forced to deny Harris' claim, Harris will have the right to appeal directly to the Alaska Supreme Court.  The Alaska Supreme Court will then be able to decide whether excluding same-sex couples from survivor protections is constitutional.

Lambda Legal Staff Attorney Peter Renn is representing Deborah Harris with co-counsel Eric Croft of The Croft Law Office.  The case is Harris v. Millennium Hotel.  The proceeding names Millennium Hotel because it employed Harris' partner, but the legal challenge is against the State of Alaska's exclusion of same-sex couples from survivor benefits.

Read a copy of today’s filing: http://www.lambdalegal.org/in-court/legal-docs/harris_ak_20120924_notice...

Watch a video interview with Deborah: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qNDJRnJe7G4

A high-resolution version of the video is available to media upon request.

The case is Harris v. Millennium Hotel : http://www.lambdalegal.org/in-court/cases/harris-v-millennium-hotel

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Contact Info

Press contact:  Tom Warnke, Cell: 213-841-4503: Email: twarnke@lambdalegal.org

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