Tuesday, July 30, 2002
S.C. Upholds Commission’s Power to Award Damages in Civil Rights Cases
By a MetNews Staff Writer
The state Fair Employment and Housing Commission can grant emotional distress awards to discrimination victims, the California Supreme Court ruled yesterday.
In a 6-1 decision, the high court rejected a constitutional challenge to the commission’s authority and upheld an order from the Fair Employment and Housing Commission that landlord Nancy Konig pay Sheryl Annette McCoy $10,000 in compensation plus a $10,000 penalty for unjustly refusing to rent a duplex unit in Los Angeles. The commission said Konig’s refusal was racially motivated against McCoy, who is black.
The high court overturned rulings by Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Robert H. O’Brien and the Court of Appeal for this district that Fair Employment and Housing Act provisions permitting assessment of emotional-distress damages by the commission violate the separation of powers by transferring a judicial function to an administrative agency.
The lower-court rulings relied on Walnut Creek Manor v. Fair Employment & Housing Com. (1991) 54 Cal.3d 245,which struck down similar provisions.
The Legislature subsequently amended FEHA by limiting general damages awardable by the commission to $10,000 and allowing either party the option of having the case tried in superior court rather than before the commission. Neither party exercised the option in McCoy’s case against Konig.
In concluding that the amendments cured the deficiencies identified by the high court in Walnut Creek, Justice Ming Chin cited a similar federal case dealing with the Commodities Futures Trading Commission. He also analogized to arbitration cases, saying that the parties in effect had agreed to allow the commission to serve as the forum for their dispute, and that the choice of forum should be respected, just as it would if they had agreed to arbitration.
Justice Janice Janice Rogers Brown dissented.
“The notion that the acquiescence of parties to an administrative proceeding sanctions constitutionally suspect jurisdiction ignores the reason structural restraints, like the judicial powers clause, were built into constitutions in the first instance,” she wrote. Agencies, she argued, are usually created to serve specific constituencies and lack judicial independence.
Konig represented herself, but died before the high court heard oral argument. The court heard instead from James M. Harris of Sidley Austin Brown & Wood in Los Angeles, representing the Employers Group as amicus, while Deputy Attorney General Kathleen W. Mikkelson represented the state.
The case is Konig v. Fair Employment and Housing Commission, 02 S.O.S. 3868.
Copyright 2002, Metropolitan News Company