X

Thank you for sharing!

Your article was successfully shared with the contacts you provided.
In a unanimous decision, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court ruled Monday that the City of Philadelphia has the power to grant benefits to the life partners of gay and lesbian city workers, but cannot by ordinance exempt those life partners from the real estate transfer tax or prohibit discrimination on the basis of status as a same-sex partner. In its 26-page decision in Devlin v. City of Philadelphia, the justices reversed portions of a 2002 decision by the Commonwealth Court that struck down a trio of amendments to city ordinances. Significantly, the justices rejected the Commonwealth Court’s rationale. “We agree with the city that, contrary to the Commonwealth Court’s conclusion, the city did not legislate in the area of marriage,” Justice Russell M. Nigro wrote in the 6-0 decision. (Justice Sandra Schultz Newman was ill at the time the case was argued and therefore did not participate in the decision.) The ordinances, enacted in 1998 during Edward G. Rendell’s term as mayor, extend the equivalent of spousal benefits to the partners of lesbian and gay city employees who have registered as “life partners” with the Philadelphia Commission on Human Relations. To register, couples present documentation that they’ve lived together for at least six months and agree to be responsible for each other’s “common welfare.” In addition to extending benefits to same-sex partners of city workers, City Council also amended the Fair Practices Ordinance to protect individuals from discrimination on the basis of “marital status.” In a separate bill, council amended the Philadelphia Code to exempt life partners from the city tax on real estate transfers. In 1999, William Devlin, head of the Urban Family Council, a socially conservative advocacy group, filed a taxpayers’ suit to challenge all three laws. Devlin’s lawyer, Dennis M. Abrams of Lowenthal & Abrams, argued that the ordinances should be declared null and void because they violate the public policy of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania. Abrams argued that the city exceeded its authority, as conferred by the Home Rule Charter, and that the definition of “life partner” should therefore be declared an ultra vires act. The Philadelphia Common Pleas judge upheld the ordinances, but the Commonwealth Court struck them down in 2002, saying the city had overstepped its authority in creating a “new relationship between same-sex persons that it categorized as being part and parcel of the marital state.” Now the Supreme Court has ruled that the central premise of the Commonwealth Court’s decision was flawed. Nigro found that the Commonwealth Court erred in concluding that the city had exceeded its home rule powers and violated pre-emption principles by legislating in a “substantive area of statewide concern” when it redefined the parameters of marriage by creating the legal relationship of “life partners.” Instead, Nigro said, “While we acknowledge certain facial similarities between marriage and life partnership, we simply do not agree that they are sufficient to establish that the city has legislated in the area of marriage here.” Nigro found that the “mere designation” of life partners as a “marital status” was not enough to show that the city was “equating life partnership with state-sanctioned marriage.” Instead, Nigro said, the city simply added the status of life partner to a list that already included “being single, married, separated, divorced [or] widowed.” The plaintiffs, Nigro said, insisted that by amending the definition of marital status to include life partners, the city was attempting to recognize life partnership as the “functional equivalent” of marriage. Nigro disagreed, saying the addition of life partners was designed “to merely supplement the terms ‘single,’ ‘divorced’ and ‘widowed’ as yet another unmarried marital status.” Although the laws give gay and lesbian couple “certain limited rights that spouses also enjoy,” Nigro found that “those rights and benefits are but a small fraction of what marriage affords its participants.” Nigro noted that the city’s lawyer, Barbara Mather of Pepper Hamilton, stressed that gay and lesbian couples cannot use their life partner status to take advantage of domestic relations laws that govern divorce, alimony, child custody and equitable distribution. Abrams argued that the city had exceeded its powers by creating a legal relationship between same-sex partners, including an obligation of support similar to heterosexual spouses, despite the fact that the Pennsylvania General Assembly has specifically excluded same-sex relationships from domestic relations law. Nigro disagreed, saying, “In our view, the ‘legal relationship’ that the city has created is, in essence, merely a label the city can use to identify individuals to whom it desires to confer certain limited, local benefits.” Since those benefits are not “solely available” to married couples, Nigro said, “it simply cannot be said that the defined relationship is an improper attempt to legislate in the area of marriage.” But Nigro nonetheless found that the city had gone too far in passing all three laws. Although Nigro found that the city was well within its rights when it extended benefits to the life partners of city workers, he said the court had “considerably more difficulty” with the real estate transfer tax exemption and the amendment of the Fair Practices ordinance to prohibit discrimination against life partners. The discrimination provision must be struck down, Nigro said, because it amounts to an improper exercise of authority “beyond the city limits.” The ordinance already prohibited discrimination on the basis of “sexual orientation,” Nigro noted. By adding life partners to the list of groups protected from discrimination, Nigro found that the city was putting itself “in the position of categorizing and defining the relationships of individuals who may very well have no meaningful relationship to the city.” The real estate transfer tax exemption is similarly flawed, Nigro found, because it violates the uniformity clause of the Pennsylvania constitution. Nigro found that the Commonwealth Court correctly concluded that adding an exemption for life partners “does not promote uniformity within the taxed class as life partners do not share the very characteristics that previously defined the only individuals entitled to an exemption � i.e., a relationship of blood or marriage.” But on the issue of benefits for the partners of gay and lesbian city workers, Nigro found that the city was on solid ground since its is a “local matter of personnel and administration that lies within the city’s explicit authority to legislate regarding matters of local concern.” Worker benefits, Nigro said, are “ineluctably essential to the operation of local government units.” A court decision prohibiting such a law, Nigro said, “may in fact place the City of Philadelphia at a competitive disadvantage with private employers who allow for such benefits.” Attorney Cynthia J. Schneider, the legal director for the Center for Lesbian and Gay Civil Rights, who joined Mather on the brief for the city, hailed the ruling as a “clear victory for same-sex couples.” Schneider said it was “unfortunate” that the court did not also uphold the real estate transfer tax exemption, but that the court’s decision on that issue “had nothing to do with the legitimacy of same-sex relationships.” Devlin, reached last night, said the court’s ruling was “misguided” on the issue of whether the city’s creation of the life partner status was legislating in the area of marriage. “We intend to take this all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court,” Devlin said.

This content has been archived. It is available through our partners, LexisNexis® and Bloomberg Law.

To view this content, please continue to their sites.

Not a Lexis Advance® Subscriber?
Subscribe Now

Not a Bloomberg Law Subscriber?
Subscribe Now

Why am I seeing this?

LexisNexis® and Bloomberg Law are third party online distributors of the broad collection of current and archived versions of ALM's legal news publications. LexisNexis® and Bloomberg Law customers are able to access and use ALM's content, including content from the National Law Journal, The American Lawyer, Legaltech News, The New York Law Journal, and Corporate Counsel, as well as other sources of legal information.

For questions call 1-877-256-2472 or contact us at [email protected]

 
 

ALM Legal Publication Newsletters

Sign Up Today and Never Miss Another Story.

As part of your digital membership, you can sign up for an unlimited number of a wide range of complimentary newsletters. Visit your My Account page to make your selections. Get the timely legal news and critical analysis you cannot afford to miss. Tailored just for you. In your inbox. Every day.

Copyright © 2021 ALM Media Properties, LLC. All Rights Reserved.