A former University of Pittsburgh faculty member who registered a complaint with the Pittsburgh Human Relations Commission in 1996 accusing Pitt of discriminatory practices has filed to amend her complaint to a class action on behalf of all gay and lesbian faculty and staff at the University.
Deborah Henson charged in January 1996 that Pitt violated city law by refusing to grant medical coverage to her lesbian partner.
According to Christine Biancheria, the attorney representing Henson, the commission completed a preliminary investigation and ruled in April 1997 that it found two grounds of “probable cause,” or evidence to suggest that Pitt’s policy and practice is discriminatory toward gays and lesbians.
The commission found probable cause for “disparate impact,” a situation in which seemingly neutral criteria have a disproportionately harsher effect on a protected class, in this case gays and lesbians, and for “disparate treatment,” an intended harmful act by an employer.
These findings, Biancheria said, support the claim that denying benefits may represent hostility by Pitt toward its gay and lesbian employees. Biancheria maintains that the only acceptable settlement for Henson will be full benefits for gay and lesbian employees at Pitt.
“We told [the university] we want the policy to be changed to make it nondiscriminatory, and, so far, they simply refuse to do that,” Biancheria told Out. “When asked why they are so against changing it, they say it’s because of cost. I find it interesting and ironic that they are spending at least as much money to say they can’t afford to do it as they would if they just paid for the benefits.”
Biancheria noted that documentation available from other universities and employers that provide domestic partner benefits shows the cost of such benefits is negligible.
“This not only casts doubt on the university’s reason for maintaining its policy but also supports that its motivations are discriminatory,” Biancheria added.
Two other university employees—one faculty member and one staff member—have also filed complaints for a class action, but Biancheria declined to release their names.
The HRC had scheduled a public hearing on the issue for March, but Biancheria requested that the hearing be moved to the fall to allow more time to complete the discovery phase of the case.
“The university has not been timely and complete in its response to our discovery requests for documents and other information,” Biancheria said. “This is an important case. We want it to be done right.”
Although no date has been set for the public hearing, Biancheria expects it will be scheduled sometime after mid-September.
This article originally appeared in Pittsburgh’s Out. This article is preserved as a part of the Q Archives project. Please consider donating to help preserve Pittsburgh’s Queer history.