Steve Lash//March 20, 2023
//March 20, 2023
The Maryland Senate on Friday passed legislation empowering the attorney general to investigate and litigate instances of widespread unlawful discrimination in housing, employment, public accommodations and leasing of commercial property.
With the Senate’s 36-9 vote, attention shifts to the House Judiciary Committee, which is expected to consider the legislation within the next two weeks.
Attorney General Anthony G. Brown has pressed for the litigation authority, saying it would send a strong message to companies that bias is not tolerated in the state.
“Give us the civil rights authority, and we’ll show you what we can do to protect Marylanders,” Brown told the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee last month in support of Senate Bill 540, which was introduced at his request.
SB 540 would enable Brown to investigate allegations that a private entity discriminated in violation of the U.S. or Maryland constitution or of federal or state law. The attorney general could bring suit if the investigation provides reasonable cause to believe discrimination has occurred.
Brown testified that his District of Columbia counterpart has the authority to bring civil rights suits against private entities and that then-D.C. Attorney General Karl Racine wielded it last year to reach a $10 million settlement with three real estate firms that were allegedly unwilling to rent to low-income individuals who receive governmental assistance.
“We don’t have the authority to do that in Maryland,” Brown told the Senate committee.
He added that enabling the attorney to sue private entities in cases of widespread discrimination would complement the Maryland Commission on Civil Rights’ ability to sue on behalf of individual victims.
MCCR General Counsel Glendora Hughes agreed, telling the Senate panel that the commission would work cooperatively with the Attorney General’s Office and refer cases when an investigation of an individual’s claim of discrimination reveals that the bias is widespread.
The attorney general’s lawsuit would have to be brought where the alleged violation occurred or where the alleged violator has its principal office, under the bill.
The attorney general would be able to seek economic damages to victims of the discrimination; a $10,000 civil penalty for an entity’s first violation and $25,000 for each violation thereafter; and reimbursement for the office’s costs of investigation and litigation. The attorney general could also seek a court order enjoining the violator from engaging in future discrimination.
Money received via civil penalty would be placed in a Civil Rights Enforcement Fund to enable the attorney general and MCCR to enforce civil rights and engage in education and outreach regarding corporate responsibility and individuals’ rights regarding illegal discrimination.
The bill would also give the attorney general authority to intervene in a pending civil rights suit if the matter is of public importance beyond the litigants.
The Department of Legislative Services estimated that the expansion of the attorney general’s authority to sue private entities would require the hiring of seven additional staff, including one principal counsel, three assistant attorneys general, two investigators and one paralegal at a cost of about $924,000 in salary and fringe benefits.
SB 540 was cross-filed as House Bill 772, which was referred to the House Judiciary Committee.l