Surviving Partner Of Civil Union Not Entitled To Workers’ Compensation Death Benefits

More and more jurisdictions are recognizing civil unions between same sex couples. What happens when one of the partners to a civil unions dies because of a work related injury. Is the surviving partner entitled to New York Workers’ Compensation Death Benefits? The Third Department was faced with this question yesterday in Matter of Langan v State Farm Fire & Cas., 2007 NY Slip Op 10438 and decided that the surviving partner is not entitled to Workers’ Compensation Death Benefits.

In that case, John Langan and Neal Conrad Spicehandler entered into a civil union in Vermont (see Vt Stat Ann, tit 15, § 1201) in November 2000. In February 2002, Spicehandler (decedent) was struck by a car while working. After undergoing resulting surgery the decedent died. Langan (claimant) filed workers’ compensation claims for decedent’s injuries, and for death benefits as decedent’s surviving “spouse” pursuant to Workers’ Compensation Law § 16 (1-a). The Worker’s Compensation Board found that the claimant did not have standing as a “spouse” to assert the death benefits claim.

Under Workers’ Compensation Law § 16 (1-a) certain benefits are payable to the surviving spouse, which is defined as “the legal spouse” of the deceased employee. No other definition of spouse if given.

On claimant’s appeal, he made three arguments: (1) Workers’ Compensation Law § 16 (1-a) includes a partner to a civil union as a surviving spouse; (2) the doctrine of comity required New York to recognize claimant as decedent’s surviving spouse for death benefits purposes and, (3) the deprivation of death benefits to same-sex partners of a civil union violates the Equal Protection Clause of the US Constitution. The Third Department rejected each argument.

First, the Court examined the statute’s plain language and legislative history and determined that a “legal spouse” was a husband or wife of a lawful marriage. Second the Court found that doctrine of comity did not require New York to confer upon partners of civil unions all of the legal benefits recognized by Vermont. The Court noted that while Vermont considered parties to a civil union to be “spouses” under that state’s law it did not consider such parties to be part of a “marriage”(see Vt Stat Ann, tit 15, § 1204 [a], [b], [e] [9]; Vt Stat Ann, tit 15, § 1201 [2], [4]). The Court further stated that extension of benefits to civil union partners should entail a consideration of social and fiscal policy more appropriately left to the Legislature. Third, and finally, the Court found that prior case law had established established that confining marriage and all the laws pertaining either directly or indirectly to the marital relationship to different sex couples was not offensive to the Equal Protection Clause.

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