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Alaska woman seeks same-sex survivor benefits after partner shot on job

Suzanna Caldwell
Courtesy Lambda Legal

On Oct. 29, 2011, Deborah Harris woke up and had breakfast with her partner of over a decade, Kerry Fadely. It was a normal morning; a normal breakfast, except that two hours later Fadely, 55, would be dead -- shot while working at the Millennium Alaskan Hotel in Anchorage by a disgruntled employee whom she had fired nine days earlier.

What could only be considered a horror story was only made worse in the months ahead. As Harris dealt with the chaos and confusion surrounding the death, financial issues loomed.

Despite a mutually loving relationship that involved living together, sharing incomes and raising children together, Harris was unable to receive death benefits under Alaska workers' compensation laws. The law only allows benefits to widows, widowers and children. Alaska law defines widowers and widows as "husbands" and "wives." Since it's illegal for a same-sex couple to be married in Alaska, Harris had no claim to Fadely's benefits, which are designed to help pay for funeral costs and assist families during the grieving process.

Attorneys for Harris filed a legal challenge to the Alaska workers' compensation board Monday, claiming the statute is in violation of Alaska and U.S. constitutions' guarantee of equality, first reported Bent Alaska.

Peter Renn, staff attorney for Lambda Legal who is representing Harris, said the filing is not seeking the right for same-sex Alaska couples to marry, but is instead seeking access to the same financial protections that “married heterosexuals can access.”

“It's not about marriage, it's about basic rights,” Renn said from Los Angeles. “It's how you would want to be treated if you woke up one day in Debbie's shoes, because tragedy doesn't discriminate and neither should the state.”

The board cannot rule on the challenge, since it does not have the authority to rule on constitutional issues. But Harris's filing asks that the board make a final decision on her benefits claim so that she can appeal the ruling to the Alaska Supreme Court.

Following Fadely's death, Harris was forced to move out of the home the two shared. Harris works seasonally out of state at a lodge in Montana, and when Fadely died, all the bills the couple shared landed in her lap.

“Try as you might, it just wasn't feasible,” Harris said. “Everything stops. It stops your world, if anyone can understand how horrible that is.”

Renn said the case will rely heavily on the precedent set by the 2005 Alaska Supreme Court decision which ruled that even though the state can ban same-sex marriage, it cannot deny employee benefits to domestic partners. Other states that have “second class” marriage statuses, like civil unions, allow same sex couples access to survivor benefits.

However, the U.S. Supreme Court has a couple of cases regarding the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) at its “doorstep,” Renn said. Some of those cases refer to access to benefits. Currently the federal government does not recognize same sex marriage, and partners have no access to survivor benefits like social security.

Harris is getting ready to leave her seasonal job next month. She's not sure what the next step is.

“I normally go home to Kerry, but there's no Kerry to go home to,” she said. “It's horrible; it doesn't stop.”

Harris wishes she didn't have to be so public about the issue, but recognizes it's something she can do to honor Fadely's memory.

“I know she'd be proud of what I'm doing,” Harris said.

Renn said he did not know exactly when the board will rule on Harris's case, but expects it will be soon.

The trial of Javier Martinez, 48, the man accused of murdering Fadely, is scheduled to begin Nov. 5 in Anchorage.

Contact Suzanna Caldwell at suzanna(at)alaskadispatch.com