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DHR: No jurisdiction in discrimination claim

By: Denise M. Champagne//July 31, 2012

DHR: No jurisdiction in discrimination claim

By: Denise M. Champagne//July 31, 2012//

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The owner of an Auburn counseling business is still trying to get her discrimination claim heard.

Anita Stoudymire alleges Auburn City Court Judge Michael F. McKeon discriminated against her and illegally blacklisted her business, Recovery Counseling, by diverting clients to another facility.

Judge McKeon, in a letter dated Oct. 19, 2010, notified Stoudymire that the Auburn Drug and Alcohol Court and the Cayuga County Felony Drug Court, over which he presides, would no longer use the services of her company.

Judge McKeon referred to “recent events,” which Cayuga County Supreme Court Justice Joseph D. Valentino noted were undisputedly in reference to the arrest of Stoudymire’s live-in boyfriend on charges of possessing and selling drugs, and the publicity it received.

Stoudymire had filed a complaint with the state Division of Human Rights, which dismissed it Jan. 12, saying it did not have authority over a court order.

Stoudymire then sought to annul the Division of Human Rights’ determination regarding jurisdiction and have it decide her claim on the merits.

Justice Valentino said the division properly concluded it lacked jurisdiction.

“Ms. Stoudymire is very disappointed with the decision,” said her attorney, John L. Valentino, a member of the Syracuse firm Bousquet Holstein PLLC. “She is frustrated that she has yet to find a forum that will hear her claims on the merits. She intends to appeal the decision and she has authorized our office to proceed with an appeal.”

John L. Valentino is no relation to Justice Valentino.

In his letter, Judge McKeon also told Stoudymire that the participants from the drug and alcohol courts were being required to leave Recovery Counseling and transfer their treatment to another provider.

“According to McKeon’s answer, but absent from the petition, the police also executed a search warrant at petitioner’s home that resulted in the recovery of drug paraphernalia and a large amount of cash,” Justice Valentino noted in his decision.

He said the standard of review for complaints dismissed by DHR for lack of jurisdiction is whether or not the determination was arbitrary or capricious or affected by an error of law, (see Scopelliti v. Town of New Castle, 210 AD2d 339 [2nd Dept. 1994] and Baust v. New York State Div. of Human Rights, 70 AD3d 1107 [3rd Dept.]). Justice Valentino said DHR’s decision was none of the above.

“Although the jurisdiction of the SDHR is broad, it is not limitless,” Justice Valentino wrote, citing a recent decision by the state Court of Appeals in Matter of N. Syracuse Cent. School Dist. v. New York State Div of Human Rights, ___NY3d___ [June 12], clarifying that DHR’s jurisdiction did not extend to complaints by students. In its 4-3 decision, the Court of Appeals found jurisdiction lacking because a public school is not an educational corporation or association as contemplated by Executive Law section 296(4).

“More importantly, despite the general purpose provision of the Human Rights Law to eliminate and prevent discrimination, the majority declined to liberally construe the statute in the absence of an underlying directive in the Human Rights Law to apply such a construction,” Justice Valentino said.

He also rejected Stoudymire’s claim that Judge McKeon sending her a letter was not done in his official judicial capacity and ruled that Judge McKeon had judicial immunity.

“McKeon, as the presiding judge of the treatment courts, had the authority to establish a procedure ‘necessary to carry into effect the powers and jurisdiction’ of the treatment court (Judiciary Law 2-b[3]) and to preserve his courts’ dignity and integrity,” Justice Valentino wrote. “Contrary to petitioner’s assertions, McKeon’s letter to petitioner was an exercise of his judicial function as the presiding judge of the treatment courts and judicial immunity attaches to the acts at issue.”

He further noted judicial immunity is to ensure a judge’s absolute independence without intimidation and harassment from “vexatious” lawsuits and that it is imperative for judges to freely make decisions without fear of retribution, (see Mosher-Simons v. County of Allegany, 99 NY2d 214, 219 [2002].)

“The immunity exists regardless of how erroneous the decision and regardless of the judge’s tainted motives, provided the act is constitutional, not unlawful, and is performed within the general scope of authority of judicial functions,” Justice Valentino said.

He also cited Tarter v. State, 68 NY2d 511 [1986] which notes “It has been adjudged worth the price of leaving some injured parties without a remedy to allow such officials to exercise the independence of judgment critical to our judicial system without harassment or intimidation.”

Judge McKeon was represented by attorney John W. McConnell of the Counsel’s Office of the Unified Court System. An Office of Court Administration spokesman said the office does not comment on pending cases.

The Division of Human Rights was represented by Caroline J. Downey, its general counsel.

The live-in boyfriend, Dennis Scott, 56, was sentenced to seven years in prison for conviction of third-degree criminal sale of a controlled substance. He is at the Riverview Correctional Facility in St. Lawrence County.

According to The Citizen, an Auburn newspaper, Scott had a plea deal to be sentenced to four years in prison, but was arrested in Syracuse, Onondaga County, on a misdemeanor heroin possession charge before his sentencing date, so the agreement was revoked. He was stopped by sheriff’s deputies in a car owned by Stoudymire.

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