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Human Rights Complaints Increase in 2017

Tuesday, September 5, 2017  
Posted by: Laura Fenstermaker
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From Minnesota Lawyer

The Minnesota Department of Human Rights received a “significant increase” in the number of total complaints, including more “complex cases,” over the first six months of 2017.

Whether that represents an early warning sign or a blip on the statistical continuum is yet to be determined, but at least one key legislator plans to keep an eye on developments as the 2018 legislative session approaches.

“It’s definitely a flag waving out there,” said Sen. Warren Limmer, R-Maple Grove, “If it’s yellow flag or a red flag, we don’t know yet.”

According to its mandatory semi-annual report to the Legislature, the Department of Human Rights’ case inventory stood at 732 as of June 30. That’s 147 more open cases than the department reported in January. Its caseload stood at 588 cases in July 2016, agency records indicate.

The department says it closed 237 outstanding complaints in the first half of 2017, but also added 412 new charges, leaving 732 cases pending. In comparison, 319 total new charges were filed last year between July 31 and Dec. 31. By way of comparison, only 276 new charges were filed during the first half of 2014.

Agency Commissioner Kevin Lindsey says the increase can be seen, at least in part, as a positive. On his watch, his agency has ramped education and outreach efforts—including business compliance audits—while making investigations more efficient, he said. He thinks that has produced increased public confidence and more charges filed.

Limmer, chair of the Senate Judiciary committees, agrees. “We have given more money to the Department of Human Rights for investigators, and quite often they go out to find cases,” Limmer said. “The department educates people to let them know that they might have been discriminated against.”

Though no one is prepared to draw a causal connection, it is hard to ignore that the uptick occurs against a backdrop of deteriorating racial, political and religious fault lines, both in Minnesota and nationally.

This year has seen protests turn violent in St. Paul, Charlottesville, Va., and Berkeley, Calif. Muslim and Jewish community centers have been attacked, including a Bloomington, Minn., mosque that was firebombed in early August. On Aug. 24, reports surfaced that a swastika was gouged into the turf at a Lakeville golf course.

Lindsey said the latest report is merely a six-month snapshot and not necessarily indicative of any new trends. Nonetheless, he said, over the last 18 months his agency has recorded an increasing number of “egregious” complaints and more complaints connected to race and national origin.

“We’ve made a lot of progress and now it seems like we are going backwards a little bit,” he said.

Should the trend continue, Lindsey said, his department might end up short of resources. “It may necessitate additional resources being devoted to this work,” his July 31 report to the Legislature says.

By the numbers

The legislative report covers Jan. 1 to June 30, and shows that the largest percentage of complaints filed (76.2 percent of the total) were against employers for various forms of job discrimination or reprisal.

One hundred and one of those employment-related complaints were filed on behalf of people with disabilities. Another 99 job complaints involved age-discrimination and reprisals, while 93 were based on sex or sexual orientation.

Overall, disability cases were the single largest complaint category, figuring into 26 percent of total filings for the period. Besides employment cases, disability charges were filed against public accommodations violations (16 cases), housing and real property discrimination (15 cases) and public services violations (13 cases).

The report includes separate categories for color, national origin and race. A single complaint can encompass one or all of those categories, Lindsey said.

Complaint totals related strictly to race have fluctuated over recent years. The July report shows that 115 race discrimination or reprisal complaints were filed during the first half of 2017. Most were job related, though others involved housing, public accommodations and other issues.

That number is down from 150 similar cases filed from January to June of 2016 (the year saw 282 total race-based complaints). That compares to 117 such complaints filed during the first half of 2015 and 104 during the first half of 2014, according to agency records.

Discrimination cases based on national origin, however, are clearly on the rise. National origin figured in 61 cases during 2017’s first six months, compared to 59 cases during the first half of 2016 (there were 101 total 2016 cases). That compares to 31 national origin cases filed in the first half of 2015 and 37 during the first half of 2014.

Color figured in 13 cases during early 2017, compared to seven during the first half of 2016 (there were 11 total such cases last year). In the first half of 2015, there were just two such cases. Religious discrimination, meanwhile, figured in 18 cases as June 30. That compares to 28 during the first half of 2016, 20 in early 2015 and 12 in early 2014. There were 49 total religion-based complaints last year.

Hearings likely

Lindsey says what his perhaps most troublesome about the latest report might not be fully reflected in the legislative report. In addition to the uptick in overall caseload, his agency is receiving more complex complaints, he said. One definition of a complex case is one involving “widespread events affecting multiple people.”

For instance, one open investigation involves a housing discrimination complaint that accuses a landlord of illegally directing people in protected classes, in effect, to live in segregated units, Lindsey said. “So that’s multiple sites, dozens of families,” Lindsey said. Details on that open case are not available.

Such cases are akin to class-actions, he said, and they are a recent phenomenon. When he took his job in 2011, Lindsey said, perhaps 90 percent of cases involved individuals filing complaints.

Anecdotally at least, Lindsey said he sees increasing numbers of complaints involving racial slurs and epithets, even actions that could be defined as hate crimes—though it is not always clear when his agency has jurisdiction over the latter case types, he said.

To meet the increasing demands, the department—which has some 44 employees in its St. Paul and St. Cloud offices—tried this year to secure more resources. Gov. Mark Dayton proposed a 44 percent budget hike—an additional $3.3 million—to open and staff new offices in Duluth, Rochester and Worthington.

Republicans in the House initially proposed a 23 percent cut to the agency’s base funding, said Rep. Sheldon Johnson, DFL-St. Paul, the State Government Finance Committee’s minority leader. Ultimately, negotiations led to a $650,000 budget increase, Johnson said. It was a frustrating outcome, Johnson said.

“The need is so much more than what the Republicans have been willing to concede,” he said.

Limmer is among Republicans reluctant to embrace new Human Rights regional offices. The majority of complaints still are employment related, and most of those involve age and disability complaints. That makes Limmer reluctant to leap to a conclusion that political and racial turmoil lies at the heart of the recent uptick in complaints.

Still, Limmer said the American public’s increased political frustration is a genuine cause for concern. He wants to know more about what role, if any, they play in the rising number of human rights complaints.

“If the department is seeking more money because they think there is a prolonged increase that will continue, we will analyze the need,” he said. If Lindsey can make that case, Limmer said, supplemental budget money could become available during next legislative session.

“We will definitely have hearings to determine a little bit more detail about why this may be happening,” he said.

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