Panel Rules Same-Sex Partner Ineligible for Death Benefit

January 8, 2008

The same-sex partner of a man who died following an on-the-job accident is not entitled to the Workers’ Compensation death benefit a surviving spouse in a traditional marriage would receive, a divided upstate appeals panel ruled yesterday.

The civil union that John R. Langan and the late Neal Conrad Spicehandler entered into in Vermont in 2000 does not make Mr. Langan eligible for the death benefit as a surviving spouse under New York’s Workers’ Compensation Law §16, the court determined in Matter of Langan v. State Farm Fire & Casualty. In a 4-1 ruling, the court decided that Mr. Langan has no better claim to the death benefit than the male registered domestic partner in Matter of Valentine v. American Airlines, (2005), who sought the death benefit after his partner was killed in a 2001 plan crash in New York City.

Neither civil unions nor registered domestic partnerships are recognized as marriages under the Workers’ Compensation Law, Justice Anthony T. Kane wrote for the Third Department panel. A “legal spouse” is the “husband or wife of lawful marriage” for purposes of the statute, Justice Kane wrote, citing Valentine.

The majority ruled that its holding was also consistent with the state Court of Appeals’ landmark ruling in Hernandez v. Robles, (2006), in which the Court ruled 4-2 that New York’s Domestic Relations Law implicitly limits marriage to heterosexual couples.

The Court of Appeals has also long recognized that the Workers’ Compensation system is designed to protect the family–“husband, wife and children,” as the court put it yesterday–should spouses be injured or killed while on the job, the Third Department noted.

“The Court of Appeals has already determined that the Legislature’s decision to limit marriage to opposite-sex couples is rationally related to this legitimate interest and withstands rational basis scrutiny,” Justice Kane wrote. “The decision to extend workers’ compensation death benefits to a whole new class of beneficiaries, i.e., survivors of same-sex unions, is a decision to be made by the Legislature after appropriate inquiry into the societal obligation to provide such benefits and the financial impact of such a decision.”

The majority also ruled that comity does not bind New York state to extend Workers’ Compensation death benefits to partners in civil unions, as Vermont does for its same-sex-couple residents. “This doctrine is not a mandate to adhere to another state’s laws, but an expression of one state’s voluntary choice to defer to another state’s policy,” the court held.

The lone dissenter, Justice Robert S. Rose, found Mr. Langan’s comity argument more persuasive. Justice Rose wrote that the plaintiff is not asking for the death benefit because Vermont would confer them on him were he a resident of that state, but “only to recognize the legal status of spouse afforded to him by Vermont, as a matter of comity.”

“Once that status is recognized, New York law provides the legal incidents to which claimant would be entitled, including workers’ compensation death benefits,” the dissenter held.

Yesterday’s ruling affirmed the denial of death benefits to Mr. Langan by a Workers’ Compensation Law judge and the Workers’ Compensation Board. Mr. Langan’s appeal went directly to the Appellate Division.

Had Mr. Langan and Mr. Spicehandler been in a traditional marriage, Mr. Langan would have been eligible for a death benefit totaling two years’ worth of benefits is provided, according to the state Workers’ Compensation Board.

Mr. Spicehandler lived on Long Island with Mr. Langan and the two men had been in a relationship for 14 years before the entered into a civil union. Mr. Spicehandler was struck by a hit-and-run driver in midtown Manhattan and severely injured his leg in February 2002. He died of a blood clot two days later, following surgery.

The prospect of New York’s Legislature legalizing same-sex marriages or extending Workers’ Compensation benefis to domestic partners or couples in civil unions is considered dim as long as Republicans maintain their majority in the state Senate.

By an 85-61 vote, the Democrat-dominated state Assembly approved a bill sent by Governor Eliot Spitzer to authorize same-sex marriages on June 19. However, Senate Republican Majority Leader Joseph Burn, R-Brunswick, has said repeatedly his GOP members have no interest in taking up the bill or legalizing same-sex marriages.

The Third Department panel took 3 ½ months after hearing oral arguments to hand down its ruling in Langan. That is about twice as long as the court normally takes to decide cases and generally indicates disagreements among members of the panel over the ruling.

This was not the first time Mr. Langan has lost before the Appellate Division in a case concerning his late partner. In Langan v. St. Vincent’s Hospital (2005), a Second Department panel ruled 3-2 that same-sex partners cannot pursue a wrongful death action in New York. Mr. Langan had sought to sue St. Vincent’s Hospital for alleged maltreatment of the injuries of Mr. Spicehandler, a Massapequa attorney. The Court of Appeals dismissed an appeal of that ruling in 2006.

As this recent case proves, Gay and Lesbian couples and their families do not have the same legal rights as traditional married couples making it even more imperative to establish an estate plan. Without an estate plan, critical decisions may be left to a system that may exhibit legal prejudice and involve bloodline relatives that you may not want involved. The attorneys at Davidow, Davidow, Siegel & Stern are well versed in this area. If you require detailed information, please request a copy of our special report entitled, “Protecting the rights of non-traditional couples in the traditional world”.

Source: NY Law Journal