Landmark San Francisco Benefits Requirement for City Contractors Upheld

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Airlines, fundamentalist-backed contractor lose attempt to derail domestic partner ordinance.
May 27, 1999

(LOS ANGELES, May 27, 1999) -- The City of San Francisco's pioneering domestic partnership law cleared two big legal hurdles Thursday with a federal court defeat of challenges by the airline industry and a fundamentalist Christian-backed contractor, said Lambda Legal Defense and Education Fund.

In two separate cases, the court upheld San Francisco's Equal Benefits Ordinance (EBO) in Air Transport Association v. San Francisco and S.D. Myers v. San Francisco, the only challenges brought against the ordinance. The first of its kind in the country, the EBO prohibits the city from contracting with firms whose benefit plans discriminate based on the marital status or sexual orientation of employees.

Judge Claudia Wilken of the United States District Court for the Northern District of California entered summary judgment against the Air Transport Association (ATA), ordering air carriers using the city's airport to comply with parts of the city ordinance. The airlines last year won partial exemption from the law. The S.D. Myers case, backed by a fundamentalist Christian group, was dismissed for lack of standing.

Jennifer C. Pizer, managing attorney of the Lambda Western Regional Office in Los Angeles, said, "This victory is a great birthday present for the two-year-old ordinance, and vindication for the people of San Francisco, whose national leadership against discriminatory benefits plans has effected changes in policy at hundreds of companies."

Lambda Executive Director Kevin M. Cathcart added, "This opens the door for other cities that have been watching these cases and considering similar ordinances. Today's victory also advances the national discussion about the needs and value of lesbian, gay, and other unmarried families."

Lambda, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Northern California, the ACLU Lesbian and Gay Rights Project, and the National Center for Lesbian Rights jointly submitted amicus briefs supporting the EBO.

In her 20-page opinion in the ATA case, the longer-standing of the two cases, Judge Wilken wrote, "The Ordinance aims to fulfill in economic terms a promise long required in City contracts: that parties doing business with the City not discriminate based on sexual orientation or marital status."

In April 1998, in her first ruling in the ATA case, Judge Wilken upheld most of the city's law but exempted the airlines from vital health insurance and pension plan provisions, finding that those are governed by the federal Employee Retirement Income Security Act (ERISA).

But Thursday's ruling affirmed that the city can require airlines using city property to provide non-ERISA benefits for their unmarried workers' partners, including relocation compensation, free travel privileges, bereavement leave and family medical leave.

In the second case, Judge Wilken dismissed an attempt by televangelist Pat Robertson's American Center for Law and Justice to extend the airlines' ERISA exemption to other city contractors. Rejecting S.D. Myers' argument that the ordinance conflicts with California marriage laws, the judge noted that state law protects domestic partners and forbids marital status discrimination in many areas. She then ruled that because S.D. Myers, an electric contractor, refuses to provide any family benefits whatsoever to unmarried employees with partners, the EBO banned it from receiving city contracts and it thus had no standing to seek the ERISA exemption.

(Air Transport Association v. San Francisco, No. C 97-01763 CW and S.D. Myers v. San Francisco, No. 97-04463 CW)


Contact: Jennifer C. Pizer 323-937-2728 x 223; Peg Byron 212-809-8585 x 230, 888-987-1984 (pager)


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