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Wednesday, Jan. 16, 2008 06:48 am

Trial by jury?

To lawyers’ glee, Illinois changes procedure for handling discrimination complaints

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Untitled Document Plaintiffs’ attorneys are lauding changes to state law, effective as of Jan. 1, that permit workers to sue their employers for race, sex, and other forms of discrimination in circuit court in a manner similar to that of other small-claims issues, such as traffic accidents. “It’s a great opportunity to get these cases heard,” says Springfield attorney Thomas Dorsey, who’s handled several discrimination cases. Previously employees had to file their complaints with the Illinois Department of Human Rights, which has 365 days to investigate a complaint and may request an extension after that year is up.
When the investigation is complete, the IDHR’s chief legal counsel determines whether there exists substantial evidence of a violation of the Illinois Human Rights Act, which prohibits discrimination based on age, national origin, physical or mental disability, race, religion, sex, sexual orientation, and other factors. If the department finds substantial evidence of discrimination, the worker may then take the case before an administrative law judge with the Illinois Human Rights Commission. After a hearing, the commission will either dismiss or uphold the complaint, and either party has the option of appealing the decision to a state appellate court.
Chuck Watson, who specializes in employment law, including legal assistance for state workers, says that a lack of options was the old system’s most glaring flaw. “No matter what, you had to go to the commission, and that’s if you made it through the department. It was a very arduous process, and a lot of people thought it was a very problematic process. People hope that the state court system will be more efficient,” he says. Under the new law, sponsored in the Legislature by state Rep. Barbara Flynn Currie and state Sen. Carol Ronen, both Chicago Democrats, the initial complaint still has to start with the IDHR, but complainants can sue in circuit court whether or not the agency finds substantial evidence or if the investigation is not concluded within one year. Both Dorsey and Watson say that bias cases are tough because plaintiffs must prove an employer’s motivation and intent to discriminate and that cases filed in circuit courts are more likely to be heard before a jury. “That’s what plaintiff attorneys want,” Watson says. Dorsey agrees that state courts may be faster, adding that that the IDHR is understaffed and the state has done little to help fix the situation. “The system really underestimated the volume of discrimination cases and human-rights violations going on,” he says. According to the agency’s most recent annual report, the IDHR employed 111 charge processors for the 3,555 charges of discrimination it received in the 2006 fiscal year. Of the 3,240 completed investigations, processors found substantial evidence in 214 instances. Sangamon County, home to approximately one-fifth of the state’s 50,000-person workforce, ranked third, behind Cook and Lake counties, in employment claims filed and could be inundated with discrimination-charge filings in the coming months.
Even with the new law, Dorsey and Watson say that the state should beef up funding for the IDHR, as well as for the human-rights commission. Ultimately, Dorsey isn’t convinced that the new law will do much to deter employers from discriminating. “They’ve got the time and the resources to take these things all the way,” he says.
Contact R.L. Nave at rnave@illinoistimes.com.
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