Family Fights 'Ridiculous' Benefit Denial

It was Taneka Talley's greatest wish to see her son head off to college. It was why she took extra shifts at work and set her sights on promotions.

But she was stabbed to death in the Fairfield, Calif., Dollar Tree where she worked in March 2006, by a white man who reportedly attacked her simply because she was black.

Now, Talley's mother is fighting to get her daughter's workers compensation death benefits, which, according to the family's lawyer, have been denied because the killer's targeting her as a black person established a "personal connection" that the company says releases them from having to pay.

"For them to deny her, it's just outrage," Carol Frazier, Talley's mother, told "She worked hard for them at their store so her son could have the best."

Picture of Taneka Talley and her son, Larry Olden. Play

California law states an employer must pay death benefits if the employee was killed on the job and if the death was a result of the person's employment, said Moira Stagliano of Boxer & Gerson in Oakland, Calif., who is Frazier's attorney.

But the law also allows benefits to be denied if the death stemmed from a personal connection between the victim and the attacker, such as a husband who kills his wife on company grounds.

According to Stagliano, the benefits were denied on the basis that the suspect in Talley's slaying, 45-year-old Tommy Thompson, allegedly made the relationship with Talley personal by choosing to attack her specifically based on the color of her skin.

Thompson and Talley had no previous known interaction with each other.

Dollar Tree did not respond to repeated messages seeking comment. Specialty Risk Services, which is owned by The Hartford Financial Services Group, did not comment on the specific case in a statement issued to, only saying that the company was Dollar Tree's claim administrator.

In a letter to Stagliano dated Sept. 12, the law firm Gray & Prouty wrote that Talley's stabbing was "purely racially motivated. As such, it is our belief that our denial in this matter is proper."

However, when contacted for comment, a spokesman for Gray & Prouty declined to comment on the case or say whether the firm's client was Dollar Tree, SRS or both.

'Miscarriage of Justice'

The basis for the denial was "ridiculous," said Edgar Romano, president of the Washington, D.C.-based Workers Injury Law and Advocacy Group. "It's a completely implausible reason to deny benefits."

Romano, an attorney in New York City, said that even though workers compensation law varies by state, the common thread is that a death on the job is compensable.

The denial of Talley's benefits, he said, moves away from that foundation.

Romano said that he believes Frazier has a good chance of getting benefits upon appeal, but it's a "miscarriage of justice" that the case has gotten this far.

Talley, 26, was the middle of Frazier's three daughters.

"She was the independent daughter," Frazier said, "the daughter who kept the family together."

Frazier said Talley went into work on the morning of March 29, as she often did to help get the store open in the morning. A short time later, Talley's cousin who worked down the road noticed police surrounding the store.

When the cousin went over to investigate she saw that Talley had been attacked and immediately summoned friends and family.

"She struggled ... to the back to the office and they called the ambulance," Frazier said.

By the time Frazier made it to the hospital Talley was dead from a stab wound to the heart.

Thompson remains in jail, charged with murder. The trial starts next week. A woman who was with Thompson that morning was not charged in exchange for her testimony against him.

Though Thompson has not been charged with a hate crime, a psychologist reportedly testified, according to Stagliano, that Thompson had set out to kill a black person that morning and Talley was the first he saw.

Going to Court

Frazier, stunned by the death of her daughter, set about winning custody of then-8-year-old Larry Olden III, fighting his father along the way. Then she started the process to collect Talley's death benefits to use for Larry's college education.

The quest has dragged on for more than two years. After filling out mounds of paperwork and finally being able to prove to the workers compensation board that she was Larry's guardian and, therefore, eligible to receive Talley's death benefits, a judge suggested she get a lawyer -- her claim had been denied.

Romano said he couldn't think of another case nationwide where workers compensation benefits were denied in a racially-motivated, work-related death.

Likewise, Stagliano said she has been unable to find another worker's compensation claim like this one. In all the cases she found where benefits had been denied because of a personal connection, the victim and the attacker had met beforehand, even for a brief moment.

She said SRS sent her a letter offering a "nominal settlement" of less than $5,000, but Stagliano said Talley's family is fully entitled to the full amount, which could be $250,000 or more.

Under state law, a judge is authorized to mediate the case or send it to trial if an agreement can't be reached.

Frazier said Larry, now 11, and in sixth grade, asks about his mother "all the time." He loves sports and runs track, but also has an interest in business and math.

"He's a good little kid," Frazier said.

Frazier said that as much as she wants Talley's death benefits to put in Larry's college fund, it's not even so much about the money anymore. For Frazier, it's about making her daughter's employer realize that the denial is discriminatory and unfair.