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Court of Appeals Invalidates New York City Equal Benefits Law

A sharply divided New York Court of Appeals upheld the position of New York City Mayor Bloomberg who refused to enforce the City’s Equal Benefits Law. On February 14, 2006, in the case the Matter of Council of the City of New York v. Bloomberg (http://www.courts.state.ny.us/reporter/3dseries/2006/2006_01111.htm) the Court held that the Equal Benefits Law was pre-empted by State and Federal Law. The Equal Benefits Law required that contracts awarded by the City in excess of $100,000 be made only to contractors who provided equal benefits to the domestic partners and spouses of employees.

In the first instance the Court held that that the issue of validity of the local law could be raised by the Mayor in defense of an Article 78 proceeding by the City Council seeking to compel him to enforce the law. The Court held that the Mayor acted properly in refusing to enforce a law he felt was invalid. It then determined that the law was at odds with, among other statutes, section 103 of the General Municipal Law which requires the award of contracts to the lowest responsible bidder. The majority stated that, as written, the law could violate the intention of the competitive bidding statute. For example, contract specifications could be drafted to favor contractors who provided specific benefits. Such requirements, the Court held, do not foster the purpose of the statute, which is to save money for the municipality.

In a dissent by Judge Rosenblatt, joined in by two other judges, he argued that the actions of the Mayor violated the doctrine of separation of powers. Judge Rosenblatt stated that the executive is required to carry out the law until a court declares it invalid and should not unilaterally refuse to carry out a legislative act. He argued that a defense in an Article 78 proceeding is not the proper vehicle for challenging a local law.