Only Human | News | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper

Only Human

After 50 years, the city's Human Relations Commission faces critics who say they do too little -- or too much.

"Watch that step," says Charles Morrison, as he leads two visitors into his office in the City-County Building. Morrison is the director of Pittsburgh's Human Relations Commission, charged with addressing complaints of discrimination based on race, sex, age, sexual orientation or disability, and it seems a little odd that his office doorway isn't wheelchair-friendly. On this occasion, the two visitors -- legally blind Oakland resident Kim Collins and this reporter -- climb the stair without event.

Collins is here to demand a copy of the commission's file regarding a complaint of discrimination she made against the C.S. Kim Karate school in Bloomfield. Collins' claim -- that the school's instructor was rude to her because he didn't want a blind person in his classes -- didn't pass muster with the commission's investigators. She's since become a vociferous critic of the commission, frequently using Pittsburgh City Council's public comment period to accuse the agency of too quickly dismissing her case.

Talk to others who've had encounters with the commission, and you hear the opposite opinion: that the agency is too quick to believe accusations of discrimination. Still others laud the commission for taking on big corporations and institutions in its quest for fairness. Morrison shrugs off the differences of opinion. "You're not going to please everyone," he says.

One thing's clear: Though Pittsburgh's first anti-discrimination law took effect 50 years ago, there's still ample disagreement about how prejudice should be countered -- and plenty of reasons to keep trying.

In 1952, City Council made it illegal for employers to discriminate on the basis of race, creed, color or national origin. The law took effect in 1953, and in 1955 two anti-discrimination panels were merged, creating the Human Relations Commission.

Most of the agency's $443,000 annual budget, and most of the effort of its 15 volunteer commissioners, 9 full-time and 2 part-time staffers, goes to investigating and adjudicating the 200-odd discrimination complaints that come its way annually. It can hold quasi-trials and assess fines of as much us $50,000 for repeat offenders.

The commission produces an annual report that describes the kinds of cases it handles, and what becomes of them. In an average year, 40 percent of the complaints received are for racial discrimination, with gender, disability, sexual orientation, age, religious, and other kinds of discrimination rounding things out. The vast majority of allegations are employment-related -- unfair hiring, firing or failure to promote -- plus a smattering of complaints of housing discrimination and prejudicial treatment by businesses. The most commonly accused institutions are hospitals, colleges, banks and city government. About two-thirds of the complaints are dismissed by the commission's investigators, and almost all of the remaining cases are settled.

Specifics, though, are unavailable. Under state law, the commission need not release any information on cases unless they reach the trial-like public hearing stage, in which commission members sit in judgment, and a verdict is issued. "Very rarely do [cases] go all the way," says Morrison, who has worked for the commission since 1974 and served as director since 1995. "They just about all settle."

A rare case that went all the way was Carolyn and Edward Fisher vs. Nello and Lidia DeFelice -- and five years after it was filed, it still isn't resolved. In 1997, the Fishers, a two-income black couple, sought to rent an Oakland house for themselves and their grandson. The landlords were the DeFelices, an immigrant Italian couple who had just bought the house, which was next to their home. They seemed cold to the Fishers, and quoted them a rent figure of $850.

Feeling snubbed, the Fishers went to the Pittsburgh Fair Housing Partnership, which is charged with enforcing housing laws. The partnership sent fake renters -- called testers -- to the DeFelices. A black tester was quoted a rent of $950 a month. A white tester was quoted a price of $700 a month. The Fishers and the Fair Housing Partnership took the case to the commission, alleging that the tests demonstrated racial discrimination.

In August 1998, the commission held a public hearing on the matter, in which each side was interrogated by the other's lawyers and the commission. The DeFelices' attorney, Tim Uhrich, argued that his clients based the rent quotes not on race, but on the number of people they thought would be living in the house. He also noted that the Fishers never filled out the rental application the DeFelices gave them, and thus weren't really candidates to rent the house. The arguments, he says, were ignored by an agency that serves as investigator, judge and jury in discrimination cases. "It's almost Kafkaesque," says Uhrich. "The whole proceeding was absurd."

The commission issued a finding that discrimination had occurred, and ordered the DeFelices to pay a symbolic $950 to the Fishers, $1,000 to the city, and a total of $10,617 to the Fishers' attorney and the Fair Housing Partnership. The DeFelices appealed to the Common Pleas and then Commonwealth courts, losing at both levels. Uhrich blames the losses on the courts' refusal to review the commission's handling of the evidence, which he views as flawed. The DeFelices continue to refuse to pay. Lawyer Jeff Ruder -- who represented the Fishers and now works part-time for the commission -- is seeking to place a lien on the DeFelices' property to force payment.

Though nobody's been paid, Morrison says some good came out of the Fisher case. "The fact that the case was processed through a hearing, that there was some media exposure -- that would act as a deterrent to someone engaging in discriminatory rental activity," he says.

