The American Civil Liberties Union and the New York Civil Liberties Union filed a discrimination lawsuit today on behalf of a Utica couple kicked out of the wellness program at the Charles T. Sitrin Health Care Center, Inc., because they are lesbian. One of the plaintiffs suffers from severe osteoarthritis and other medical conditions and needs to use the facility’s pool to avoid losing her leg.
“It is shameful that a business that is supposedly committed to improving people’s health would deny this couple access solely because they are lesbians,” said Sharon McGowan, a staff attorney for the ACLU’s Lesbian and Gay Rights Project, who is representing the couple. “This kind of discrimination will no longer fly now that sexual orientation discrimination is illegal in New York State.”
The New York State anti-discrimination law became effective in 2003. The ACLU believes this is first time the law has been used to bring a legal challenge against a private business for refusing to serve gay people.
Louise Bizzari was misdiagnosed with cancer and spent nearly a decade bedridden on steroids and other medication. As a result she became severely obese and developed osteoarthritis and other medical problems in her back, hips, knees, ankles and feet. In 2003, after getting her health back on track, her doctors advised her to begin swimming and warned her that she could lose the use of her leg if she did not.
After investigating other pools in Utica, Bizzari, 55, chose the Sitrin Center because of its accessible parking. She applied to the Director of Clinical Rehabilitation Services to participate in an aquatic therapy program offered by the facility. When the Director learned that Bizzari intended to pay for the program through the domestic partner insurance that she receives through her partner, she told Bizzari that the Sitrin Center wouldn’t accept her insurance. When Bizzari offered to pay for the program out of her own pocket, the Director told her that there were no programs at the Sitrin Center suitable for her.
Later, Bizzari’s partner of more than 20 years, Barbara Hackett, learned of another program at the Sitrin Center that doesn’t include aquatic therapy, but allows participants to use the rehabilitation pool in the evenings and on Saturday mornings. Bizzari and Hackett returned to the Sitrin Center and signed up for the family plan, which costs $45 per month. They began using the pool in the summer of 2004.
Eventually the Director who had turned Bizzari down for the aquatic program found out that the couple was using the pool. On January 3, 2005, Hackett received a call from the Director telling her that she and Bizzari had been dismissed from the pool. Bizzari was devastated and pleaded with the supervisor to let her use the pool. Thinking that the supervisor had relented, Bizzari returned to use the pool the following day. The Director confronted Bizzari when she entered the facility. When Bizzari accused the Director of sexual orientation discrimination, the supervisor referred to Bizzari and Hackett as “faggots” and stormed off, saying that she was going to call the police. The police arrived soon thereafter and escorted Bizzari out of the building. A few days later, the couple received letters from the Sitrin Center, signed by the Director, informing them without explanation that they had been dismissed from the program. Copies of the letters are available at:
“I can’t tell you how humiliating it was to be called names and basically treated like a criminal by this business,” said Bizzari. “Going to the pool gave me hope that I would soon see the end of this painful medical nightmare. It’s inconceivable to me that any business would treat people this way.”
Recently, Bizzari consulted with a specialist who is willing to perform reconstructive surgery on her feet, ankles and legs if she is able to increase her upper body strength through exercise. She has another appointment with this doctor in June to determine whether she is physically prepared for the surgery.
The complaint filed by the ACLU and NYCLU charges that the Sitrin Center illegally discriminated against both Bizzari and Hackett in violation of the Sexual Orientation Non-Discrimination Act, a New York human rights law that protects against sexual orientation discrimination in employment, housing and public accommodations.
“Unfortunately, this story demonstrates all too painfully the types of indignities that lesbian and gay people face every day in this country,” said Barrie Gewanter, Executive Director of the Central New York Chapter of the New York Civil Liberties Union. “It took a lot of courage for Louise and Barbara to come forward with this discrimination. I hope this case helps send a very clear message to all businesses in New York that this type of behavior won’t be tolerated.”
Samuel C. Young is assisting the ACLU and NYCLU in the representation of the case, Bizzari and Hackett v. Charles T. Sitrin Health Care Center, Inc.