The online dating site EHarmony.com has reached a settlement in a class-action lawsuit brought by gays and lesbians who said the service discriminated against them. As part of the proposed agreement, the company will pay more than half a million dollars and make its website more "welcoming" to seekers of same-sex matches, according to court documents filed Tuesday.
The Pasadena-based company had already launched a service last year for gays and lesbians, called Compatible Partners, as part of an unrelated settlement with the New Jersey attorney general's civil rights division. As a result of the settlement agreement, filed in Los Angeles County Superior Court and pending approval by a judge, EHarmony will now add a "gay and lesbian dating" category to its main website that will direct users to Compatible Partners. Bisexual users will also be able to access both websites for one fee.
The EHarmony site contains links for Christian, black, Jewish, Hispanic, senior and local dating.
California residents who have filed written complaints with the company or provide other written evidence that they attempted to access EHarmony's services between May 31, 2004, and Jan. 25, 2010, but were unable to because they were gay or lesbian, will receive as much as $4,000 per person from the settlement funds. Plaintiffs' attorneys estimate that between 100 and 130 Californians will be covered by the settlement.
The website, founded by clinical psychologist Neil Clark Warren, who is an evangelical Christian, did not provide same-sex matching services from its founding in 2000 until last year, contending that the company's closely guarded compatibility models were based on studies of married heterosexual couples.
In court filings, attorneys for EHarmony also pointed to websites exclusively providing same-sex matches, saying the company "does not stand alone among companies that provide their relationship matching services to a single sexual orientation."
"EHarmony is happy to move beyond this litigation so it can continue building Compatible Partners into a successful service," said Robert Freitas, an attorney who represented EHarmony in the case.
Plaintiffs had contended in the lawsuit that the EHarmony website, which offered only the options of "man seeking woman" and "woman seeking man" before last year, was discriminatory and reflected the company's reluctance to be publicly associated with the gay and lesbian community, allegations EHarmony disputed.
The company did not admit any wrongdoing or liability in the settlement.
As part of the California agreement, the Compatible Partners site will display the EHarmony logo "in a prominent position," and will state that the service is "brought to you by EHarmony."
The site currently states that it is "powered by EHarmony."
Todd Schneider, an attorney for the plaintiffs, said the modifications will go further than the New Jersey settlement to make the website more accessible to users seeking gay and lesbian relationships.
"We're delighted that EHarmony has chosen to make its remarkable technology available to the gay and lesbian community in a way that is more welcoming and inclusive," he said.
Holning Lau, a law professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, said he believed the proposed settlement doesn't go far enough because same-sex matching will still be provided on a separate site and not as a fully integrated part of EHarmony's website.
"What's problematic to me is you're being treated in two segregated channels," said Lau, who teaches classes on family law and law and sexuality. "There's still a discriminatory element there."
In addition, EHarmony will also pay close to $1.5 million in fees and costs to the plaintiff's attorneys.