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

August 18, 1996|By Ronnie Greene | Ronnie Greene,SUN STAFF

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.

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.