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January 20, 2000

Henson case arguments now before Common Pleas judge

The latest round of legal briefs were filed in the Allegheny County Court of Common Pleas recently by attorneys for Pitt and the seven complainants in the "Henson case" — a controversial civil suit over the University's denial of health benefits to same-sex partners of faculty and staff.

Last month, Pitt asked Common Pleas Court Judge Robert C. Gallo to end the class action suit, which was filed in 1996 by former Pitt legal writing instructor Deborah Henson. The suit alleges that the University violated the city's 1990 anti-discrimination ordinance by denying health insurance benefits to her lesbian partner. Six current employees have joined Henson in the legal action.

Pitt argues that the city ordinance (which forbids discrimination based on sexual preference) was not meant to compel employers to offer benefits to same-sex partners. Pitt also maintains that state legislation enacted last November exempts state-related universities from city ordinances requiring such benefits.

The Henson case currently is before the Pittsburgh Human Relations Commission (HRC). But Pitt attorneys have taken their objections to Common Pleas Court, arguing that the HRC lacks jurisdiction in the case because the University is exempt from the city ordinance. (Pitt also notes that the HRC itself, like most other city employers, does not offer health benefits to same-sex partners of its employees.) The University has asked Common Pleas Judge Gallo to issue a preliminary injunction ending the four-year-old legal battle.

Lawyers for Henson and her fellow complainants argue, in turn, that Common Pleas Court itself lacks jurisdiction over the Henson case and that proceedings should continue before the HRC.

This month, the two sides presented their arguments in legal briefs filed with Gallo's office.

According to Henson's side, Common Pleas Court lacks jurisdiction in the case because Pitt already has "adequate remedy" under the law: It can exhaust the city ordinance's administrative process and appeal any HRC decision that goes against the University.

Also, Henson's lawyers write in their brief, Pitt has failed to demonstrate that continuation of the HRC proceedings threatens the University with "irreparable harm." Such a threat is required to obtain a preliminary injunction.

Pitt lawyers have argued that continued HRC proceedings will force the University to waste money in defending against a case "with no legal basis," and that such proceedings will "disrupt and distract the time and energy" of University officials and trustees.

But, Henson's side writes: "As a matter of law, the expense and inconvenience of defending a lawsuit do not amount to irreparable harm."

If Common Pleas Court sustains Pitt's motion, Henson's lawyers say, it would open the doors for other "dissatisfied defendants" to use the court in bypassing agency and municipal law.

Pitt's brief cites a number of cases in which Pennsylvania appellate courts "have not been reluctant to issue injunctions enjoining administrative agencies [such as the HRC] from further proceeding in cases where they have exceeded or abused their power or authority." University attorneys write: "Defendants' assertion that the grant of such relief in this case will 'open the floodgates' to similar requests by respondents in other proceedings before the Commission — an exceedingly weak argument to begin with — is refuted by those cases."

The question of whether Pitt is required to provide health benefits to same-sex partners "is a pure question of law requiring no specialized expertise" of the city HRC, according to University attorneys.

Pitt maintains that Henson's claim under the city anti-discrimination ordinance is "based upon a fundamentally erroneous premise, i.e., that same-sex domestic partners of homosexual employees are equatable with spouses of heterosexual employees." In truth, "the appropriate comparison is between domestic partners of homosexual and heterosexual employees," according to the University.

Lawyers for Henson's side argue that the city ordinance does not require that employers provide health insurance or any other specific benefit to same-sex partners. Rather, the ordinance forbids discrimination in offering such benefits. "The fact that a law requires equal treatment does not mean that anyone is required to do anything; it requires only that if they act, they do so in a non-discriminatory manner," the Henson side's brief states.

According to the Henson side, Pitt has two legal options under the city ordinance: It can offer health benefits equally to heterosexual spouses and same-sex domestic partners (who, under state law, can't legally marry) or the University can do away with health benefits entirely. What Pitt can't legally do, under the city ordinance, is provide unequal benefits that discriminate against homosexuals, according to Henson's attorneys. They say their lawsuit is seeking to force the University to eliminate discrimination, not necessarily to extend health benefits to same-sex partners.

Pitt's brief dismisses that argument as "utter nonsense" that is belied by the complainants' claims. "Each of the seven complaints in the Henson case alleges that the complainant has been denied such benefits notwithstanding that they are provided to the spouses of heterosexual employees, and that such denial violates the ordinance in question," the brief states. "Thus, there can be no doubt that the complaints…seek medical benefits for the complainants' same-sex domestic partners."

And under last November's state legislation, state-related universities such as Pitt are exempt from providing those benefits to same-sex partners, the Pitt brief argues.

The legislation reads in part: "An ordinance adopted by a municipality which requires, or the effect of which is to require, the provision of health insurance or other employee health care benefits shall not apply to a state-owned or state-related college or university."

— Bruce Steele

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