GLAA testifies on Corporation CounselTestimony before the D.C. Council
Committee on the Judiciary
Oversight and Performance Hearing
on the Office of the Corporation Counsel
February 16, 2001
Chairperson Patterson, Members of the Committee, and Fellow Citizens:
My name is Bob Summersgill. I am President of the Gay and Lesbian Activists Alliance of Washington (GLAA), the nation's oldest continuously active gay and lesbian rights organization.
We will be celebrating our 30th Anniversary on April 19 at the Jurys Washington Hotel on Dupont Circle. Councilmembers should receive their invitations soon.
We welcome these oversight and performance hearings as a valuable opportunity to brief the Committee on the Judiciary.
We are pleased to note that major improvements have been made in the past year, although not everything that we would like.
GLAA has been bringing the unfortunate details surrounding the death of Tyra Hunter to the attention of the Corporation Counsel, the Mayor, and the Council ever since that tragic incident in August 1995. We are pleased that a settlement was finally reached. Prior to Robert Rigsby being named acting Corporation Counsel on December 7, 1999, District lawyers simply refused to engage in any form of settlement negotiations.
The downside is that the Fire Dept. employee who discriminated against Tyra, and the DC General doctor who committed medical malpractice against her, remain unpunished. In fact the Corporation Counsel refused to allow the emergency room doctor who the jury found to have caused Tyra's death to be listed in a national directory of doctors guilty of malpractice. He still practices medicine at D.C. General. We hope that he will not continue to work in DC under the new arrangements for D.C. General.
There is a further policy issue that remains unresolved. The Office of the Corporation Counsel continues to argue in other lawsuits, as it did in Hunter, that citizens may not sue the District government for violations of the Human Rights Act without going to the Office of Human Rights first. This legally erroneous stand has been rejected by every judge who has ruled on it, yet the City so far has not budged. It is intolerable that our own government should hold itself above the Human Rights Act while paying lip service to it.
Last June, GLAA gave Robert Rigsby a detailed memo asking him to order his staff to stop making this outrageous claim in court and to withdraw it in cases that are still pending in which it has been made. Earlier this month we met with Corporation Counsel attorney Wayne Witkowski who verbally provided a unique interpretation of the DC Code stating that the Office of the Corporation Counsel would continue to argue in court that no one may bring a private right of action against the District without first exhausting administrative remedies.
The Corporation has lost this argument in Margie Hunter v. District of Columbia, Jefferson v. District of Columbia, Williams v. District of Columbia, and Kennedy v. District of Columbia, among others. Mr. Witkowski was unable to identify a single instance in which a court has ruled in their favor. There is also a complete lack of evidence to suggest that the Council has ever supported putting the District beyond the Human Rights Law.
Forcing an exhaustion of administrative remedies removes the teeth from the law. The Office of Human Rights provides the administrative remedies. Unfortunately OHR has been severely underfunded and understaffed. The 560 discrimination cases currently backlogged at OHR prevents timely resolutions to claims of discrimination.
We know from several cases that District agencies, most notably the Police and Corrections have developed an expertise in frustrating the mediation procedures of the OHR. Various delaying tactics are regularly employed to delay discrimination claims indefinitely. Aside from the backlog and delaying tactics, we believe that citizens should have the right to choose whether to file their complaints administratively or in court.
According to Mr. Witkowski, the only way to stop the Corporation Counsel from making this argument in court is for the Council to amend the DC Code. We regret that the only apparent means of reigning in the inappropriate actions of the Corporation Counsel is through legislation, but we will fully explore that avenue.
I don't wish to leave you with a negative impression of Mr. Witkowski. In fact we find him to be an exceptionally helpful and intelligent attorney. It was Mr. Witkowski's presence at meetings with public school officials that resulted in the former Superintendent issuing a directive prohibiting harassment in the public schools. The DCPS administrators were not persuaded by the moral argument in favor of protecting students, but Mr. Witkowski clearly explained to them that the District's liability would be greatly reduced by protecting the students. We are very grateful to Mr. Witkowski and Mr. Rigsby for their immediate support of that directive. Unfortunately, a year later, we are still waiting for the anti-harassment directive to be implemented.
Thank you again for the opportunity to testify. I am happy to answer any questions that you may have.