Uhrich says the case has resulted in just two things: legal fees, and pain to the DeFelices. Lidia DeFelice "has been accused of discrimination," he says. "That's something that's totally devastating to her. & [The commission] didn't resolve anything."

The commission hasn't been afraid to take on powerful institutions. In 1996, it received a complaint by seven current and former University of Pittsburgh faculty members alleging that the school's refusal to provide health insurance to employees' same-sex partners was discriminatory. The university asked the commission to dismiss the complaint, went to court to try to overturn the city's gay-rights ordinance, and even obtained state legislation aimed at undermining the case. The commission refused to back off, and the court fight continues.

That and other cases have earned the gratitude of many in the gay community. "The staff there are really good, hardworking people who care a lot about what they're doing," says Randy Forrester, a former commission member and co-founder of Persad, a health center for sexual minorities and HIV-positive people.

Earlier this month, the commission confirmed that it was investigating complaints by a dozen older workers at the David L. Lawrence Convention Center who say management firm SMG has reduced their hours and pay because of their age. SMG, which manages more than 150 facilities worldwide, denied that age played a role in its decisions.

In April, the commission filed a lawsuit against the Zytnick family, which owns apartment buildings in Harrison Township, Ross, Shadyside, Squirrel Hill, Swissvale and West Mifflin. The suit alleges that three families living in the Beechwood Gardens apartment building in Squirrel Hill were refused lease renewals and "told to leave their homes after [the Zytnicks] learned that they were & expecting a child." The suit says that's discrimination on the basis of family status. Morrison says the commission couldn't reach a settlement with the Zytnicks, and sued.

"The claims have no merit whatsoever," says the Zytnicks' attorney, Jeanine DeBor. In their answer to the complaint, in fact, the Zytnicks presented lease extension forms signed by two of the three families, dated right around the time of the alleged refusals to renew. The third family, according to the answer, had repeatedly violated the building's policies, and apparently left.

Morrison won't talk about the specifics of the case, since it's in litigation. The bottom line is that the three families experienced what they felt was discrimination, and later left the area, he says. "That's unfortunate. We're trying to keep people here." And were it not for the Zytnicks' alleged discriminatory behavior, he says, "they probably would still be here."

Kim Collins' request for her file puts Morrison in an awkward position. State law says files related to dismissed cases are not public record. It also says that complainants like Collins have a right to their file only if they plan to take it to an attorney. "Now that you've brought the media in here, you have clearly shown that your intent is different," says Morrison. In the end, he mails her the file. It reveals a murky set of facts -- and an ending that resolves little.

Collins' vision is such that she walks with a cane and has to hold documents just inches from her eyes to read them. Living in North Oakland, she frequently walks by C.S. Kim's Bloomfield school, and she long wondered what karate was about. "I could mostly hear what was going on [inside], and it seemed like fun," she says. In August 2000, she enrolled.

Collins says she did well for a while. But months into her training, she says, lead instructor Tom Cegan began making fun of her in front of the class. She was too intimidated to officially re-enroll after her initial six months of lessons were over, but took classes unofficially for a few more months anyway, until Cegan told her she couldn't attend anymore. Cegan and others at the school, according to the commission's case file, said Collins was sometimes argumentative, once brought baby dolls to class, and simply failed to fill out the re-enrollment form.

Collins filed a complaint with the commission in March 2002. In April, after the commission talked with Cegan, Collins met with him, thinking things had been smoothed over. "I handed him the [re-enrollment] form," she says. "And he said, 'We'd better wait.'" She came back a day later, and Cegan had her escorted from the premises by police, according to Collins and police records. She then began protesting on nearby streets, holding a sign that read, "C.S. Kim Karate School Refuses Blind Student." On May 7, Cegan filed a complaint with District Justice Gene Zielmanski, accusing Collins of harassment and trespassing.

Contacted by City Paper, C.S. Kim's attorney issued a statement that reads, in part: "C.S. Kim Karate and D. Thomas Cegan stand by the findings of the Human Relations Commission, and offer their sincere hope that Ms. Collins will come to terms with her own issues and lead a productive and rewarding life."

The commission interviewed one former karate instructor, who claimed that he heard Cegan say of Collins, "I don't want that crazy blind bitch in my school," according to Collins' commission file. But other witnesses said Cegan trains another blind woman and mentally retarded kids -- proving, they say, that he does not discriminate against any disability. The commission investigator found insufficient evidence to pursue the case. Zielmanski, meanwhile, dismissed the trespassing and harassment charges.

Collins is still sore about the result. "Most people would think, 'Oh, a bunch of karate lessons, what's the big deal?'" she says. "But it's something that really mattered to me." In her speeches to City Council, she calls the commission "inept," and decries discrimination against the disabled. "I don't want this to happen to other people," she says.

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