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Harris v. Millennium Hotel – Same-Sex Partnership and Workers’ Compensation Benefits

On Behalf of | Aug 25, 2014 | Georgia Workers' Compensation |

Workers’ compensation benefits are intended to aid an employee and his or her dependents in the event serious injury or death arises in the course of job-related functions.Generally, for purposes of benefit collection, “spouses” are defined under workers’ compensation law as individuals married to injured workers. Usually, live-in boyfriends and girlfriends are excluded from receiving workers’ compensation benefits. But what if the couple is precluded by law from marrying?

Georgia, like many other states, has implemented a same-sex marriage ban that forbids homosexual couples from being married. The legislature banned it in 1996, and a constitutional amendment underscoring the same was passed in 2004.

Still, our Atlanta workers’ compensation attorneys recognize there may be some hope for homosexual couples in this regard, given the recent precedent set by the U.S. Supreme Court’s determination that the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) was unconstitutional, as well as the Alaska Supreme Court in Harris v. Millennium Hotel.

Although the legal landscape is changing, this does not mean a battle for benefits will be easy.

In the Harris case, the plaintiff had to appeal all the way to the state supreme court to obtain relief.

According the court records, this case began with the tragic murder of a woman who worked as a manager for a hotel in Alaska. She was gunned down while working the front desk.

Alaska, like Georgia, has a law forbidding the recognition of same-sex marriages. The decedent had been engaged in a long-term relationship with another woman for more than a decade prior to her death.

Her “spouse” filed for workers’ compensation death benefits from the employer, but the request was denied on the grounds she did not meet the state’s legal definition for the term “widower,” as defined in the workers’ compensation statute.

Her spouse, while acknowledging the board of workers’ compensation didn’t have the authority to hear her challenge as to the constitutionality of that decision, appealed, presenting mounds of evidence to support the claim the pair would have married if they could have. She indicated the pair exchanged rings in 2005, and referred to each other as spouses. They had joint credit cards and accounts, shared household expenses, raised their children from prior relationships together, were enrolled in joint health care plans, and had completed affidavits of domestic partnership.

The employer conceded the death was compensable – just not to the claimant, as she had not been married to the decedent. The board concurred.

The case was eventually appealed to the state supreme court. There, justices found denial of benefits to the surviving woman was a denial of her equal protection rights under both state law and the U.S. Constitution.

The court rejected an argument offered by the employer that previous case law established the surviving half of a long-term cohabiting heterosexual couple who never married was not entitled to benefits because there had never been a marriage. The state high court rejected this logic because, it noted, in that case, the couple could have married, but chose not to do so. In the Harris case, the parties involved were legally barred from getting married.

The court found the evidence presented by the plaintiff compelling in showing the pair would have gotten married if it were legally allowable. Therefore, it reversed the earlier ruling and remanded the case for reconsideration of benefits to the surviving woman.

For information on Atlanta work injury compensation, contact J. Franklin Burns, P.C., at 1-404-920-4708 .