Dealing with discrimination

When Columbia residents feel they have been
victims of discrimination, they can turn to
the city’s Human Rights Commission
Tuesday, December 16, 2003 | 12:00 a.m. CST; updated 1:09 p.m. CDT, Sunday, July 20, 2008

One man claimed that a Wal-Mart supercenter failed to accommodate his disability and that a manager cussed him out when he complained.

Another complained that Gerbes employees accused him of shoplifting because he’s black and walks with a cane.

And a Textron worker claimed the company discriminated against him after an on-the-job injury left him disabled and because he had separated from his wife.

In the past three years, those people and 31 others have filed complaints with the Columbia Human Rights Commission, citing discrimination in housing, employment or public accommodation based on race, disability, sexuality or other factors.

Whether the complaints led to any resolution varies. Of the 34 cases the Human Rights Commission has seen since 2001, not one has been prosecuted in Municipal Court. Six remain open. Three were withdrawn after early settlements. And three more were found to have no probable cause, which means discrimination might have occurred but there was not enough evidence to prove it.

The remaining 22 cases were administratively closed, which could mean that the complainant failed to cooperate with the commission or was unavailable for further contact, that the complaint did not fall under city jurisdiction, or that the case was resolved by a different agency, prompting the complainant to withdraw his or her city case.

Staff investigators meet monthly with the seven-member Human Rights Commission, providing updated case reports and recommendations on how to resolve complaints.

“I feel that the vast majority of the cases have satisfactory outcomes,” commission chairman Preston Bass said.

Phil Steinhaus, manager of the city’s Office of Community Services, said discrimination these days can be difficult to prove.

“The key thing to remember here is that discrimination is oftentimes very subtle and covert,” said Steinhaus, whose office provides staff support for the commission. “It’s not as blatant as it used to be.”

The process

Discrimination complaints must be based on one or more of the protected categories identified in Chapter 12 of the city code. Those categories include race, color, national origin, ancestry, religion, sex, marital status, sexual orientation, disability or handicap, and — in special circumstances — age and familial status.

When a complaint is filed, city investigators, acting as neutral fact-finders, gather additional details about witnesses and contact people, Steinhaus said. Nanette Ward is the commission’s primary investigator; MU law student Karlla Philpot helps part time.

The investigators review complaints that involve housing, employment, public accommodation or retaliation that stems from a previous case. Complainants are also encouraged to file with other agencies, such as the Missouri Commission on Human Rights, the Federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.

“One of the most effective things our commission does is determine whether or not the complaints are able to be resolved through early mediation or resolution,” Steinhaus said. “Both are important because it’s a quick resolution to the problem and it doesn’t cause any additional cost out of the pocket. Oftentimes in the case of housing and employment complaints, resolving a complaint quickly is an important aspect of the case. In these types of cases, complainants do not have months to wait to rent or purchase housing or to see if they will be reinstated in their job or similar employment concerns.”

Resolution is a less formal form of negotiation in which the investigator encourages the parties to solve the problem together, Steinhaus said.

When a case is targeted for mediation, both parties have the option of resolving the matter before it is investigated. If they agree, they’re sent to the MU School of Law’s Center for the Study of Dispute Resolution.

“We work with both parties in order to help them communicate with each other, understand their interests and see if we can work out some kind of resolution or agreement,” said Jim Levin, associate director of the center. “We have no power to be judges or tell them what to do. We are just there to facilitate the discussions.”

Levin said it can take up to four hours to reach a compromise. Even when none is reached, he said, facilitators usually make progress.

“I don’t base success on what happens at the moments of mediation processes,” he said. “Oftentimes, if parties don’t settle at the mediation, I get phone calls later that the parties resolved their issues based on what happened during mediation.”

When mediation fails, the case is returned to the commission for further investigation. At this point, complainants sometimes request right-to-sue letters from the Missouri Commission on Human Rights, but those cannot be issued for 180 days.

If the commission decides to take a case to court, investigators turn to City Attorney Fred Boeckmann for legal advice.

