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Harris v. Millennium Hotel

Supreme Court of Alaska

July 25, 2014

DEBORAH HARRIS, Appellant,
v.
MILLENNIUM HOTEL and NEW HAMPSHIRE INSURANCE CO., Appellees

Appeal from the Alaska Workers' Compensation Appeals Commission, Laurence Keyes, Commission Chair. Alaska Workers' Compensation Appeals Commission No. 13-005.

Eric Croft, The Croft Law Office, Anchorage, and Peter Renn, Lambda Legal Defense and Education Fund, Inc., Los Angeles, California, for Appellant.

Donald C. Thomas and Kendra E. Bowman, Delaney Wiles, Inc., Anchorage, for Appellees.

Sonja Redmond, Law Office of Sonja Redmond, Soldotna, and Kellie M. Fiedorek, Alliance Defending Freedom, Washington, D.C., for Amicus Curiae Alaska Family Action.

Before: Fabe, Chief Justice, Winfree, Stowers, Maassen, and Bolger, Justices.

OPINION

Page 331

BOLGER, Justice.

I. INTRODUCTION

The Alaska Workers' Compensation Board denied a death benefit claim filed by the decedent's same-sex partner because the death benefit statute grants benefits only to a worker's " widow or widower" as defined by statute. The Board construed these terms by applying the Marriage Amendment to the Alaska Constitution, which defines marriage as " only between one man and one woman," thus excluding a decedent's same-sex partner. Because this exclusion lacks a fair and substantial relationship to the purpose of the statute, we conclude that this restriction on the statutory definition of " widow" violates the surviving partner's right to equal protection under the law.

II. FACTS AND PROCEEDINGS

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 " dependant/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. Relying on Ranney v. Whitewater Engineering,[1]

Page 332

it also controverted benefits based on Harris's status as an " unmarried co-habitant."

Harris filed notice that she was challenging the constitutionality of the statutory provisions of the Alaska Workers' Compensation Act that limit eligibility for death benefits to widows or widowers. Harris said she was the " surviving same-sex partner" of Fadely and noted that they were " precluded from marrying each other under Alaska law." Harris asked the Board to issue a final decision so that she could appeal the constitutional issue, given that the Board lacked the authority to determine whether the statute violated her equal protection rights. She attached documentary evidence as well as several affidavits to support her factual assertions and " preserve[] any factual context for later judicial review."

In Harris's affidavit, she described her relationship with Fadely as " an exclusive, committed, and financially interdependent relationship" that had spanned more than 10 years. For most of those years, the couple lived in Alaska. She said that she and Fadely had exchanged rings in 2005 and referred to each other as spouses or partners. Harris also stated that she and Fadely had joint credit cards and shared responsibility for household expenses, that they had raised their children from prior relationships together, and that they would have married if they had been able to. Harris attached an affidavit of domestic partnership that she and Fadely had completed in 2008 for another employer; completing the affidavit permitted Harris to be enrolled in Fadely's employer's medical and dental plans. In the affidavit, they attested that they met the requirements of domestic partnership as listed in the document as of June 1, 2002.

The parties submitted stipulated facts to the Board and asked the Board to make a decision without an oral hearing. Millennium acknowledged that Fadely's death was compensable, but it disputed Harris's claim that she and Fadely were " in a same-sex relationship that could justify a conferral of rights or benefits" and noted that the two were " not married to one another as required under the [Alaska Workers' Compensation] Act and as defined under Alaska law." The parties agreed that the Board did not need to consider Harris's evidence to decide her claim and also agreed that the Board lacked the authority to decide constitutional questions.

The Board decided that Harris was not entitled to benefits 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 ...


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