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April 27, 2000

Plaintiffs vow to continue fight

Plaintiffs in a lawsuit alleging that the University discriminates by denying health insurance to its employees' gay and lesbian partners expressed disappointment with an Allegheny County judge's ruling against them.

But they said they expect that an appeal will be filed, and they vowed to go on with the case.

"The judge's decision seemed convoluted and not very well-reasoned to me," said Deborah Henson, a former Pitt legal writing instructor. In 1996, Henson filed a complaint with the Pittsburgh Commission on Human Relations, arguing that Pitt violated the city's anti-discrimination law by providing inferior employee benefits to homosexuals.

Six current University employees have since joined Henson in what has become a class-action lawsuit.

On April 20, Common Pleas Judge Robert C. Gallo issued a preliminary injunction ordering the Human Relations Commission to stop its investigation of the complaint. See related story beginning on page 1.

Gallo wrote that Henson's complaint alleged "a discriminatory violation of health insurance benefits only. There is no allegation that Pitt discriminated against the Henson defendants on the basis of sexual orientation."

Henson, who currently practices law in New Orleans, commented: "To say something as ludicrous as, 'the defendants never alleged discrimination based on sexual orientation…' That's what we've been alleging all along! Apparently, the judge did not read all of the pleadings that we have submitted to the Human Relations Commission."

Henson continued: "In his ruling, Judge Gallo got into the merits of the case, which I think was improper because we haven't had a public hearing yet. That's what we've been trying to get, a hearing at which the commission could address the merits of our case. But Pitt has been fighting that."

In November, state legislators passed a law exempting public universities from local ordinances that would force them to provide health benefits to same-sex couples. That state law takes away the Pittsburgh Human Relations Commission's jurisdiction in the Henson case, Judge Gallo ruled. He wrote that Pitt would suffer "immediate and irreparable injury" if the case is allowed to proceed.

Plaintiff and associate professor of history Bruce L. Venarde said the decision is bad for the city "because Judge Gallo's ruling undermines the authority of municipal government to enforce civil laws. The rationale — that allowing the complaint to go forward is harmful to Pitt — is terrifying in its implications. Are institutional interests to outweigh due process and access to legal remedy against discrimination?"

Plaintiff Ray Anne Lockard, head of the Frick Fine Arts Library, said she must pay for additional health coverage for her partner of nine years, who is too ill to work. "When Judge Gallo writes of his concern that continuation of the investigation in this case will cause Pitt to endure unnecessary inconvenience and expense, I'm really saddened," Lockard said. "What about the necessary and, in fact, life-saving medical expenses my family has endured for nine years because my family is not valued?"

Lockard and fellow plaintiff Mark S. Friedman, a staff member in the infectious diseases and microbiology department, said their lawsuit is basically about equal compensation for equal work.

"My partner Raymond and I have been together for 12 years," Friedman said, "and we are in a relationship every bit as committed and respectful and dedicated as any heterosexual couples I know. The man or woman down the hall who is heterosexual can get married and get these [health] benefits. But we are not able to get these benefits because we are unable to marry."

Plaintiff Mark A. Stein, also of infectious diseases/microbiology, said controversy over the lawsuit has had a chilling effect. "I have seen more than a few Pitt employees in middle- or upper-level positions become scared, over the course of the lawsuit, to voice their opinions or to work to persuade Pitt to alter its decision."

Stein claimed that resistance to extending health benefits to same-sex partners is led by "a small group of narrow-minded individuals," including Board of Trustees Chairperson J. Wray Connolly.

Plaintiffs said Gallo's ruling disappointed but did not surprise them. "I am disappointed that this ever became a battle to be won or lost," Stein said. "By simply making the ethical decision from the start, Pitt clearly could have turned this into a win-win situation."

Venarde called Gallo's decision sad news for Pitt and the city. "Instead of lowering the stakes and offering a possibility for resolution, Pitt's 'victory' over its employees means the debate already roused and the evident resentment of the University's legal strategies will linger. It is hard to imagine that such a result is good for a university entering a major capital campaign."

Unlike Pitt, the plaintiffs are not amassing legal bills as the case drags on. The ACLU is paying out-of-pocket charges for the plaintiffs, and their ACLU lawyers — Christine Biancheria, James Lieber and Roslyn Litman — are working on a pro bono basis.

— Bruce Steele

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