Civil Rights Groups Demand City Revitalize Fight Against Discrimination
(NEW YORK, February 28) - In a joint letter to Mayor Bloomberg released Thursday, a broad coalition of civil rights groups demand that New York City rejuvenate its Human Rights Commission and Law Department and treat civil rights enforcement as seriously as other law enforcement.
The civil rights groups called for the adoption of measures recommended in a scathing report from the New York City Bar Association, “It Is Time to Enforce the Law: A Report on Fulfilling the Promise of the New York City Human Rights Law.” The report charges that New York City has been failing to enforce its civil rights law.
"With the wounds reopened by today's reversal of three convictions in the Abner Louima case, the need to unite the City is underlined anew. A clear, unequivocal commitment to anti-discrimination law enforcement -- important in its own right -- can also help heal the City,” said Craig Gurian, principal author of the Bar Association report.
In the letter to Mayor Bloomberg and City Council leadership, the civil rights groups noted the sorry record of past years:
- The City’s Law Department has failed to bring any prosecutions under the City Human Rights Law in 10 years - when it had explicit legal authority to investigate and prosecute broad patterns of discrimination;
- The City’s Commission on Human Rights has failed to create any deterrent against discrimination. It has a case backlog of more than 4,000 complaints. Discriminators face no serious penalties, with median settlements of only $2,000 per case. The Commission has taken only four cases through trial and decision in the past five years. It has failed to impose civil penalties, it has failed to initiate its own investigations, and it has not achieved reasonable settlements for discrimination victims;
- The City has slashed the Commission staff by 75% over the last 10 years, to 37 from 152.
If the City is serious about anti-discrimination law enforcement, the civil rights groups argue, it must take these basic steps immediately:
- Create a civil rights unit in the Law Department. There are 650 attorneys in the Law Department; the Bar Association report calls for initial staffing of such a unit to be six lawyers, a mere one percent of the total;
- Create housing and employment testing programs that actively root out discrimination;
- Restore funding to the Commission so it can enforce the City’s laws against discrimination.
Organizations signing the February 28 letter include Eastern Paralyzed Veterans Association, Lambda Legal, National Employment Law Project, Puerto Rican Legal Defense and Education Fund, and the New York City chapters of the National Employment Lawyers Association and the National Multiple Sclerosis Society.
Juan Figueroa, executive director of the Puerto Rican Legal Defense and Education Fund, said: “If the Commission is serious about addressing housing discrimination, there is one proven way it can do so: testing. Latinos are the victims of steering and outright denials on the basis of their national origin on a daily basis. Private landlords and the government itself through housing authorities continue to treat names like Rodriguez, Morales, and Sanchez differently from others. In a tight housing market these families suffer even worse fates. It is time the Commission engages in a fight against these unscrupulous and illegal practices.”
Michael Adams, deputy legal director at Lambda Legal, said: “For New Yorkers who are lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgendered, our primary legal protection against discrimination is provided by the local human rights law. But because we have had no real enforcement by the City, this protection has been an empty promise for gay people and everybody else. It is high time that changed.”
Anne Davis, the director of Legal Affairs and Programs of the New York City Chapter of the National Multiple Sclerosis Society, said: “Like any law enforcement agency, the Commission has got to act promptly on cases it gets in the future. People with progressive illnesses who have been turned down for a job because of their illness need a hearing while they are still able to work, and before years of delay make it impossible for a fact-finder to understand that the employer really could have accommodated them at the time the applicant applied for the job.”
Gurian, the principal author of the Bar Association report, said: “The single most frightening thing to discriminators and their lawyers is the prospect of an anti-discrimination agency having the ability to jump on a meritorious case the day it is filed, and to investigate and prosecute that case relentlessly until justice is done. The Commission on Human Rights needs to become such an agency.”
Contact: Peg Byron (Lambda Legal), 212/809-8585 ext. 230; 888/987-1984 (pager)