Alaska Supreme Court Urged to Grant Same-Sex Partner Access to Survivor Benefits
Lambda Legal urged the Alaska Supreme Court Tuesday to grant access to survivor benefits for Deborah Harris, the same-sex partner of Kerry Fadely, who 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.
“The government has no business telling people that, simply because of who they love, their family isn’t worth the law’s protection,” said Peter Renn, Lambda Legal Staff Attorney. “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.”
Tuesday’s arguments are the latest chapter in Debbie Harris’ effort to secure recognition of her relationship with Kerry Fadely of more than 10 years. When she was killed, 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.
“It’s been almost two-and-a-half years since Kerry was killed, and not a day goes by when I don’t think of her, when I don’t miss the wonderful life we built together,” Harris said. “Because we couldn’t marry, I was denied the protections the state provides married heterosexual couples. While still grieving, I had to leave the home we had shared. In the eyes of the state, I was a legal stranger to the love of my life.”
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.
“The State of Alaska made an already tragic situation that much more devastating,” said Eric Croft, co-counsel in the lawsuit. “In an instant, Debbie’s life crumbled around her, and instead of giving her support when she needed it most, Alaska law treated Debbie as if she didn’t exist. That has to change.”
Lambda Legal Staff Attorney Peter Renn and Co-counsel Eric Croft of The Croft Law Office are representing Deborah Harris.