New York Court of Appeals Holds That the Division of Human Rights Lacks Jurisdiction Over Discrimination and Harassment Complaints Filed by Public School Students
June 21, 2012
Employers in New York are well aware that the state agency that has jurisdiction over employment discrimination and harassment claims under the New York Human Rights Law (“NYRHL”) is the New York State Division of Human Rights (“Division”). The Division also has jurisdiction under the NYHRL to investigate and adjudicate certain other types of discrimination claims outside the employment context, such as alleged housing discrimination. However, in a recent case handled by Bond, Schoeneck & King on behalf of the Ithaca City School District (“ICSD”), the Division’s overly broad interpretation of its jurisdiction was curtailed by New York’s highest court. On June 12, 2012, the New York Court of Appeals held that the Division does not have jurisdiction over discrimination and harassment complaints filed by public school students under the NYHRL.
The case began in 2006, when a parent of a middle school student filed a complaint with the Division, alleging that her daughter had been subjected to racial harassment by other middle school students. The complainant alleged that ICSD was liable for the harassment under Section 296(4) of the NYHRL, which provides:
It shall be an unlawful discriminatory practice for an education corporation or association which holds itself out to the public to be non-sectarian and exempt from taxation pursuant to the provisions of article four of the real property tax law . . . to permit the harassment of any student or applicant, by reason of his race, color, religion, disability, national origin, sexual orientation, military status, sex, age or marital status . . . .
ICSD commenced a proceeding in Supreme Court, Tompkins County, under Article 78 of the Civil Practice Law and Rules, seeking an order prohibiting the Division from exercising jurisdiction over the complaint on the ground that a public school district is not an “education corporation or association” under Section 296(4) of the NYHRL. The court denied ICSD’s petition, and held that the Division could conduct a hearing regarding the complaint.
A hearing was held before a Division Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”). The ALJ issued a recommended decision finding ICSD liable for the harassment of the student by other middle school students. The Commissioner of Human Rights adopted the ALJ’s recommended decision regarding liability, but reduced the amount of the ALJ’s recommended damages award to the student and her mother.
ICSD appealed the Commissioner’s decision on several grounds, including the same jurisdictional ground upon which the initial Article 78 proceeding had been based. This time, the Supreme Court, Tompkins County, granted ICSD’s appeal and annulled the determination of the Commissioner. The court held that ICSD was not an “education corporation or association” under the NYHRL and that the Division therefore lacked jurisdiction over the complaint.
The Division appealed the decision to the Third Department Appellate Division, which reversed and held that the term “education corporation or association” should be interpreted broadly to include public school districts such as ICSD.
ICSD appealed the Third Department’s decision to the New York Court of Appeals. In a 4-3 decision, the Court of Appeals reversed the Third Department and held that a public school district is not an “education corporation or association” under the NYHRL and that the Division does not have jurisdiction over complaints filed by public school students for alleged discrimination or harassment. The Court of Appeals thoroughly analyzed the legislative history of the term “education corporation or association,” and determined that the legislature never intended that term to include public school districts.
The Court of Appeals rejected the Division’s argument that the term “education corporation or association” should be liberally construed, stating that “it is evident from the legislative history that the term ‘education corporation or association,’ the origins of which can be traced to the Tax Law, refers to only private, non-sectarian entities that are exempt from taxation under [article four of the real property tax law].” The Court of Appeals also observed that a public school district would never need to “hold itself out to the public to be non-sectarian and exempt from taxation” as stated in Section 296(4) of the NYHRL because all public school districts are non-sectarian and all public school districts are exempt from taxation by virtue of the fact that they are public entities.
Accordingly, although the Division can still exercise jurisdiction over employment discrimination and harassment claims filed against public school districts under the NYHRL, it can no longer exercise jurisdiction over discrimination and harassment claims filed by public school students.