July 31, 2018 BY Gary Hurst
Married or Meretricious: A Reaffirmation of the Dependency Benefits Doctrine in Georgia Workers' Compensation Death Claims by the Georgia Supreme Court in Reynalda Munoz Sanchez v. Allen Carter et al.
Recently, the Georgia Supreme Court was petitioned to revisit its prior ruling in Williams v. Corbett, 260 Ga. 668, 398 S.E.2d 1 (1990), on whether an unmarried partner in a meretricious relationship was eligible to receive dependency benefits pursuant to the Georgia Workers’ Compensation Act when his or her unmarried partner passed away as the result of a compensable workplace accident. In its decision to not grant certiorari in Reynalda Munoz Sanchez v. Allen Carter et al., Case No. S18C0408, decided May 7, 2018, the Supreme Court of Georgia applied stare decisis and upheld the decision of the Georgia Court of Appeals in Sanchez v. Carter et al., 343 Ga. App. 187, 806 S.E.2d 638 (2017), when it determined that the Petitioner for certiorari was not eligible for workers’ compensation dependency benefits.
The petition for certiorari was brought by Reynalda Munoz-Sanchez, the long-time partner of Juan Martinez-Martin. Mr. Martinez-Martin sustained a compensable fatal injury due to a fall on October 22, 2015. Ms. Munoz-Sanchez and Mr. Martinez-Martin had been involved in a co-habituating, meretricious relationship since 2002, but, as admitted by the Petitioner, had never been ceremonially married. The record revealed that Ms. Munoz-Sanchez was dependent on Mr. Martinez-Martin, since she was unable to work due to health difficulties.
Under O.C.G.A. § 34-9-13, certain persons, like a decedent’s validly married, co-habituating surviving spouse, are conclusively presumed to be total dependents of the employee. In the Williams case, the Georgia Supreme Court held that one who was not married to an employee, but who was living with the employee at the time of his death, was not entitled to dependency benefits, despite actual dependency, on the grounds that such payments should not grow out of a meretricious relationship. In the years before Williams decision, the Georgia courts had created and upheld a judicial limitation on the recovery of workers’ compensation benefits when the dependency arose out of a meretricious relationship. The Georgia General Assembly indicated its approval of this limitation, officially codifying it in 1985 by amending O.C.G.A 34-9-13(e) to include a moral disqualification of dependency based on the surviving spouse’s co-habitation in a meretricious relationship. That section of the Georgia Code was amended again in 1987, 1988, 1989, 1990, and 2000, with each amendment remaining silent about the judicial limitation, again indicating the Georgia Legislature’s implicit approve of it.
In the Sanchez case, the administrative law judge found that, when considering the black letter law, Ms. Munoz-Sanchez was the person “to whom the statute provides the entire dependency benefits… ‘shall be paid.’” But, as he pointed out in his Award, his hands were tied by the Williams case and Ins. Co. of North America v. Jewel, 188 Ga. App. 599, 164 S.E.2d 846 (1968). The ALJ concluded that he was bound by stare decisis to find that Ms. Munoz-Sanchez was not entitled to receive dependency death benefits. That denial was affirmed by the Appellate Division of the State Board of Workers Compensation.
In the Award issued by the Appellate Division of the State Board, Director Elizabeth Gobeil wrote a special concurrence, noting, “…[a]t oral arguments, Claimant’s counsel conceded as much and explained he was appealing it in the hopes that ‘attitudes have changed.’” Judge Gobeil opined that the legislative process was the most appropriate way to pursue that level of change to the law.
Upon appeal to the Georgia Court of Appeals, that Court noted, as every other court had, that the Supreme Court’s ruling in Williams controlled in this situation. Sanchez v. Carter et al., 343 Ga. App. 187, 806 S.E.2d 638 (2017) The Court of Appeals also rejected Ms. Munoz-Sanchez’s argument that her relationship with Mr. Martinez-Martin qualified as a common-law marriage and was not meretricious, therefore qualifying her to receive dependency benefits. Common-law marriages were abolished as of January 1, 1997, and the record reflected that Mr. Martinez-Martin and Ms. Munoz-Sanchez’s relationship had not begun until 2002; therefore, it would not have ever qualified as a common-law marriage in Georgia.
The Supreme Court’s unanimous denial of the petition for certiorari reaffirms the brightline rule set out in the Williams decision that prevents recovery of dependency benefits by an individual who is asserting a claim under the Georgia Workers’ Compensation Act based upon a meretricious relationship.
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H. Michael Bagley