The Alaska Supreme Court issued a unanimous ruling on July 25 holding that the surviving same-sex partner of an employee killed while at work may qualify to receive a death benefit under the state’s Workers’ Compensation Law. The ruling in Harris v. Millennium Hotel, 2014 Alas. LEXIS 149, was not particularly surprising in light of this court’s recent track record in applying equal protection policies to protect same-sex couples despite the state’s anti-gay Marriage Amendment. Justice Joel Bolger wrote the opinion for the court.
Kerry Fadely and Deborah Harris were same-sex partners for many years. Fadely, a manager at the Millennium Hotel, was shot and killed while on duty in October 2011. Harris filed a workers’ compensation claim for death benefits, describing herself as Fadely’s “dependent/spouse.” Millennium opposed benefits, stating that it had not received any documentation that Harris was Fadely’s legal spouse. Instead, Millennium described Harris as an “unmarried cohabitant” and cited a 2005 Alaska Supreme Court decision, Ranney v. Whitewater Engineering, 122 P.3d 214 (Alaska 2005), which held that unmarried cohabitants of employees were not entitled to death benefits under the Workers’ Compensation Law.
Harris responded by filing a notice that she was challenging the constitutionality of Alaska’s statutory limitation of survivor’s benefits to legal spouses. She pointed out that she was precluded by Alaska law from marrying her same-sex partner, so denying her the death benefit violated her right to equal protection of the law. Conceding that the Workers’ Compensation Board did not have jurisdiction to entertain a constitutional challenge to the statute, she asked the Board to issue a final decision so that she could appeal. She attached to her notice several affidavits attesting to the facts about her relationship with Fadely. They had lived together in “an exclusive, committed, and financially interdependent relationship” for almost ten years, had exchanged rings in 2005 and referred to themselves as spouses or partners. They had filed an affidavit of domestic partnership with Fadely’s employer in order for Harris to be enrolled for spousal benefits.
The Board ruled that Harris was not entitled to benefits under the existing law, and this ruling was upheld on Harris’s appeal to the Alaska Workers’ Compensation Appeals Commission. She then took a direct appeal to the Supreme Court, the first court which had jurisdiction to entertain her constitutional claim.
The first barrier Harris faced was the Alaska Marriage Amendment, and here she was helped by prior decisions by the Alaska Supreme Court, which had ruled in favor of domestic partner rights in two previous cases, ACLU v. State (2005) and State v. Schmidt (2014). In ACLU v. State, the court held that despite the Marriage Amendment, Alaska violated the equal protection rights of state employees with same-sex partners when it failed to provide them with the same benefits provided to married employees. In State v. Schmidt, the court said that the Marriage Amendment was no bar in cases involving same-sex couples seeking a marital property tax exemption in order to avoid a federal equal protection problem, and this case was no different.
Millennium had argued that under the Marriage Amendment the state could not provide a surviving same-sex partner with a benefit that was authorized by law only for married couples. The court pointed out that in ACLU and Schmidt it had observed that “an interpretation of the Marriage Amendment like the one Millennium proposes could violated the federal equal protection clause as interpreted in Romer v. Evans,” a 1996 Supreme Court ruling striking down Colorado’s anti-gay Amendment 2 as a violation of the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment.
The court proceeded to evaluate Harris’s equal protection claim, noting that in its prior cases, it had ruled that “statutes making benefits available solely to spouses were facially discriminatory” on the basis of sexual orientation. Here, Millennium argued that Harris was similarly situated to the unsuccessful plaintiff in Ranney v. Whitewater Engineering, who was denied a death benefit because she was not married to her deceased fiancé. “Ranney does not control the result in this case,” wrote Justice Bolger. “The classes that we are comparing are different and are treated differently. Just as in ACLU and Schmidt, here ‘the proper comparison is between same-sex and opposite-sex couples’ rather than between married and unmarried couples. The Alaska Workers’ Compensation Act itself may deny death benefits to all unmarried individuals, but as we observed in ACLU, unmarried opposite-sex couples ‘have the opportunity to obtain these benefits, because [they] are not prevented by law from marrying.’ Unlike the survivor in Ranney, Harris could not legally marry her partner in Alaska or have an out-of-state marriage recognized here because of the Marriage Amendment.”
“We thus hold that, for purposes of equal protection here,” wrote Bolger, “committed same-sex surviving partners are similarly situated to widows or widowers, and that the death-benefits provision of the Alaska Workers’ Compensation Act, together with the Marriage Amendment, treat these similarly situated groups differently.” The court held that it need not decide Harris’s claim that heightened scrutiny should be used in this case, because the court found that the state did not have a rational basis for the discrimination. The state’s interests in administrative convenience and cost savings were not deemed sufficient to justify treating same-sex couples differently.
The state had argued that lacking the bright-line eligibility test of marriage, it would be put to a significant burden if it had to inquire into the details of the particular relationship to determine whether a claimed surviving same-sex partner should be treated as equivalent to a spouse in a particular case. The court found, in light of the small number of claims that could be anticipated, that neither the administrative burden nor the costs associated in paying out such benefits were significant. In light of the state’s small population and lack of large-scale heavy industry, there are actually few Workers’ Compensation Death benefits claims to be administered. In the most recent year for which data was available, there were just 30 death benefit claims in the entire state. Even if ten percent of those claims involved surviving same-sex partners, there would just be a handful of cases to consider. Indeed, “according to the United States Census Bureau, the percentage of same-sex couple households in Alaska in the 2010 census was less than one percent of all households.”
Administrative inconvenience and costs were deemed significant in the Ranney case, because a ruling for the plaintiff would have required individualized hearings in every case involving a surviving unmarried cohabitant. For different-sex couples, marriage is a “proxy” for the determination of emotional and economic interdependence that provides the policy justification for paying a death benefit when a worker dies leaving a dependent spouse. But the same concern was not present here. “In contrast to the position advocated in Ranney,” wrote Bolger, “an individualized inquiry will not be needed in all death-benefits cases because marriage is still an appropriate proxy for opposite-sex couples. Nor will allowing same-sex partners access to death benefits make workers’ compensation benefits slower or less predictable for opposite-sex couples. In short, denying same-sex couples access to death benefits under the workers’ compensation statute does not bear a fair and substantial relationship to the purposes of the act as identified in Ranney.”
Since the Board had decided the case without a factual hearing, the court sent the case back to the Board so it could make a factual determination in line with the court’s opinion as to whether Harris and Fadely had the kind of relationship that should be qualify for the payment of survivor benefits once the marriage requirement was eliminated.
Because the equal protection conclusion turned on the refusal of Alaska to allow same-sex couples to marry, the rationale for this decision would become obsolete if pending marriage equality litigation attacking the Marriage Amendment is successful, as it seems likely that it will be to judge by the two dozen marriage equality rulings that have been issued by federal and state courts in other jurisdictions since December 2013. If same-sex marriage becomes available in Alaska, unmarried same-sex partners would then be left in the same position as unmarried different-sex partners, disqualified for survivor benefits, because they would be able to marry to qualify for the benefits.
Harris was represented by Eric Croft of Anchorage and Peter Renn, staff attorney in Lambda Legal’s Los Angeles office. The anti-gay Alliance Defending Freedom assisted in representing Alaska Family Action, an anti-gay group, in defending the state’s position.