Ohio Civil Rights Commission Educates During Canton Visit
CANTON — Officials from the Ohio Civil Rights Commission told residents at a town hall meeting what kind of discrimination complaints they investigate and how they respond to them.
State Representative Thomas West, D-Canton, invited commission staff to stop in Canton Thursday evening to speak with the public as part of the commission’s campaign to educate the public about its mission. The town hall meeting at the Metropolitan Event Center at 601 Cleveland Ave. NW attracted a dozen residents.
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Angela Phelps-White, the commission’s executive director, said the commission has been around since the Ohio legislature created it in 1959. It’s not an advocacy organization. It’s supposed to be a neutral agency whose staff investigates unlawful discrimination under Ohio law. and promotes “positive human relations”.
Phelps-White said the commission is investigating allegations of discrimination based on race, age, religion, national origin or veteran status in employment, public accommodations, housing, the granting of credit as for a loan and on the basis of the handicap for higher education.
The commission has a central office in Columbus. It has regional offices in Dayton, Cincinnati, Toledo and Akron.
Ohio Civil Rights Commission Process
Darlene Sweeney-Newburg, director of regional operations for the commission, spoke about what the commission does once it receives a complaint of discrimination. Due to their neutral role, staff members cannot give legal advice or give answers on hypothetical situations or speak publicly about ongoing cases until there is a decision.
Commission staff also try to set up a person alleging discrimination and the accused person to meet with a mediator to try to reach a resolution. If staff, who can issue subpoenas to obtain documents and evidence and conduct site visits to workplaces, housing compounds and neighborhoods, find probable cause of unlawful discrimination, they refer the case to a hearing before an administrative judge who works for the commission. The judge of the law recommends a finding of fact and a sanction to the five-member commission, which decides whether or not to adopt the recommendation.
Sweeney-Newburg said racial discrimination can include color discrimination when an employer discriminates against dark-skinned African Americans while hiring lighter-skinned African Americans.
People often have up to a year to file a discrimination complaint with the commission after the contested act. But the delay may depend on the type of file.
Sweeney-Newburg discussed how a landlord cannot deny a tenant with a disability the right to have an emotional support animal if that animal helps the tenant have the same quality of life as someone without a disability. The landlord also cannot charge the tenant a fee to have the emotional support animal, which is considered an extension of the disabled person such as a wheelchair. The owner also cannot charge money to certify an animal as an emotional support animal. Landlords also cannot refuse to rent to people who have children.
Denise Johnson, the commission’s administrative law judge, referred to a case from more than a decade ago in which a resident’s right to have a miniature pony as an emotional support animal nullified the ban imposed by a city on residents owning a toy pony. She said a city ordinance must allow for reasonable accommodation for a person’s disability.
Staff also said disability discrimination laws would require a landlord to repair an air conditioning system in an apartment if the lack of air conditioning worsened the effects of the tenant’s disability.
Sweeney-Newburg said a rental agent or realtor trying to stop people of color from renting a home or buying a home in a particular neighborhood by claiming there was a high crime rate in neighborhood would also constitute unlawful discrimination.
Staff said penalties for violating the Discrimination Act can start at $10,000 on the first violation and go up to $27,500 on the second violation and $50,000 on the third violation. Those who file complaints may also receive damages for personal expenses resulting from the discrimination and damages for emotional distress and suffering.
Myra Cottrill, regional director of the commission’s Akron office, said her office has five investigators as well as mediators.
“You should be able to come see us and get your questions answered,” she said.
Contact Robert at [email protected] Twitter: @rwangREP.