YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections

California and the West

Judge Upholds S.F. Domestic Partner Law

Courts: Jurist rejects challenge from company that lost city contract. Carriers at airport are ordered to provide benefits.


SAN FRANCISCO — In a victory for gay workers, a federal district judge Thursday upheld San Francisco's landmark domestic partners law against a challenge from a company that lost a city contract after refusing to provide benefits to partners of gay and unmarried employees.

U.S. District Judge Claudia Wilkin also ordered air carriers at San Francisco International Airport to provide certain benefits, including relocation compensation, free travel privileges and family medical leave, to partners of their unmarried workers.

"Cities all over the country have been watching San Francisco and this litigation, and this gives a green light that the concept is sound and a good idea," said Jennifer Pizer, managing attorney of the western regional office of the Lambda Legal Defense and Education Fund, which works to achieve civil rights for lesbians and gays. "It is a great day for workers, not just in the Bay Area, but nationwide."

Pizer predicted that the ruling will spur Los Angeles to follow San Francisco's example and pass an ordinance that requires city contractors to offer domestic partner benefits. The city and county of Los Angeles already provide such benefits to their employees.

Thursday's decision was one of a string of mostly favorable rulings around the nation on domestic partner laws. The California Senate earlier this week passed a bill to provide limited benefits to domestic partners. If approved by the Assembly, which passed a similar bill in 1994, the measure will go to Gov. Gray Davis. He has said he supports legalizing domestic partner relationships but opposes gay marriage.

Wilkin, appointed by President Clinton, said San Francisco has a right to prevent discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and marital status.

The judge had previously decided that airlines that use San Francisco Airport could not be forced to provide health and pension benefits to unmarried partners of their employees because such benefits are covered by a federal statute. But all other benefits not covered by the federal law must be given to domestic partners, Wilkin ruled Thursday.

The challenge to the ordinance by an Ohio company was the first to test a city's ability to reject bidders that refuse to provide benefits to partners of unmarried workers.

S.D. Myers Inc., a large, privately held firm, submitted the lowest bid and was selected by the city in 1997 to service hydroelectric equipment.

But the company lost the contract after it refused to comply with San Francisco's 1997 domestic partners' law because of moral opposition to homosexuality.

Jay Sekulow, lawyer for televangelist Pat Robertson's American Center for Law and Justice, which represented Myers, said it will appeal the decision.

"We're disappointed but not surprised," Sekulow said. "Ultimately this case is going to wind its way through the court of appeals, and I think we will carry the day."

In the airline case, Wilkin left open the possibility that United Airlines and other carriers might be able to block the ruling, pending appeal.

The San Francisco city attorney's office issued a statement that said United must provide domestic partner benefits if it wishes to keep its lease at San Francisco Airport for an airfield building that houses a flight kitchen and a ground service equipment facility.

Brendan Dolan, attorney for the Air Transport Assn. of America and the Airline Industrial Relations Conference, said he will seek an order to block Wilkin's ruling pending appeal.

"We regarded the prior ruling as a significant victory, and this is a significantly more limited ruling" for the airlines, the lawyer said.

Deputy City Atty. Marc Slavin said both rulings affect employees based in San Francisco, on city-owned property outside of San Francisco and employees elsewhere in the country who work on contracts that provide goods and services to San Francisco.

"I think the struggle for equal treatment takes two giant steps forward today," said San Francisco City Atty. Louise H. Renne. "The real winner in my view is equal pay for equal work."

Los Angeles Times Articles