This Friday, the Alaska Supreme Court set a very important precedent for equal rights in the state, when they ruled in Harris v. Millennium Hotel. The decision will change how claims to same-sex benefits will be evaluated in the future.
In October of 2011, Kerry Fadely kissed her partner, Deborah Harris, goodbye before leaving for work. Fadely was a manager at the Millennium Hotel in Anchorage. It would be their last exchange. A former employee of the hotel would shoot and kill Fadely later that day.
As Scott Christiansen wrote in the Press at the time:
Harris has vivid memories of that day. Her partner wanted an apple pie after work. It was in the oven when a neighbor knocked at the door and alerted Harris that “something bad” was happening at the hotel. She remembers rushing to get there. She remembers being kept from the crime scene by a cop. She remembers asking someone outside what happened, and falling to her knees in the snow upon hearing her partner’s name. Fadely’s death was eventually confirmed, and Harris was informed at a police command center. After she returned home from the most traumatic event of her life, she found Fadely’s ring on the soap dish of the bathroom sink. “I have been wearing both of them ever since,” Harris said.
Harris filed a workers’ compensation claim for death benefits the following March, as Fadely’s “dependent/spouse.” While Millennium acknowledged that the death was both work-related and compensable, it denied the claim that Harris and Fadely were “in a same-sex relationship that could justify a conferral of rights or benefits” and noted current state statute dictating that “A same-sex relationship may not be recognized by the state as being entitled to the benefits of marriage.”
After the denied claim, Harris appealed to the Alaska Workers’ Compensation Board, an 18 member panel of members appointed by the governor. The board agreed with Millenium and upheld the decision, hinging the denial of benefits by the legislature’s decision to base such workers’ compensation decisions on marital status. “[Harris] and [Fadely] were not, and could not be married to one another in Alaska,” thus Harris did not have a claim to any benefits. Even if the board felt that such benefits were warranted, they argued, it was not in their jurisdiction to reach that conclusion in violation of state law.
Such denials have become commonplace around the country, as — even in states who have struck down or repealed same-sex marriage bans — many statutes still recognize a spouse as a union between a “man and woman,” restricting allocation of benefits and protections against discrimination in housing, banking, employment, medical decisions, etc. This past April, Madelyn Taylor, a 74 year old Veteran was denied the right to be laid to rest beside her partner of over 20 years in the Idaho State Veterans Cemetery, because the state constitution stipulates that “a marriage between a man and a woman is the only domestic legal union that shall be valid or recognized in this state.”
Deborah Harris appealed the Alaska Workers’ Compensation Board’s decision to the Alaska Supreme Court, which heard oral arguments earlier this May. She contended that the state’s statutory definition of “widow” and subsequent denial as the surviving partner violated her right to equal protection under the law.
The Board had defended upholding Millenium’s right to deny Harris benefits by citing a 2005 case, Ranney v. Whitewater Engineering. That case centered around the death of Gary Stone in 1999. After Stone suffered a work-related death, his girlfriend, Sharon Ranney, sought death benefits. The two had lived together for four years. However, the Court denied the benefits, because the couple’s ability to marry was never in question.
“Unlike the survivor in Ranney,” Alaska Supreme Court Justice Joel Bolger wrote in Friday’s ruling, “Harris could not legally marry her partner in Alaska or have an out-of-state marriage recognized here because of the Marriage Amendment.”
The Alaska Workers’ Compensation Act provides death benefits to widows and widowers in the event of a work-related death. Like the tax-exempt statute in Schmidt, the workers’ compensation statute creates a classification between married and unmarried 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. Based on our decisions in Schmidt and ACLU, we hold that the workers’ compensation statute facially discriminates between same-sex and opposite-sex couples.
Bolger wrote that the marriage could not be used as criteria to judge whether or not a surviving partner in a same-sex couple was entitled to those rights, because “same-sex couples are absolutely prohibited from marrying under Alaska law.”
But — and this is the important part — the Board’s decision was not overruled. Not exactly. A lot of coverage of Friday’s ruling made it sound as though it was a clear cut victory resulting in Harris receiving the benefits that had, up to this point, been denied. That’s an incomplete assessment.
The Court vacated the decision (wiped it clean) and remanded the Board to conduct further proceedings consistent with the Court’s opinion that such denial violates the equal protection clause. As a result, Harris will not immediately be granted the benefits the Court found her to be entitled to.
It does means that, in the future, the Board is both empowered and instructed to evaluate claims to benefits on a case by case basis when it comes to same-sex couples, and have been explicitly told that the state’s ban on marriage equality — currently being appealed in U.S. District Court — does not restrict equal access to such benefits.
In other words, should another tragedy befall the surviving member of a same-sex couple — or, more broadly interpreted, any rights to benefits granted to opposite-sex couples while denied to same-sex couples — the Alaska Workers’ Compensation Board cannot legally and defensibly dismiss it as above their pay grade. The Court has now ruled that it is within their jurisdiction, and the Board has the right and responsibility to adjudicate such matters themselves.
The decision will, hopefully, prevent someone enduring a similar situation from having to pursue legal recourse to secure basic equal rights.