Testimony on Bill 12-34
Committee on Government Operations
"Human Rights Amendment Act of 1997"
March 25, 1997
My name is Rick Rosendall. I am President of the Gay & Lesbian Activists Alliance of Washington (GLAA), the oldest continuously active gay and lesbian civil rights group in the country. With me this afternoon is Craig Howell, GLAA Secretary.
We are especially pleased to be here today, Mrs. Patterson, because you have so wisely followed the advice we (among others) gave this committee when we testified before you last month during your oversight hearings on the enforcement of the D.C. Human Rights Law. We urged you to take immediate action on Bill 12-34, the "Human Rights Amendment of 1997," because it includes a provision requiring that all complaints filed with the Office of Human Rights (OHR) must be mediated before they are handed over to OHR's investigators. Today's hearing marks the first step in the legislative process that, we hope, will make this useful reform a permanent part of the law.
We must remind you, however, that the legislative process is long and drawn out. Even if your committee gives quick approval to this bill, the full Council might not take final action until its May or June meeting, the Mayor's signature would probably take some more time, and the Congressional layover period might not expire (given the August recess) until after Labor Day. We are aware that the Council enacted mandatory mediation as part of an emergency measure last year, and that it has been extended until the end of April. Therefore, there may be several months when mandatory mediation is not in effect. If it is at all technically possible to take the part of Bill 12-34 that applies to mandatory mediation and enact it by itself as an emergency measure, that would bridge the looming gap.
We testified in some detail in April 1996 before the Committee on Labor and Human Rights on a bill that was virtually identical to today's Bill 12-34. A copy of that testimony is attached for your convenience. To reiterate our stance on mandatory mediation, we believe it is a useful step that enhances the productivity of OHR's beleaguered staff of investigators, now reduced to just two. It is not a productive use of the time and energy for them to investigate a complaint that could have been settled without demanding their talents. We have learned from the OHR staff that since mandatory mediation became law last October 1, 42% of the cases that have gone to mediation have indeed been settled. This represents a substantial contribution to keeping the caseload down.
We understand that OHR has in practice been encouraging the use of mediation before investigation as a standard operating procedure for the past 5 years. Making mandatory mediation a permanent feature of the law obviously gives the OHR staff the leverage they need to encourage early settlement. But the very fact that mediation before investigation has already been SOP for some time means that we can not expect there will be a major reduction in the caseload once Bill 12-34 goes into effect. Since the caseload is already unacceptably high, we must emphasize that the only way to cut that backlog down to a reasonable size is to provide OHR with more staffing. There is just no way around it. We will, of course, elaborate on this point more fully during your committee's upcoming hearings on the FY 1998 budget for OHR.
Just to summarize some of the other points we made last year while testifying on Bill 11-116 and would repeat this year on Bill 12-34 (again, please see the attached testimony from last year for a more complete explanation):
- The Council should take this opportunity to codify what has been the humanitarian practice within OHR for some time: that the highest priority should be afforded to complaints of discrimination from individuals who have been diagnosed with an illness that is likely to terminate in death or to extend beyond 12 months. In this context we will remind you that the OHR staffer who concentrated on this kind of case himself died of AIDS a while ago, and has not been replaced.
- We approve that section of the bill that would suspend the one-year statute of limitations while a complaint is pending before OHR. Better yet, a 3-year statute of limitations should be incorporated into the law rather than a 1-year.
- We oppose that section of the bill which would increase from 120 days to 1 year the time within which OHR is required to make a determination of jurisdiction and probable cause. Changing the well-founded original intent of the framers of the Human Rights Law of 1977 because of a staff shortage strikes us as an odd way of doing business.
- We favor the deletion of that part of the bill referring to "right-to-sue letters," because that reference is illegitimately taken from the law regarding actions before the federal EEOC. Unlike federal law and practices, nothing prevents a complainant from dropping a complaint filed with OHR and proceeding directly to D.C. courts.