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City Councilman Lavelle Calls UPMC's Use of 14th Amendment in Lawsuit 'Offensive'

A few dozen union members, civil rights activists, elected officials and others gathered at Freedom Corner in the Hill District  Wednesday morning to protest UPMC’s use of the 14th Amendment in its lawsuit against the City of Pittsburgh.

The lawsuit says it is unconstitutional for the city to challenge its tax-exempt status because of its due process and equal protection under the law.

Pittsburgh City Councilman Daniel Lavelle said he felt shocked and bewildered at UPMC’s legal technique.

“Instead of coming to the table and to defend the case on its merits, they have the audacity to file a lawsuit based on the 14th Amendment that would say the mere fact that we’re questioning them is out of line and out of whack,” he said. “And to do it on the backs of those who have fought years and decades to question this community, particularly people of color, was just extremely offensive.”

The 14th Amendment came to be in 1871 out of the Reconstruction era. It extended citizenship to all people born in the United States and has been used by equality movements in the U.S. since.

Allegheny County Councilwoman Amanda Green Hawkins, said it’s a "slap in the face" to the history of the act and that it’s a misuse and abuse of the civil rights statute.

“They did not contemplate that a nonprofit corporation with the dominance and strength of a UPMC would be able to take that statute and say, ‘Hey, you're violating my equal protection, hey your violating my due process rights' … that is absurd,” she said.

Paul Wood, chief communications officer for UPMC, said the city violated its own tax code as well as infringed on UPMC’s constitutional right to due process by singling out the health care giant.

“The councilman (Daniel Lavelle) clearly doesn’t understand what the 14th Amendment is or how it’s applied and that the 14th amendment guarantees equal protection under the law to all people, all organizations, not just those organizations and people the councilman wishes it to apply to,” Wood said.

Wood claims Mayor Luke Ravenstahl violated the 14th Amendment by “singling out” UPMC.

“Our response to the mayor’s ill-founded lawsuit against us is that they basically violated our rights to due process by misapplying the city’s tax charter, and it violated our constitutional rights to equal protection by targeting just UPMC,” Wood said.

He added that as long as UPMC believes its 14th Amendment rights are being violated, it will continue to stand against the lawsuit put forth by Ravenstahl.

“We’ve always said, in respect to what tax exempt institutions in this organization can do for the community, that we’re willing to do what is fair and what is equitable and what is applicable to all tax exempt institutions,” Wood said. “As long as we’re singled out, we will fight it.”

When asked about the protest, Wood laughed, saying, “I just don’t think it’s a very effective use of his (Daniel Lavelle's) time.”

Fred Redmond, international vice president of human affairs for the United Steelworkers Union, said he thought this was a unique and different strategy and doesn’t know of any other cases where corporations have used the 14th Amendment to clarify their tax-free status.  

“To take a corporation like UPMC and allow them to avoid paying taxes based on an article in the Constitution that’s supposed to give people rights where they can pay taxes – to give people to be recognized in society – that’s going totally backwards,” Redmond said.

He said he hopes it doesn’t set a precedent.

“I could see this as a tool being used by corporations around this country if they are allowed to proceed on this basis,” he said. 

Erika Beras (she/her) is a reporter and host for NPR's Planet Money podcast.
The Erie, PA native has been a fellow in the WESA news department since May 2013. Having earned a bachelor's degree in print journalism from Duquesne University, he is now pursuing an M.A. in multi-media management. Michael describes his career aspiration as "I want to do it all in journalism."