What the Gay Rights Law Means

If you have been discriminated against for a job, housing, access to a public accommodation, or another covered area because you are heterosexual, homosexual, bisexual, or asexual, you can now file suit using the New York State Human Rights Law. If you invoke the state law, you have the option of taking the case to the State Division for Human Rights, where there is an average wait of 470 days to hear your complaint (and a case backlog of more than 7,000) or directly to State Supreme Court where you must have a lawyer. If you choose to file at the Division, you must do so within a year of the incident of discrimination. If you go to court, you have three years to bring your case. You cannot file in both places and sometimes judges refer discrimination court cases to the State Division for mediation. If you live in the City of New York, you have a much stronger human rights law here to consider using. Again, you can choose filing with the City Commission on Human Rights or going to court. If you have the potential of collecting substantial damages because of the discrimination you suffered, a lawyer will be interested in pursuing a “private right of action” in court. In cases where the monetary damages would be relatively incidental and you are simply out to right a wrong, the Commission or Division would be your best or perhaps only recourse. “Typically, the state human rights law has not been terribly useful,” said civil rights attorney Craig Gurian, “because there are no attorney’s fees or punitive damages available in employment cases” taken to court. At the Division, he said, “there are no attorney’s fees, punitive damages, or civil penalties in any kind of case.” Punitive damages and attorney’s fees are recoverable in housing cases to keep state law in line with federal housing regulations. Gurian said that it is much harder under state law than under city ordinance to hold an employer liable for discrimination. If a supervisor acts in a discriminatory fashion, “under state law you have to show that the employer knew about the activity and condoned it.” State Senator Tom Duane (D-West Side) has said that he is trying to put together a coalition of civil rights groups to strengthen the state human rights law. Matt Foreman of the Pride Agenda has said his group aims to pursue an omnibus revision of the human rights law in which would include explicit protections based on gender identity.

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