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The City of Philadelphia has the authority to extend benefits to same-sex life partners of city employees, a common pleas court judge has ruled. The decision is an answer to a lawsuit filed on behalf of a number of citizens challenging the domestic-partner ordinances that the Philadelphia City Council passed in 1998. “In view of the broad enabling legislation, the absence of any restrictive language in state statutory law prohibiting Philadelphia from extending benefits to life partners, and the county’s vested authority in regulating municipal government and in competitively attracting a broad range of highly qualified employees, the extension of city benefits inclusive of medical coverage to domestic partners is a valid exercise of authority,” Philadelphia Common Pleas Court Judge Matthew D. Carrafiello wrote in his opinion. The decision in Devlin v. City of Philadelphia is a victory for Donna G. Marshall and Howard Lebotsky of the Philadelphia Law Department Special Litigation and Labor Unit. “We always felt very comfortable with the legality of the ordinance,” City Solicitor Kenneth J. Trujillo said. “We’re pleased with the decision.” Dennis Abrams of Lowenthal & Abrams in Bala Cynwyd, Pa., represented William Devlin, director of the Urban Family Council, and the nine other plaintiffs. Abrams said his clients are “disappointed” with the court’s decision and plan on filing an appeal in the Commonwealth Court within the next couple of weeks. The original lawsuit sought to declare three ordinances invalid. The ordinances challenged were the Fair Practices Act, which governs public accommodation and employment practices as they pertain to life partners; an amendment to the Retirement System Ordinances, which allowed employees to “broadly” name beneficiaries; and an ordinance which amended the realty transfer tax to allow transactions between life partners. The plaintiffs withdrew their challenge to the Retirement System Ordinance prior to Carrafiello’s ruling. The plaintiffs’ complaint had asserted five counts, two of which were dismissed when Judge Pamela Dembe sustained the city’s preliminary objections. The remaining counts included a challenge to the ordinances which asserted that Philadelphia did not have the authority to act on the subject of benefits for life partners, exempt real estate transfers for tax purposes between life partners, and prevent discrimination against life partners. In his opinion, Carrafiello first addressed the issue of the plaintiffs’ standing. He said that, as taxpayers and residents of the city, they had a “direct interest in this controversy” and therefore had standing. He ruled, however, that the plaintiffs did not have standing to challenge the provisions of the life-partner ordinance that pertained to non-public entities or private employment. After disposing of the preliminary issue of standing, Carrafiello set out to address the challenge to Philadelphia’s power to extend benefits to life partners. Particularly at issue was the extension of health benefits to life partners. Carrafiello cited Article 9, Section 2 of the Pennsylvania constitution, which provides a municipality with power not denied by the state constitution or by the General Assembly. The court cited a number of cases from across the country in which courts ruling on similar domestic-partnership legislation have found the legislation to be valid and a matter of local concern. Carrafiello sided with the cases that he cited, ruling that prohibiting the extension of such benefits would put Philadelphia at a “competitive disadvantage with private employers who allow for such benefits.” “The domestic partnership legislation in Philadelphia County is distinguishable from that in a number of other states where it was found invalid for expressly conflicting with state law,” Carrafiello wrote. “It also differs from cases in other jurisdictions where there is a comprehensive state law statutory scheme encompassing the extension of municipal benefits at the local level.” The court next tackled the issue of whether the city has the authority to prevent discrimination against life partners, siding again with the government. Carrafiello ruled that the “general prohibition against discriminatory practices is a valid exercise of power.” Carrafiello also upheld an amendment to the realty transfer tax providing an exemption for life partners. He said the exemption provides a “well defined class” of people who would otherwise be ineligible to benefit from the exemption. “Mindful of the presumption of constitutional validity and the power vested with the Legislature to make classifications and to use public policy considerations as a criterion, the court finds there to be a rational basis for the classification of this sub-group of persons who otherwise would be precluded from ever receiving an exemption,” Carrafiello wrote. Carrafiello also said in his opinion that the ordinance encourages homosexual couples to stay in Philadelphia and therefore bolster the economy of the city by paying taxes. “Disfavorable tax treatment may cause such persons to leave Philadelphia or refuse to locate there, altogether depriving the city of a tax bases,” the court wrote. Abrams said Carrafiello’s opinion does not address issues he raised in his brief. “[The ordinance] establishes rights and vests rights by and between two people in life partnership — rights they didn’t have before this ordinance was passed,” Abrams said. Abrams said the ordinances are “legislating in the area of domestic relations, and that is reserved for the state.” “The opinion of the court does not confront those issues,” Abrams said. “Rather it simply assumes, without explanation, that it is a local issue, and an issue of employee benefits, and in so doing, it doesn’t address the issue we raised.” Abrams said the court has left him no other choice but to appeal.

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