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Cert petition and amicus brief raise concerns about treatment of discrimination claims by the Maryland Commission on Civil Rights, urging appellate court jurisdiction

July 7, 2022

The Maryland Commission on Civil Rights (MCCR) reviews the complaints of Marylanders who have been discriminated against in the areas of employment, housing, public accommodations, and state contracts. But what recourse do people have if MCCR conducts an unfair investigation and dismisses their claim? Can the appellate courts review the case? This is the challenge that Jennifer Rowe has been facing as she pursues a public accommodations claim against a gym that she alleges terminated her membership because of her disability. Ms. Rowe and Public Justice Center Murnaghan Appellate Advocacy Fellow Michael Abrams recently filed a petition for certiorari requesting that the Court of Appeals of Maryland hear the case, arguing that appellate courts do have jurisdiction in such cases and that their review is especially necessary when MCCR fails to live up to its mission. A diverse coalition of civil rights organizations also filed an amicus brief in support of the petition, raising concerns about MCCR’s process.

Ms. Rowe joined the self-defense training gym Krav Maga Maryland (KMMD) to cope with her severe PTSD. But after KMMD deleted some of her disability-related comments in the gym’s private Facebook group, the parties had a tense email exchange about Ms. Rowe’s disability, resulting in KMMD’s termination of Ms. Rowe’s membership. She brought a disability-based public accommodations claim to MCCR, where she received an unfair administrative process before her case was dismissed. During that process, the Commission 1) inexplicably directed Ms. Rowe to remove her retaliation claim from her complaint; 2) mis-scheduled a fact-finding conference, meeting with KMMD and its counsel in private while excluding Ms. Rowe; and 3) complied with KMMD’s request to withhold its evidence from Ms. Rowe because of its “sensitive nature.” Ms. Rowe never received an opportunity to review the respondent’s evidence and arguments before MCCR dismissed her complaint. The Commission issued a finding of “no probable cause” to believe discrimination had taken place. Ms. Rowe filed for review in the circuit court, which affirmed the Commission’s decision without much analysis. The PJC represented Ms. Rowe on appeal to the Court of Special Appeals, which we argue misread MCCR’s statute and, believing that it did not have jurisdiction over the case, dismissed the appeal.

In June, we filed a petition for certiorari with the Court of Appeals in Rowe v. Maryland Commission on Civil Rights. The appeal now presents this jurisdictional question: When MCCR dismisses a public accommodations discrimination claim, can the filer obtain review in Maryland’s appellate courts, or are they limited to circuit court review alone? The petition argues that appellate courts do have jurisdiction in these cases. The availability of appellate review is exceedingly important because MCCR generally fails to enforce Marylanders’ civil rights. It dismisses the vast majority of cases prior to any hearing, so claimants almost never get the benefit of that intended quasi-judicial process. According to its own data, MCCR has not held a single hearing to resolve a civil rights complaint since 2016, a year in which it might have held just one hearing.

A remarkable coalition of civil rights organizations also filed an amicus brief in support of our petition, written by Brown, Goldstein & Levy attorneys Andrew Levy and Anthony May (former Murnaghan Fellow). The brief — on behalf of Disability Rights Maryland, the ACLU of Maryland, Asian Pacific American Bar Association of Maryland, CASA, Council on American-Islamic Relations, Equal Rights Center, FreeState Justice, Homeless Persons Representation Project, National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) Maryland, National Federation of the Blind, and the Washington Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights and Urban Affairs — emphasizes that public accommodations discrimination is on the rise and deserves the fullest of enforcement by the State. Yet, as these organizations explain from their experience, MCCR generally fails to provide adequate process and is effectively hostile to claimants.

This case provides an important opportunity to address MCCR’s shortcomings. We hope that the Court of Appeals will recognize that appellate courts have jurisdiction in cases challenging MCCR’s dismissals and return Ms. Rowe’s case to the Court of Special Appeals for a decision on the merits.