Pittsburgh seeks dismissal of 'bizarre' UPMC civil-rights complaint

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Pittsburgh and its mayor are immune from the type of lawsuit that UPMC has aimed at them, according to a motion filed by the city Tuesday.

Adopting the blowtorch tone of the 3-month-old court battle between the city and its biggest employer, attorney E.J. Strassburger called UPMC's legal broadsides of three weeks ago "bizarre" and "a breathtaking mix of innuendo and illogical leaps."

In a motion filed for the city, he said UPMC's civil rights lawsuit against the mayor was "such an irresponsible, overwrought paroxysm of a response as to raise legitimate questions of UPMC's sincerity and purpose before this court."

Not so, said UPMC spokesman Paul Wood, who wrote in an email response that "Mayor [Luke] Ravenstahl's attack on UPMC was itself bizarre and breathtakingly improper. We're confident the courts will ultimately agree."

The city sued in March to challenge UPMC's tax exemption and wring payroll taxes from the hospital system. UPMC countered by suing the city, calling the challenge a violation of due process and equal protection because it is being singled out among all of the city's nonprofits.

The motion seeks the dismissal of UPMC's complaint because it interferes with what should be a state court action regarding the hospital system's tax status, because no one's rights have been violated, and because the city and mayor are immune from suit except in limited circumstances.

Mr. Strassburger said a mayor can be sued if he is "on the take, or you're on a frolic or detour that is far beyond the bounds of your employment as an official. ... In this case, the mayor is acting as a mayor should. If he makes a call that UPMC isn't tax-exempt, and we ask the court to tell us whether they're a charity or not, that sounds like an action that is in a sweet spot of what a mayor is supposed to do."

"There is no immunity for the unlawful conduct that the city and the mayor have engaged in," Mr. Wood responded.

Early this month, UPMC accused Mr. Ravenstahl of filing the challenge just to draw attention from the federal investigation of city dealings and to secure for himself a future private sector job with an unidentified UPMC foe.

"The idea that the city and mayor would see any benefit to suing with baseless allegations and blindsiding its greatest economic and charitable benefactor without any due process or discussion is shameful," wrote Mr. Wood on Tuesday.

The city in its motion called UPMC's allegations that the administration sought to distract the media from the investigation "as irrelevant as they are ridiculous."

The next step in the cases is a Tuesday hearing before U.S. District Judge Joy Flowers Conti on whether the challenge to UPMC's tax exemption should be litigated in federal or state court.

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Rich Lord: rlord@post-gazette.com, 412-263-1542 and on Twitter: @richelord. First Published June 25, 2013 3:30 PM


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