Lambda Legal Tells Court that Health Care Provider Lied and Endangered Woman's Health When Illegally Refusing Fertility Treatment Because She's a Lesbian
(San Diego, March 25, 2004) - Saying that lesbian and gay patients have a right to equal access to medical care and must be allowed to seek justice when they face discrimination, Lambda Legal urged a California State Court today to reject a medical group’s “desperate attempt to block important claims in a case filed by a lesbian who was denied fertility services.
Guadalupe “Lupita” Benitez was denied fertility treatment by her Southern California health care providers because she is a lesbian. Her discrimination lawsuit was thrown out of state court two years ago, but Benitez won an appeal last year which said patients can sue health care providers who discriminate against them based on their sexual orientation, and federal law does not exempt health care providers from state civil rights laws. That unanimous state appeals court decision set an important precedent as the first ruling of its kind in the nation. With that ruling allowing her to sue, Benitez’ case is now back at the trial court, where Lambda Legal represents her as co-counsel.
“Lupita has won the right to have her day in court. It’s not surprising that the medical group doesn’t want a full airing of the facts, since they subjected Lupita to such shocking discrimination. Today we’re asking the court to let Lupita go forward with her claims for deceit and emotional injury; we feel confident that this desperate request will be rejected and we’ll be able to hold these doctors accountable for the full range of harm they caused their former patient,” said Jennifer C. Pizer, senior staff attorney in Lambda Legal’s Western Regional Office who is litigating the case.
In the summer of 2000, the North Coast Women’s Care Medical Group and doctors Christine Brody and Douglas Fenton refused to inseminate Lupita Benitez after she had received 11 months of preparatory treatment from the clinic, including potentially risky medications and invasive tests. At the critical and brief moment when Benitez needed to be inseminated, both Brody and Fenton said that because of their personal religious beliefs about gay people, they would not administer the treatment Benitez had been promised. Although the medical group had accepted payment all year to care for Benitez, no other doctors within the medical group were available or willing to perform the procedure she needed. The doctors simply “dumped” Benitez, and she was forced to go outside of her health plan and start her treatment all over again elsewhere.
Benitez sued the Medical Group based on a California law outlawing discrimination by business establishments, including health care facilities, along with other legal claims. A state court in San Diego dismissed her entire case two years ago, ruling that a federal law regulating employee benefits plans bars a state civil rights claim against doctors whenever the doctors’ services are paid for through an employer-provided health plan. That decision was overturned last year by the California appeals ruling saying that Benitez deserves her day in court.
In today’s brief to the trial court, Lambda Legal said the doctors “purposefully and pointedly lied to” Benitez. The brief also says, “the evidence shows that Defendants were gambling with Ms. Benitez’ life and child-bearing opportunities because she was a lesbian.”
“Lupita’s doctors are entitled to hold any personal religious belief they choose,” Pizer said. “But health care providers do not have the right to refuse medically appropriate treatment to a patient based on what they claim are personal religious beliefs about particular groups of people. California licensed these doctors to practice medicine, not religious rituals. They were legally and ethically obligated to provide treatment based on their patient’s medical condition, not her identity.”
North Coast Women’s Care Medical Group was the only Ob/Gyn provider available to Benitez through her employer’s health care plan. Since North Coast refused to provide the standard procedure she was seeking, she was forced to find another provider that was not in her health care plan. In addition to the trauma of being suddenly “dumped” due to her sexual orientation, Benitez had to undergo repeat testing and pay thousands of dollars to secure the treatment she needed. A year later, Benitez and her partner, Joanne Clark, welcomed a baby boy into their family.
Pizer is the lead attorney litigating Benitez v. North Coast Women’s Care Medical Group for Lambda Legal. Pizer is joined by co-counsel Robert Welsh and Margaret Carroll, Michael Clifton-Harter and Amy Freeman of O’Melveny & Myers, as well as Albert Gross of Solana Beach, Calif., who began the case for Benitez in 2001.
Contact: Fred Shank, 212/809-8585 ext. 267