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April 06, 2006
Court Strikes Down NYC Equal Benefits Law

The New York Court of Appeals, the state's highest court, recently struck down the 2004 New York City Equal Benefits Law, which required companies with city contracts of over $100,000 to provide the same benefits to employee domestic partners that they provide to employee spouses. As a result of the ruling, city contractors, and those who wish to contract with the city, now no longer need to extend benefits to employees' domestic partners. The decision puts the city at odds with several other major urban hubs with such laws on their books, which include San Francisco, Seattle, and Los Angeles.

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The law's history has been anything but smooth. It was enacted in May 2004, struck down by a veto from Mayor Michael Bloomberg, and then reenacted over his veto. The issue then moved into the state court system, with Bloomberg asking a court to invalidate the measure, arguing that it was preempted by the federal Employee Retirement Income Security Act (ERISA), and supporters seeking a court order compelling the mayor to enforce it. The upshot of the struggle occurred in mid-February, when the Court of Appeals agreed that the law was inconsistent with ERISA, which regulates many issues connected with employee benefits.

Opponents worried that the law would raise the cost of city contracts and tempt employees and their friends to pose as domestic partners in order to gain its benefits. Supporters argued that the extensive process of registering a domestic partnership, which includes signing a sworn affidavit, would deter fraud.

The high court was sharply split 4 to 3 on the issue, however­a fact that has prompted supporters to consider asking for a rehearing. Calling the court's ruling "disappointing and flawed," New York City Council Speaker Christine C. Quinn, who sponsored the legislation, pointed out that such a close vote (4-3) is rare in recent Court of Appeals history, and stated that the Council will consider requesting rehearing, in addition to seeking state legislative action.

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