Friday, February 14, 2014

City Human Rights Commission's procedures satisfy due process

Nearly all employment discrimination cases are filed with an administrative agency that gets first crack at the case before the plaintiff can file in federal court. Federal and state agencies take on this task. At the federal level, it's the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. At the state level, its the New York Division of Human Rights. New York City has its own agency. In this case, the plaintiff challenges the constitutionality of the New York City Commission of Human Rights' procedures. He loses.

The case is Rosu v. The City of New York, decided on February 7. Rosu was hounded at work because of his national origin and was then fired shortly after he suffered a stroke. This forms the basis for his hostile work environment and disability discrimination claims. He filed a charge of discrimination with the New York City Commission of Human Rights, claiming this maltreatment violated the City's civil rights laws. According to plaintiff, the investigators did not really investigate his claims before dismissing his case for lack of probable cause. In his due process case against the Commission that he filed in federal court, plaintiff says the Commission's procedures "permit a reviewer to dismiss an administrative complaint for insufficient information or investigation in the absence of a hearing and without allowing complainant to cross-examine witnesses or have access to the investigative file."

The due process clause of the United States Constitution is only a few words long. It reads, "[N]or shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law." This brief statement has spawned thousands of lawsuits requiring the courts to decide what due process means in any conceivable context. The standards governing due process are judge-made. Judges decide what procedures are fair. This is not an easy task, but the Second Circuit (Pooler, Parker and Wesley) says "the question before us is refreshingly narrow: does the Commission on Human Rights' procedures facially satisfy the due process requirements" under Supreme Court authority? "We find that they do."

The lack of an evidentiary hearing before the Commission does not violate due process because an aggrieved plaintiff can always challenge that determination after-the-fact, by way of an Article 78 proceeding, a quick and easy state court process that requires filing a petition, affidavits and evidentiary materials for a state judge to resolve whether the Commission arbitrarily denied you a hearing. The Court of Appeals says the Article 78 process provides a fair opportunity to fully litigate your claims against the City Commission if it says you don't deserve an evidentiary hearing on the employment discrimination claims.

While the aggrieved employee has a substantial interest in vindicating his rights, the risk that the Commission's procedures will undermine those rights is minimized by the requirement that the case have merit before the Commission schedules a hearing. In other words, the Commission will give you a hearing if it finds you have a case. If you don't have case, then the lack of an evidentiary hearing will not cause you any harm, at least according to the Second Circuit. And if you really do have enough for a hearing, the Court says, the state court in the Article 78 proceeding will order the Commission to hold one.

Rosu brought his claims under the New York City Human Rights Law, by the way. You don't have to bring an administrative charge with the City Human Rights Commission to proceed against  your former employer under the City law. You must do so in order to proceed under federal law. But since the City law provides nearly the same relief as the federal law (and in some instances, more relief), if you want to bypass the administrative process altogether and your employment discrimination claim arises in New York City, you can go right into state court and proceed to discovery and a potential trial in that forum.


Anonymous said...

I like your blog, but am requesting clarification on the following sentences: "You don't have to bring an administrative charge with the City Human Rights Commission to proceed against your former employer under the City law. You must do so in order to proceed under federal law."

Under federal law, one must first file with the EEOC, but are you also saying that, under federal law, to take advantage of the more encompassing NYC law in federal court, one must first also file with the City Human Rights Commission?

Second Circuit Civil Rights Blog said...

To proceed in under the NYC law in federal court, you don't have to file a charge with the City Human Rights Commission. But that federal court action needs a right to sue letter from the EEOC on a federal claim. Otherwise, the claim under the NYC law is brought in state court.