Lesbian Partner Wins in 9/11 Fund Suit

N.Y. justice rules that longtime partner is entitled to compensation under state law

New York State Supreme Court Justice Yvonne Lewis has ruled that the lesbian partner of a victim of the September 11 terrorist attack on the World Trade Center is entitled to receive at least a portion of the award granted her deceased partner’s sole surviving relative, her brother.

Margaret Cruz filed a lawsuit against the brother of her partner, Patricia McAneney, after James McAneney refused to share any of the money awarded to him by the federal 9/11 Fund, even though Cruz and Ms. McAneney had lived together since 1985.

Ms. McAneney worked on the 94th floor of One World Trade Center at Guy Carpenter, a subsidiary of the insurance company Marsh & McLennan, where she also served as a fire warden on her floor, responsible for helping colleagues with evacuation efforts.

In a July 2 ruling, Justice Lewis wrote, “In light of the plaintiff’s relationship with the deceased, it would seem equitable that she should receive a portion of any 9/11 fund.”

The justice rejected Mr. McAneney’s motion to dismiss Cruz’s lawsuit, and enjoined McAneney not to spend any more of the money he had received from the federal fund until the court can make a final ruling on the merits of the case. McAneney had spent about $13,000 before the injunction was issued.

Previously, Cruz, after documenting her financially interdependent relationship with Ms. McAneney, had been awarded a total of $80,000 by several organizations, including the New York crime victim’s board, the Red Cross, and a charitable fund.

Federal law stipulates that payments from the 9/11 Fund were intended to serve as substitute restitution for survivors of those killed in the 2001 terrorist attack who might otherwise sue the owners of the hijacked airplanes. In line with that purpose, eligibility for compensation was based on whether somebody would have been able to bring a wrongful death action under state law.

New York State decided to expand the definition of which survivors could receive state compensation, at least in the case of those whose loved ones were killed in connection with 9/11. The Workers Compensation Law and regulations governing the fund that compensates crime victims and their survivors were adjusted accordingly. Under the New York approach, those who could prove they were domestic partners would be entitled to compensation. Having met that requirement, Cruz was awarded some compensation by New York State.

However, under the federal compensation scheme, the fund’s special master appointed a spouse or relative as the official representative of the Trade Center victim, in this case Mr. McAneney. Cruz filed her own separate statement of interest with the special master, Kenneth Feinberg, detailing the nature of her relationship with Ms. McAneney. After receiving Cruz’s statement, Feinberg increased the award on behalf of Patricia McAneney to $531,541,42, about $250,000 more than originally calculated, but paid out that sum to James McAneney as the official representative.

Cruz filed her lawsuit, claiming that as the surviving partner, she should have received either all of the funds for which Mr. McAneney was acting as trustee, or at least the difference between what was originally calculated and what was finally awarded after her statement of interest was submitted to Feinberg.

James McAneney argued that state law did not entitle Cruz to sue over his sister’s death or to inherit from her estate. Ms. McAneny died without leaving a will, and the women had never taken any formal steps to create legal ties between themselves, such as a domestic partnership registration.

In 2002, at City Council hearings, Cruz said that as residents of Pomona, in Rockland County, the couple was unable to register their partnership locally. Nor did the couple avail themselves of the opportunity to obtain a civil union in neighboring Vermont. In another lawsuit, Langan v. St. Vincent’s Hospital, unrelated to 9/11 events, a Long Island judge has ruled that New York law considered the surviving New York partner of a Vermont civil union as a spouse, and that that partner was entitled to sue the hospital for wrongful death of his partner.

Lewis confronted a difficult decision, because Cruz did not meet the literal requirements of the federal 9/11 compensation law, but had presented a very strong factual case that she should be entitled to some of the money as a matter of fairness. How much of the compensation Cruz is entitled to remains to be determined. The recalculation of the loss attributable to Ms. McAneney’s death by Feinberg, the special master, was based on the existence of a two-person household rather than a single person, but the money was subsequently released to Mr. McAneney alone.

Noting that no New York court had previously ruled on this specific question, Lewis concluded that no final determination should be made without first seeking guidance from Feinberg about the purpose for the increase in the award.

In addition, Lewis found that the defendant, Mr. McAneney, had not convincingly established his sole right to retain the entire award amount.

The 9/11 special master’s term has expired, complicating Mr. McAneny’s mandate in fulfilling Lewis’ order that Feinberg provide an explanation of his decision to increase Patricia McAneny’s death award.

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