ACLU Comments on Lawsuit Over Health Benefits for Domestic Partners of Univ. of Pittsburgh Employees

May 22, 2001 12:00 am

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PITTSBURGH — The American Civil Liberties Union and the University of Pittsburgh have engaged in extensive litigation during the past years about whether the University is required to extend health insurance coverage to lesbian and gay employees’ domestic partners in Henson, et al. v. University of Pittsburgh (Pittsburgh Commission on Human Relations). The University currently provides such benefits to heterosexual employees’ spouses.

The ACLU and the University of Pittsburgh have agreed to temporarily suspend all ongoing litigation in this matter. Witold Walczak, Pittsburgh ACLU Director, noted that, “”the moratorium is intended to create an atmosphere that fosters thoughtful deliberation about domestic partner benefits.””

Roslyn Litman, an ACLU volunteer lawyer in the case, added that, “the ACLU believes that amicable resolutions by the parties are often the best way to protect rights.”

The university will appoint a committee to study this issue and report back to the Chancellor with recommendations. Walczak indicated that the ACLU would reassess the need for continuing the litigation after the committee issues its recommendation.

ACLU volunteer lawyer Christine Biancheria, who with Walczak has been involved in the case since it was filed in early 1996, said, “”We have always believed that providing equal benefits — regardless of employees’ sexual orientation — is a matter of sound policy. We hope and expect that this moratorium on legal activity will shift the issue of domestic partner benefits from the heated litigation arena into a more deliberative policy debate.””

In addition to the lawyers mentioned above, plaintiffs in the case are also represented by Leslie Cooper and Matt Coles of the national ACLU’s Lesbian and Gay Rights Project.

A synopsis and “”Q&A”” about the case follows:

General Background

The University of Pittsburgh does not provide health benefits to same-sex partners of lesbian and gay employees. Local law (and the university’s own policies) prohibits employers from using sexual orientation to discriminate based on compensation – which is what the University is doing, since health coverage is a major portion of compensation for employees. In short, lesbian and gay employees do not receive equal pay for their work. Representing lesbian and gay employees, the ACLU sued the University in 1996. [Details on the litigation are attached.]

The ACLU is seeking damages on behalf of lesbian and gay employees, but – more importantly – also a policy change. Instead of using marriage as the only way to qualify for benefits, the ACLU is asking the University to adopt alternatives that all employees can access. Already, the University has an “”affidavit of domestic partnership”” and a domestic partnership registry for partners of lesbian and gay employees to get bereavement leave, tuition reimbursement and the use of facilities like the gym and the library. Those same vehicles could be used to administer health benefits equally.

The Facts on Equal Benefits and Equal Compensation

– Seven towns or cities in Pennsylvania provide health benefits to employees’ same-sex partners.

– Twelve colleges and universities in Pennsylvania provide such benefits to their employees. (They are: The University of Pennsylvania; Swarthmore; Thomas Jefferson University and Hospital; Bucknell; Dickinson; Franklin & Marshall; Susquehanna; Beaver College; Community College of Philadelphia; Chatham College; Muhlenberg College; and Carnegie Mellon, which decided to provide equal benefits in May 2000.)

– Thousands of private companies – including many Fortune 500 companies – provide health benefits to their employees’ same-sex partners. (Some Pennsylvania-based companies that provide equal benefits include: Bayer; Verizon; Mellon Bank; SmithKline Beecham Corporation; WQED-FM Radio in Pittsburgh; Carnegie Museums; and US Airways.)

– These employers and others have found the cost of providing such benefits to be minimal. The University of Pittsburgh recently tabulated that the cost of covering married employees’ spouses is nearly $3 million. The University said covering employees’ same-sex partners would be $50,000, and it has since become clear that the cost would be closer to $25,000.

ACLU Fact Sheet

Q. What is this case about?

A. The University of Pittsburgh denies its lesbian and gay employees equal compensation by refusing to provide their partners the same health insurance benefits provided to spouses of heterosexual employees. Insurance benefits constitute a significant portion of employees’ compensation. Because lesbian and gay university employees are denied health benefits for their partners, they receive substantially less compensation for the same work being performed by their heterosexual counterparts.

Q. Who are the parties in the lawsuit?

A. The complaint was filed on behalf of Deborah M. Henson, a former legal writing instructor at the University of Pittsburgh School of Law. Ms. Henson requested health insurance for her same-sex domestic partner of nearly a decade, but the University denied her request. Six other University employees have subsequently joined the action. On September 14, 1999, the Pittsburgh Commission on Human Relations certified the case as a class action, which means that any relief issued by the Commission would extend to all lesbian and gay employees with registered domestic partners.

Q. What law is the University of Pittsburgh violating by its failure to provide health benefits to its employees’ same-sex domestic partners?

A. This case was brought under the Pittsburgh Human Relations Act, which prohibits discrimination in employment, including discrimination in compensation, on the basis of sexual orientation.

The University violated this local law by establishing an eligibility requirement for partner health benefits that lesbian and gay employees and their partners cannot meet — marriage. The University’s health benefits scheme discriminates on the basis of sexual orientation as it has a clear disparate impact on lesbian and gay employees. A disparate impact exists when a policy affects one group more harshly than others.

Q. But same-sex marriage is not legal in Pennsylvania. How can the University be held accountable for the state not recognizing gay relationships?

A. This case is not about the legitimacy of Pennsylvania’s marriage law, and Ms. Henson’s complaint does not challenge the state marriage law. The fact that the state legislature has not legalized marriage for lesbian and gay couples does not mean that lesbian and gay employees must be discriminated against in compensation.

Q. During this case. The University has claimed that cities in Pennsylvania cannot pass laws protecting lesbian and gay employees from discrimination? Is this true?

