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May 1, 1997

Probable cause found in discrimination suit against Pitt

The Pittsburgh Human Relations Commission late last month found probable cause that Pitt discriminated against a former law school faculty member by refusing to extend health care benefits to her same-sex partner.

Deborah Henson, who left Pitt in April 1996 to become a judicial clerk with the Louisiana Supreme Court, filed the discrimination suit against the University in January 1996.

In her complaint, Henson claimed that Pitt violated a city ordinance banning discrimination based on sexual orientation when it refused to extend health care benefits to her partner of nine years.

Henson also maintained that the University's refusal to extend health care benefits to her partner made her employment contract less valuable than those of heterosexual employees.

In its report on the case, the Human Relations Commission concluded that the University's policy "has resulted in disparate treatment [for employees with same-sex partners] in comparison to heterosexual employees." The commission's finding means that the case will proceed to a private settlement conference. According to Christine Biancheria, Henson's attorney, no date for that private conference has been set. If the two parties cannot reach a settlement at the private conference, the commission will conduct a public hearing on the complaint. Biancheria said that if a public hearing is held, it probably would not be until sometime in the fall.

"It is my understanding that there is one meeting [the conference] with the commission," Biancheria said. "But nothing stops Deb Henson and the University from trying to work things out outside of the commission by talking." Biancheria said the Human Relations Commission, in fact, prefers that parties in such cases reach a private agreement. A possible stumbling block to a private settlement, however, is Henson's insistence that Pitt change its policy on health care benefits for employees with same-sex partners.

"We're pretty clear on the position that we want the policy to be changed," Biancheria said. "The University's policy results in unequal pay for gay and lesbian employees and is unlawful. We hope the University will take this opportunity to voluntarily correct this demeaning situation." Of the ruling by the Human Relation's Commission, Ken Service, Pitt's director of Communications, said: "We believe that our current policy in regard to domestic partners will withstand any legal challenge,"

–Mike Sajna

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