Just last week, the Ulster County Legislature adopted The Ulster County Human Rights Protection Act of 2018. The Ulster County Commission of Human Rights has already been active, thanks to a provision in the Ulster County Charter creating the Commission. They now have a larger mandate, including the enforcement of the Human Rights Protection Act of 2018.
The stated purpose of the Human Rights Protection Act is to grant the Human Rights Commission the authority to hold conferences, and mediate or conciliate the resolution of discrimination complaints. The Human Rights Protect Act also allows for the appointment of a Hearing Officer to hold hearings to decide the merits of discrimination complaints filed with the Commission.
If a decision of liability is made by the Hearing Officer, money damages payable to the complaining party may be assessed of not more than $20,000, along with non-monetary relief that the Hearing Officer believes is just and proper.
Unlike the relief allowed under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, there are no awards of attorneys fees for the prevailing party.
It will be interesting to see how frequently complainants take advantage of this local process, rather than pursuing a claim in the Division of Human Rights, at the EEOC, or in State or Federal Court. Potential damage awards for discrimination are capped at $20,000, which is significantly less than a complainant may receive in any other forum, or in front of a jury, However, some complainants litigate for the principle of the matter, not seeking a financial windfall. The potentially quick resolution of difficult conflicts could be attractive to a litigant who does not want to commit time or money to a full-blown lawsuit.
There are open questions as to how the hearing will be run, including whether the rules of evidence apply, whether the trials are open to the public, whether either party would be entitled to pre-hearing discovery, including depositions and sharing of information. The Local Law delegates authority to the Hearing Officer to adopt procedures for running the hearing. Is this process going to provide an effective remedy for complainants? The Legislature appeared to have devoted substantial time and effort into this Local Law, with the goal of remedying discrimination on a local level. We will be reading up on further developments and will try to report back on how it's going.