N.Y. Court Denies Workers’ Compensation Survivor Benefits for Same-Sex Partner

By | March 23, 2005

A New York man who sought workers’ compensation benefits after his same-sex partner of more than 20 years was killed in an airplane crash has been denied his claim.

The Appellate Division of the Supreme Court of the State of New York upheld a ruling by the Workers Compensation Board that William S. Valentine, the New York City registered domestic partner of Joe Lopes, was not entitled to benefits after Lopes, a flight attendant for American Airlines, was killed in a November, 2001 plane crash.

Valentine maintained that he was entitled to spousal benefits under state workers compensation law because he was the domestic partner of Lopes. But the appeals court upheld a 2003 Workers’ Compensation Board decision and ruled that Valentine was not Lopes’ legal spouse as required under workers compensation statutes.

“Domestic partners do not fall within the definition of surviving spouse under workers’ compensation law,” Justice Anthony T. Kane stated in his decision.

Valentine and crash victim Lopes had been domestic partners for about 21 years. They owned an apartment together, jointly held bank accounts and investments, designated each other as executors and beneficiaries on various legal documents, and registered as domestic partners in New York City, according to the court.

After the plane crash, Valentine filed a claim for death benefits as Lopes’ surviving spouse under the state’s workers’ compensation law. A workers’ compensation law judge found that Lopes suffered a work-related injury resulting in death, but also found that Valentine was not eligible to receive death benefits.

Upon appeal of the single judge’s opinion, the Workers’ Compensation Board affirmed, holding that Valentine was not entitled to benefits because the term “surviving spouse” only included a person who was a spouse in a legally valid marriage. Valentine appealed that board decision.

As part of his case, Valentine argued that the state’s decision to make workers’ compensation death benefits available to the same-sex survivors of those killed in the September 11 terrorist attacks set a precedent. But the appellate court held that that special law strictly limited the definition to domestic partners of employees killed as a result of the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. Because Lopes died as a result of a plane crash in November 2001, the special clause does not apply to him, the court said.

“Special legislation in response to those unprecedented terrorist attacks could rationally provide more or different compensation to families and dependents of those victims,” Judge Kane wrote.

The American Airlines plane crash in which Lopes lost his life also killed 259 others.

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