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A Staten Island, N.Y., judge has ruled that the Metropolitan Transit Authority’s denial of health benefits to an employee’s same-sex domestic partner did not constitute a violation of New York City’s ban on discrimination based on sexual orientation. Leslie Rios, a cleaner for the Staten Island Rapid Transit Operating Authority (a subsidiary of the MTA), and her partner, Melissa Medina-Rios, registered as domestic partners in October 2002. Shortly thereafter, Rios sought to add Medina-Rios to her medical insurance plan. Staten Island Rapid Transit, which does not provide medical coverage for domestic partners, denied the request. Rios and Medina-Rios filed suit in Richmond County Supreme Court, alleging among other things, a violation of New York City Human Rights Law. In granting the MTA’s motion for summary judgment, Supreme Court Justice Philip G. Minardo held that “[The] plaintiffs have failed to offer any admissible evidence tending to establish that the asserted reasons for the denial of medical benefits were pretexts for illegal discrimination.” Instead, Minardo wrote in Rios v. Metropolitan Transit Authority, 13206/03, “they proffer only the unsubstantiated allegation that they were treated differently from other employees based on their sexual orientation, a showing which is legally insufficient, standing alone, to raise a triable issue of fact.” The plaintiffs’ attorney, Manhattan civil rights attorney Thomas D. Shanahan of Shanahan & Associates, said that the issue appeared ripe for appellate review, citing Reilly v. Metropolitan Transit Authority, 123552/01, a Manhattan Supreme Court case with a similar fact pattern but contrary results. Rios and Medina-Rios set forth six causes of action, including a violation of New York City Administrative Code �8-107(b), which bans unlawful discriminatory practices, including those based on sexual orientation. The MTA’s refusal to extend health benefits to domestic partners, Rios and her partner alleged, has a disproportionate effect on gay couples, in contradiction of the ban. The defense claimed that the denial of benefits to domestic partners “bears a significant relationship to a significant business objective,” specifically a reduction in health care costs. The refusal to extend benefits, therefore, should be deemed legal under New York law, the MTA said. To overcome this defense, the plaintiffs were required to “present substantial evidence that an alternate policy or practice was available that would serve defendants’ legitimate business objective with a less disparate impact,” Minardo wrote, citing Levin v. Yeshiva Univ., 96 NY 2d 484. “This they have failed to do,” he concluded. However, the plaintiff’s union has now completed a collective bargaining agreement with the defendants that includes health benefits for domestic partners, a situation similar to that in Reilly. Though Rios’ partner will be covered when the plan is implemented in 2005, Shanahan intends to appeal. The Rios decision “stamps domestic partners as second-class citizens” and leaves the lower courts with conflicting opinions, thus inviting an appeal, he said. The attorney for Staten Island Rapid Transit and the other MTA-related defendants, Richard Schoolman of the Office of the General Counsel for the New York City Transit Authority, declined to comment on the decision.

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