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October 14, 2004

Plaintiffs end Battle Over Same-sex Benefits

The protracted legal battle over health insurance benefits for domestic partners of Pitt employees officially is over.

In a statement issued Oct. 5, American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) lawyers representing seven current and former employees who were suing the University to provide health benefits for their same-sex domestic partners dropped their legal challenge by withdrawing their latest court appeal.

The move followed last month’s decision by Pitt to extend such benefits to both same-sex and opposite-sex domestic partners beginning Jan. 1. The announcement was made by Chancellor Mark Nordenberg in a Sept. 1 campus update. In supporting the decision, Nordenberg cited Pitt’s need “to protect our position in increasingly competitive markets for top talent.”

(See Sept. 2 University Times.)

At a press conference the day after the chancellor’s announcement, the ACLU lawyers said Pitt’s action did not necessarily end all litigation, “because the plaintiffs have suffered over a long time as a result of denied benefits” and might want to seek damages. But after discussions with the plaintiffs, the group agreed unanimously to drop the lawsuit, according to Chris Biancheria, lead ACLU cooperating attorney in the case.

“This lawsuit was always about equal treatment for lesbian and gay employees,” Biancheria stated. “Now that the University has agreed to provide equal health benefits, we’ve won. The plaintiffs were never in this for the money. They are very pleased with the outcome and are ready to put this behind them.”

In January 1996, the ACLU had brought suit before the Pittsburgh Human Relations Commission on behalf of then-employee Deborah Henson, charging that the University’s denial of health benefits for Henson’s same-sex partner violated a city ordinance prohibiting discrimination based on sexual orientation. Six other employees later joined the suit.

In January 2004, Allegheny County Common Pleas Judge Robert Gallo issued an injunction, which permanently barred the Human Relations Commission from hearing the discrimination complaint against Pitt, saying the commission lacked jurisdiction to hear the case.

In the most recent legal permutation of the suit, the plaintiffs appealed Gallo’s decision, and lawyers were scheduled Oct. 6 to present oral arguments before the Commonwealth Court of Pennsylvania. Dropping the appeal effectively ended the eight-year-old lawsuit, the Pennsylvania ACLU’s oldest open case.

“We’re happy to be ending this lengthy ordeal and relieved to know that Pitt’s lesbian and gay employees will no longer have to struggle to provide health insurance for their families,” said Witold Walczak, litigation director of the ACLU’s Pennsylvania affiliate.

Under the guidelines outlined in Nordenberg’s Sept. 1 update, employees applying for the benefit must demonstrate the existence of a domestic partner relationship by filing an affidavit of domestic partnership. “Eligible Pitt employees choosing these benefits will share the additional premium costs with the University on the same apportioned basis as employees choosing coverage for a spouse,” Nordenberg’s update stated.

Ron Frisch, associate vice chancellor for Human Resources, told the University Times this week that information on criteria and deadlines for signing up for the new benefit will be on the HR web site in the near future.

“In the next couple of days we hope to have the web site with all of the information approved, [including] confirmation on the go-live date,” of the benefit, Frisch said Monday.

-Peter Hart

Filed under: Feature,Volume 37 Issue 4

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