After a three-year legal fight, the popular dating web site eHarmony has agreed to settle a class action civil rights lawsuit by fully opening the door to gays and lesbians.
The Internet dating firm, among the largest on the web, also agreed to pay more than $500,000 that can be claimed by a collection of about 130 plaintiffs from California.
“We are delighted that eHarmony has chosen to make its remarkable technology available to the gay and lesbian community in a way that is welcoming and inclusive” said Todd Schneider of Schneider Wallace Cottrell Brayton Konecky LLP, co-lead counsel for the plaintiff class.
The legal settlement, which remains subject to approval by Superior Court Judge Ann I. Jones in Los Angeles County on Feb. 3, comes at a time of intense debate over the rights of gays and lesbians in California, as the state Supreme Court argues the merits of Proposition 8, the 2008 ballot measure that banned same-sex marriage in California.
eHarmony did not admit any wrongdoing or liability as part of the settlement. The firm’s outside counsel, Robert Freitas of Orrick, Herrington&Sutcliffe LLP, said that eHarmony “is happy to move beyond this litigation,” and that the firm plans to continue building its dating site for gays, called Compatible Partners, that it launched last March to resolve a charge brought by the New Jersey attorney general.
Lawyers in the California class action lawsuit maintained that eHarmony’s decision to establish a separate site for gays amounted to a “separate but equal” policy that continued to marginalize gays, lesbians and bisexuals.
The class-action suit named eHarmony’s founder, Dr. Neil Clark Warren, a clinical psychologist and conservative Christian. Warren launched the dating site with the help of Dr. James Dobson, the conservative “family values” proponent of the “Focus on the Family” radio program, and lawyers argued that Warren’s conservative beliefs helped yield to a policy that excluded gays from the web site.
When the class-action lawsuit was filed in 2007 against eHarmony, lawyers for the Pasadena-based firm denied accusations of discrimination against gays, arguing that the web site was limited to heterosexual matches based on years of research observing successful relationships between men and women.
That troubled plaintiffs like Nate Cardin, 26, who said he tried to access the site in late 2006 and discovered there was no male-to-male dating option. Cardin complained to the company, and ultimately joined in the class-action lawsuit.
“It’s great to see eHarmony taking a step forward to work with the LGBT community,” said Cardin, a graduate student in organic chemistry at Stanford University. “It’s a very timely issue. In the age we’re in now, any advances toward acknowledging the equal rights of lesbians, gays, bisexuals and transsexuals are great.”
Under terms of the settlement, eHarmony agrees to link its main services to the Compatible Partners website, with “man seeking man” or “woman seeking woman” options available from a drop-down menu on the eHarmony home page. Compatible Partners would be identified as a service “Brought to you by eHarmony” and would display eHarmony’s trademark logo.
The main webpage for eHarmony would also include a “gay dating” link alongside links for “senior dating,” “Jewish dating,” “Hispanic dating” and others. In addition, the agreement provides for a single subscription fee for people seeking both same-sex and opposite-sex matches.
Terms of the distribution of the $516,800 in settlement funds for the plaintiffs will be disclosed in a notice that will be sent to potential recipients after Judge Jones considers the preliminary court approval.
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