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Same-gender couples strike against the city with class action lawsuit

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Partners Kaylynn LaGamma and Barbara Henson (a city - 911 dispatcher) are filing a class action lawsuit against - the City of Colorado Springs. - MICHAEL DE YOANNA
  • Michael de Yoanna
  • Partners Kaylynn LaGamma and Barbara Henson (a city 911 dispatcher) are filing a class action lawsuit against the City of Colorado Springs.

Two years ago, Barbara Henson and Kaylynn LaGamma were elated because Colorado Springs City Council approved same-gender benefits.

"We were very relieved," LaGamma said. "It was all we had wanted."

It meant Henson, a city 911 dispatcher, could provide health insurance to LaGamma, the lesbian partner with whom she shares a house and her life. That was back in December of 2002. Four months later, a majority of the council kept campaign promises to eliminate the program.

But Henson and LaGamma say the city has broken another pledge: to extend benefits to couples like them.

Within the next week, the women, along with another lesbian couple, plan to file a class action lawsuit against the city for providing and then removing the benefits and will ask the court to restore them.

"People really should be appalled," Henson said. "What's happening is we don't get benefits because we are a same-sex couple. That means we are being paid less. This is about equal pay for equal work."

Connie Trujillo, a unit clerk at Memorial Hospital, and her partner, Susan Osorio, who works at Peterson Air Force Base, are also joining the suit.

Stripped it away

The Denver attorney representing the couples, Patricia Bangert, questions the rationale by which the council chose to remove benefits. She noted that after the council stripped away the benefits program, Councilman Richard Skorman, along with others in the community, sought a compromise and proposed a city government health plan that would have provided roughly $6,000 a year to pay for health insurance for domestic partners -- with no cost to taxpayers.

"Once you have that legitimate entitlement or expectation, the government cannot just take it away," she said.

City Manager Lorne Kramer -- who was the one to recommend the original plan to install same-gender benefits -- declined to comment because the lawsuit had not yet been filed.

"He's just not going to speculate," said Sue Skiffington-Blumberg, a spokeswoman for Kramer.

But Ann Crossey, director of the city's Human Resources Department, said the City Council had a right to reverse the benefits because it can determine which benefits to provide to its workers.

"We think the action the council took was legal and would prevail in a lawsuit," she said.

Costing more to fight

The city has 2,500 employees and about 25 of them were expected to come forward to ask for benefits for their partners. Probably many more workers are gay or lesbian, but likely wouldn't ask for the benefits, the city determined.

Skorman, a longtime supporter of benefits for same-gender couples, wasn't surprised by the lawsuit and noted that it could cost the city more to fight the lawsuit than to provide the benefits.

"I wish we had offered the benefits," he said.

Henson and LaGamma say they struggled emotionally before finally deciding to file suit. They fear that people will attack or harass them because of their sexual orientation and are asking the court to redact their address from court documents.

The couple said they felt compelled to come forward because recent efforts to provide benefits to domestic partners in the city appear to have sputtered out.

"We tried working this out with the city, but nothing ever came of it," Henson said.

Touted as a discount

In late 2003, the City Council considered, and then voted 5-4 against a "buy-in" benefits plan. That plan would have allowed anyone living in the same household as a city employee to obtain health, dental and vision insurance so long as they paid the full premium. The plan was touted as a discount compared with the cost of an individual insurance plan and would have incorporated parents and adult children living at home.

Since then, members of the City Council have faced occasional criticism from gay and lesbian activists.

For example, activists last summer chided Mayor Lionel Rivera for refusing to issue an official proclamation supporting the Pikes Peak Gay and Lesbian Community Center's PrideFest and Parade. The mayor, who previously had signed such a proclamation, criticized gay activists for staging a mass symbolic same-sex wedding ceremony in a public park the same weekend as PrideFest.

"The city doesn't have the best reputation when it comes to the issues of gays and lesbians," said Ryan Acker, interim director of the community center.

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