Air Tragedy Survivor Presses Claim

Two years after American crash at Kennedy, gay widower appeals to Pataki

For Bill Valentine, a Manhattan resident, November 12 will bring the second anniversary of the death of his life partner of 21 years, Joe Lopes, who was a flight attendant on board American Airlines flight 587, headed for the Dominican Republic, that crashed just after takeoff from Kennedy Airport in 2001.

Valentine is still trying to get spousal benefits from the New York State Workers’ Compensation Board. The board, whose members are appointed by Gov. George Pataki, granted spousal benefits to gay and lesbian survivors of September 11, 2001, but has repeatedly denied spousal benefits to Valentine.

This inconsistency is the basis of a second appeal that will take his case away from the board and into the state court system. In the meantime, Valentine has written a letter to Pataki asking him to make a statement to the Workers’ Compensation Board and the New York state legislature indicating that domestic partners are legal spouses for the purpose of workers’ compensation.

Adam Aronson, a staff attorney at Lambda Legal Defense and Education Fund which is representing Valentine, called the Board’s posture unfair, unreasonable, and discriminatory. Aronson also represented Larry Courtney, who lost his long time partner, Eugene Clark, in the World Trade Center on September 11. In Courtney’s case, the Workers’ Compensation Board decided that he was the legal spouse and was entitled to the workers’ compensation benefits.

But in Valentine’s case, the Board decided that legal spouses are only those persons in valid marriages, defining a valid marriage as between a man and a woman.

The Board’s ruling last November in favor of Courtney came after the state legislature acted to give surviving partners of victims of September 11 spousal eligibility under the Workers’ Compensation guidelines. Not-withstanding the legislative action, the Board’s ruling on Courtney outlined an elaborate rationale for his eligibility, based on his longtime domestic partnership and wholly separate from the new statute.

“We launched claims that we regarded and the world regarded as identical,” Aronson said. “Who would have dreamed that Courtney is a legal spouse and Bill is not?”

In fact, Valentine and Lopes did everything under the sun to legally protect each other and secure their relationship as domestic partners, Aronson said. Valentine and Lopes registered as domestic partners in New York City on March 1, 1994. They both had wills designating each other to receive any inheritance, and living wills, authorizing each other to make decisions in case of a health crisis, Aronson said.

“It is a basic legal principal, the rule of law, that judges are not supposed to be guided by personal preference or whimsical desires that change from day to day,” Aronson said.

The fact that Lopes died in an American Airlines jet on November 12 and not on September 11 is arbitrary, according to Aronson.

“It’s not September 11 that made them spouses,” he said.

Lopes’ family agrees, according to Valentine.

“Joe’s sister, his younger brother, and our niece all wrote beautiful letters testifying on our relationship in support of my claim,” he said. “They look at me as an in–law. I will be a part of their family forever.”

According to Valentine, after September 11, American Airlines offered flight attendants to take a leave of absence, but Valentine and Lopes decided against it.

“He paid for that decision with his life,” he said. “American Airlines paid insurance premiums for Lopes for 18 years and his family. His spouse deserves this.”

Valentine has decided to pursue all avenues in his case. In addition to the appeal, he traveled to Albany and spoke with legislators in the state Senate and Assembly.

“The governor is the one person who can get this process going if he wants to,” Valentine said, explaining why he sent the governor his letter. “He has been very supportive to flight 587 families, he attended the memorials, and he is a friend of the gay and lesbian community.”

Aronson agreed, saying it is the governor’s responsibility, as the one who appointed all individuals on the board, to make sure the board treats a gay survivor equally to a straight survivor and even a gay survivor who lost their loved one on a different, more memorable day.

The governor’s office did not respond to a request for comment on Valentine’s letter.

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