“I advise on evidentiary matters and how things can be proven in court,” Boeckmann said. “The only way we can enforce complaints is through Municipal Court prosecutions.”

The complaints

Two years ago, Richard Patton left Super Wal-Mart a dissatisfied customer. Rather than ignore the situation, he filed a complaint with the city’s Human Rights Commission.

“There was supposed to be an express lane, but I stood there for over a half hour,” Patton said of the May 2001 incident. “But I couldn’t stand there no longer and I had to leave. I went to the customer service department and asked if I could check out there. That’s when the manager cussed me out and made me leave.”

Patton filed a public accommodation complaint against Super Wal-Mart, citing discrimination against his handicap. Because of a bad back, arthritis and steel implanted in his leg, Patton said, he can’t stand more than 20 minutes at a time. Patton also complained to the Missouri Commission of Human Rights, which found no probable cause to believe discrimination occurred. When local investigators told Patton of the state decision, he asked that the city end its investigation. The case was closed in May.

“I think they had done everything they could, but Wal-Mart wouldn’t work with us,” Patton said. “At the time I was really mad because I was buying my mother a Mother’s Day present, but I had to leave without getting her the present. She’s dead now.”

Wal-Mart spokeswoman Christi Gallagher said the company was pleased with the state ruling.

“The store tried to accommodate Mr. Patton’s needs by offering assistance to have a personal shopper help him with his shopping, but Mr. Patton declined and left the store,” Gallagher said. “Mr. Patton was not kicked out of the store or verbally abused, which is why the charge was dismissed by the board.”

Last August, Seven Davis filed a public accommodation complaint against Gerbes, claiming that store staff discriminated against him because of his race and disability.

Gerbes employees mistook Davis for a shoplifter when they saw him pocket a purple Crown Royal bag as he left the liquor section. Employees claimed that Davis threatened them with his cane when they detained him, so they called police. When they asked Davis to empty his pockets, they found the whiskey bag contained only money. Davis told them he uses the bag as a wallet. When police arrived, the employees explained the misunderstanding and refunded Davis’ purchase of groceries and movie rentals.

Both Davis and representatives from Dillons, Gerbes’ parent company, have agreed to early mediation and are scheduled to meet at the Center for the Study of Dispute Resolution this month. Davis’ case is one of six city complaints that remain open.

In another case, Stephen Irwin got little satisfaction when he filed a complaint against his former employer, Textron Automotive Interiors, in 2001.

He said his manager lied to keep Textron from paying worker’s compensation when he got hurt on the job. He said he was discriminated against because of his disability, a permanent back injury that he said was caused by faulty equipment at Textron.

Irwin also alleged that Textron’s personnel workers meddled in his personal life because they were friends with his wife. He said it was more than a coincidence that he was fired soon after separating from her.

Textron was sold to Collins and Aikman while the case was being investigated. The new parent company declined to comment on the case.

Irwin also complained to the state commission, but it found insufficient evidence to prove discrimination. The city commission closed the case in October 2002.

“They were very friendly when I went in and tried to help me the best they could,” Irwin said of the city investigators. “They just couldn’t prove the facts of the things that went on. It was against a company that could cover their tracks. You try to fight a big company and they’ve got all kinds of sneaky things they could do.”

While neither Patton’s case nor Irwin’s was sent to the dispute resolution center, Levin acknowledged that pursuing complaints can sometimes be an uphill battle.

“Some big companies are receptive to mediation, and some aren’t. That’s true with small companies,” he said. “Our goal is to get both parties together and hopefully reach a settlement. ... Each mediation is different. Some are frustrating; some are not. My attitude is, even if we don’t reach a settlement, we usually make some kind of progress, and the parties are happy that we mediated.

Ward said simply listening can make a significant impact.

“We provide a listening ear and a sincere concern for what’s happened,” Ward said.

“We can’t necessarily say, ‘You’re right,’ but we can say, ‘If what you say is true, then yes, that was discrimination, and here are your options.’ As a local agency, we do what we can.”

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