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Penalty for bias won't be financial Baltimore Co. panel lacks power to fine in discrimination cases

THE BALTIMORE SUN

In its fight against discrimination, Baltimore County has a weapon but little firepower.

The county's Human Relations Commission -- empowered to investigate allegations of bias in private industry -- has no power to award financial damages to victims of discrimination. By contrast, commissions in Prince George's, Montgomery and Howard counties can -- and do -- award damages.

The disparity is in a county that is rapidly diversifying, and some say change is overdue.

"People who are inclined to discriminate in this county, they have nothing to fear," asserts Maurice C. Taylor, chairman of the local Human Relations Commission.

"Baltimore County is one of the largest counties in the state, but victims of discrimination have the least amount of protection," he said. "It's a travesty."

Taylor says he has argued for change through two administrations of a county government historically run by white men.

"It's not just the halls of county government that represent an all-white male club," Taylor argues. "The laws in the county also make it a haven for white males."

County Executive C. A. Dutch Ruppersberger III has been reluctant to help broaden the commission's powers, but has not ruled out the possibility of a change -- which would require the state legislature's approval.

His spokesman noted that the state and federal government have the power to levy damages in most discrimination cases. Furthermore, Ruppersberger is concerned that small businesses could be harmed if the commission's powers are strengthened.

"We want them to prove their case. They'd have to show us cases falling through the cracks," Ruppersberger spokesman Michael H. Davis said of those proposing change. "Just because other jurisdictions do something doesn't mean we should jump on it."

He added: "We're sensitive to small business. At the same time, we don't want discrimination."

The local commission, granted enforcement power in 1989, is staffed by five 34-hour-a-week employees. It investigates claims of discrimination based on race, sex, disability, age, national origin, marital status and religion. The bias could have occurred on the job, in housing, public accommodations, finance or private education.

Complaints of racial bias top the list, accounting for 39 percent of the 183 cases filed in the past three years. Sex discrimination ranks second, at 19 percent.

Most often, the alleged discrimination occurred in the workplace, with 117 complainants charging employment bias based primarily on race, sex, disability or age.

The discrimination complaints have come amid a surge in the minority population in Baltimore County, with the percentage of nonwhite residents increasing from fewer than 4 percent in 1970 to nearly 20 percent today.

The commission has some powers. It can order that a person be hired, reinstated or promoted; that a loan or mortgage be granted. And it can direct the rental or sale of housing. In any case, a losing party can appeal through a county appeals board and then the Circuit Court.

Sometimes, opposing parties settle claims. The commission reports $79,457 in monetary settlements in 43 employment and 10 public-accommodations cases in the past three years.

But the commission has no authority to order monetary damages -- no back pay, no lost benefits, no punitive damages. The county human rights law spells it out: "Nonmonetary relief."

Elsewhere in Maryland, some boards do wield the power to order monetary damages.

"It's absolutely essential," said Michael Dennis, compliance director with the Montgomery County Human Relations Commission. "If you as an administrative agency have no authority to make the complainant whole, then it's silly to have you sitting around there collecting taxpayers' money, frankly. What's the point?"

In Montgomery, for instance, the Human Relations Commission in December ordered a Silver Spring printing company to pay $345,565 to a mailroom supervisor in an age-discrimination case.

In another case this year, the Montgomery commission ordered that a Haitian woman fired from a security company in a national-origin discrimination case be paid $25,736.

In each case, the defending party settled the claim rather than pursue a court appeal.

Last fiscal year, the Montgomery commission obtained $633,170 in settlements or awards for complainants.

In Howard County, complainants received more than $82,000 in 1995 -- including $26,000 in a sexual-discrimination case.

"It's very important to us to have damages," said James E. Henson Sr., administrator of the Howard County Office of Human Rights. "When you have a law and it has teeth in it, people realize the government is serious. And the fact that we can award money backs up the public policy to eliminate discrimination."

In Prince George's County, discrimination victims collected nearly $400,000 last fiscal year.

"Either you believe in it or you don't," said William A. Welch Sr., executive director of the Prince George's commission. "Why would you have a commission if you don't believe it ought to do anything? The local jurisdiction ought to take care of its own problems."

But in Baltimore County, an aggrieved party would have to go before the Maryland Commission on Human Relations or U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission to win an order for financial damages.

In early 1991, for instance, three employees of Rite Aid of Maryland filed job bias complaints with the county, which investigated and found "reasonable cause" to believe discrimination took place.

But by the end of 1992, the county had transferred all three cases to the state. A prime reason: The workers sought financial damages, including back pay, which they couldn't win at the local level. A dispute over whether it was a city or county matter also played a role in the transfer.

Malcolm Redd of Baltimore, a former security guard who was the first to file a complaint, said his preference was to pursue his claim in the county -- until he learned there were no financial remedies.

"I was a little put off by it," Redd said. "That's when I followed the direction they gave me and went on to file with the state."

Afterward, in 1993 and 1994, the matter was delayed as Rite Aid moved in civil court to have the case dismissed. Eventually, it landed back on the desk of the state commission. Recently, Redd said, the state closed the case -- and he lost.

"They said they didn't find substantial evidence to support the claim of discrimination," he said.

Redd, noting that Baltimore County "initially found in our favor," thinks his case was hurt by the five-year wait for judgment.

"They kicked it to the state, and it takes up time," Redd said. "If they had the ability initially to go and write their findings when everything was fresh, it would have probably been a different outcome."

But for Baltimore County's executive, having the state there is a sound reason to keep things as they are. "The bottom line is, when a case is being investigated with a large employer, they can be referred to the proper agencies to levy fines," said Davis, the Ruppersberger spokesman. "One of the things Dutch has emphasized is no duplication."

It also leaves a loophole. Neither state nor federal agencies hear employment-discrimination cases involving companies with fewer than 15 employees, so complainants must turn to the county.

"Dutch is sensitive to small employers, that fines could have a significant impact," Davis said.

That reasoning troubles Taylor, the commission chairman.

"The common rationale has been that it's anti-business and that it may jeopardize small business," he said. "It's like pouring salt in the wound. It's those employees who work for small businesses who can't get justice."

And at the state level, an official wonders why Baltimore County ever set up an office if it's not given full authority.

"If they're going to have a law and a mechanism in place, why would they not want to offer remedies?" said Jennifer Burdick, executive director of the Maryland commission. "I would think they should want to offer the relief to the proven victims."

At the county Human Relations Commission, Executive Director Celestine Morgan shares that view.

"I certainly would like to see us, as an enforcement agency, be able to award monetary damages," Morgan said. "I definitely feel that if a person has been discriminated against, we should be able to provide full remedies."

Pub Date: 8/18/96

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