A. Neither the State Constitution nor any State law prohibits cities from enacting laws to protect lesbians and gay men from discrimination. The University’s claim that cities lack such authority is a serious attack on the rights of lesbians and gay men in Pennsylvania and the legislative sovereignty of Pennsylvania’s cities. In Pennsylvania, seven cities currently have laws prohibiting discrimination based on sexual orientation.

Q. Does any state or federal law require the University to make marriage the only way employees can get health benefits for their partners?

A. No. The University chooses how to design its health benefits program. It can offer benefits to employees= same-sex domestic partners just as many other Pennsylvania employers, including universities and colleges, have done.

Q. What criteria could the University choose besides marriage for providing benefits to employees’ families?

A. The University could, for example, maintain marriage as a basis for eligibility but also have domestic partner registration and/or an affidavit of domestic partnership as an alternative. Many employers do this.

Q. Does the University provide any benefits to employees’ same-sex partners?

A. Yes. It currently provides bereavement leave, limited tuition reimbursement and the use of university facilities, like the gym and library.

In fact, the University has an ôaffidavit of domestic partnershipö form and a domestic partner registry that it uses to determine eligibility for these benefits. The same form and registry could be used for health benefits.

Q. Will insurance carriers provide coverage for employees’ same-sex domestic partners?

A. Yes. Many Pennsylvania employers’ insurance carriers cover domestic partners. The University of Pittsburgh’s insurance carrier has said it would do the same.

Q. Do any employers in Pennsylvania provide health benefits to their employees’ same-sex domestic partners?

A. Yes. They include the Mellon Bank, Bayer, Verizon, Pew Charitable Trusts, American Friends Service Committee, SmithKline Beecham Corporation, US Airways, and WQED-FM Radio in Pittsburgh. The cities of Pittsburgh and Philadelphia also provide domestic partner health benefits to their employees. Universities providing domestic partner health benefits are University Of Pennsylvania, Bucknell, Community College of Philadelphia, Dickinson, Franklin & Marshall, Susquehanna, Swarthmore, Thomas Jefferson University and Hospital, Beaver College. In May 2000, Carnegie Mellon became the latest to give benefits.

Nationally, over 150 of the country’s leading universities provide health benefits to domestic partners, as do thousands of private companies, including many Fortune 500 corporations.

Q. How does this case affect employees with unmarried heterosexual partners?

A. Benefits for unmarried heterosexual couples are not at issue in this case because no unmarried heterosexual employees have filed a complaint. The University’s policy and practice are being challenged for the way they affect lesbian and gay employees.

The denial of domestic partner benefits is particularly harmful to same-sex couples who, unlike heterosexuals, do not have the option of marrying. Moreover, Pennsylvania is a common-law marriage state, which means that an opposite-sex couple is deemed legally married, even without having a marriage ceremony, if the parties simply verbally agree to enter into a marital relationship.

Q. Wouldn’t it be unfairly expensive for the University to have to pay for these health benefits?

A. No. Other employers have found that the cost of providing domestic partner health benefits is minimal, usually amounting to an increase in health-care spending of less than 1%.

The University’s projections estimated that the cost of providing health benefits for same-sex couples would be $50,000 compared to their then-current payment for spousal benefits of $2,860,320. It’s become clear that the cost may be as low as $25,000.

Q. If the cost is so small, why is the University refusing to provide health benefits for partners of lesbian and gay employees?

A. This is one question our lawsuit seeks to address. According to local news reports, some University trustees have expressed hostility towards lesbians and gay men as well as concern that the provision of same-sex domestic partner benefits would harm University fundraising efforts.

One member of the University’s Board of Trustees reportedly voted against extending even the bereavement leave, tuition remission and facility privileges to same-sex partners because it would be “a special reward for being homosexual, and I’m totally against it.”

Q. Is the University community in favor of providing health benefits to the partners of lesbians and gay employees?

A. Yes. Generally speaking, the University community has supported the provision of equal benefits to lesbian and gay employees. The University’s Faculty Assembly unanimously adopted a resolution expressing “support for our gay and lesbian students to freely and with dignity pursue their academic studies and careers without hindrance or discouragement.” The University faculty Subcommittee on Health Insurance Benefits for Same-Sex Partners issued a report in 1994, concluding that the University should immediately extend health benefits to domestic partners and that the continued failure to do so would run afoul of the University’s own anti-discrimination policy.

Q. Where does this case now stand?

A. Deborah Henson’s lawsuit was filed in January 1996. Three months later, after examining initial evidence, the Pittsburgh Commission ruled that there was ôprobable causeö to believe that the University had engaged in illegal discrimination based on sexual orientation. The case was scheduled to go to trial in February 2000.

But in November 1999, the State Legislature passed a law, which the governor signed, exempting state-related universities from local laws that require health benefits. Comments by the Governor’s office indicated that the law was aimed at de-railing the ACLU lawsuit.

The University then sued the Henson plaintiffs and the Human Relations Commission arguing that the new law required the court proceedings to stop. In April 2000, an Allegheny County judge granted the University’s request and issued a preliminary injunction to stop the suit, saying that the November law made it impossible for the plaintiffs to win. The ACLU requested a full hearing in the trial court and filed a counterclaim stating that the University conspired with the Pennsylvania Legislature to violate plaintiffs’ constitutional rights by passing the statute to deny lesbians and gay men equal protection of the law.

For additional information on the case, see:

Discrimination Complaint Filed Against Pitt Over Refusal To Give Health Benefits To Same Sex Partners

City Panel Cites Univ. of Pittsburgh For Discrimination Against Lesbian

University Official Reveals Anti-Gay Bias

University Students on Hunger Strike in Fight for Gay Rights

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