U of Pitt Files Motion To Dismiss Same-Sex Benefit Lawsuit

January 27, 2003 (PLANSPONSOR.com) - The University of Pittsburgh has filed a motion challenging a city Equal Rights Ordinance in the latest chapter of a seven-year same-sex benefits chronicle.

Pitt filed a request for a permanent injunction in the case that has been ongoing since 1996, when the school was  sued for violating the Pittsburgh city ordinance against discrimination on the basis of race, religion, ethnicity, or sexual preference.    The American Civil Liberties Union’s (ACLU) brief on the case calls the university’s challenge to the city ordinance “without merit,” according to a report by the student-run Pitt News. The university says the ordinance violates Pennsylvania’s Home Rule Act and Human Relations Act.

Vice Chancellor for Public Affairs Robert Hill said the university was pursuing the action to end the lawsuit. “We never felt that this was a matter that needed to be decided through litigation.”

Christine Biancheria, an attorney for the ACLU currently representing the original plaintiffs,  several University employees whose domestic partners were not given full health benefits, said the latest action on the part of Pitt is “attacking the ability of the city to protect the rights of gays and lesbians.”

Panther Tracks

The latest challenge comes after Pitt was awarded a preliminary injunction in April 2000.   Following the preliminary injunction, the original plaintiffs agreed to stop the lawsuit in exchange for the formation of a committee to study the effects of granting full benefits to the same-sex partners of employees.

A committee was formed and released its findings during the summer of 2002, albeit several months later than expected.  Included in the report was a section analyzing the effect the lack of benefits has on attracting faculty and students: “few if any students make the choice to attend or not to attend the University of Pittsburgh on the basis of the benefit package offered to its employees.”  

Further, the report found: “the number of individuals who decide not to accept a position at the university or who decide to leave the university [based on the benefits package] is probably not zero, but is not large enough to have materially affected the quality of the university’s overall achievements.”

After conducting the analysis, the committee determined the cost to provide same-sex benefits would be over $1 million.   The university says it cannot justify the cost given the relatively low impact the absence of the benefits has had.The committee ultimately determined “to move unilaterally to offer domestic partner health insurance benefits now would not be prudent.”

Objection From an Activist

However, one outspoken activist is not buying the school’s argument. Rainbow Alliance President Josh Ferris, points to recent pay increases of Chancellor Mark Nordenberg and five other top university officials when he says for Pitt “money is not a factor.”

“Pitt just wants to win, and they don’t even know why they want to win anymore,” Ferris said. “There’s so many times I’m like ‘just grant [the benefits] already, I’ve got homework to do.'”

The way Ferris sees it the university is demonstrating “a very common form of homophobia. These policies are actually hurting people. Some of these employees’ partners need these benefits. It’s that simple.”