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June 14, 2012

A public school district is not an "education corporation or association" within the meaning of the State’s Human Rights Law §296(4)

A public school district is not an “education corporation or association” within the meaning of the State’s Human Rights Law §296(4)
North Syracuse Cent. School Dist. v New York State Div. of Human Rights, 2012 NY Slip Op 04668, Court of Appeals

Is a public school district an "education corporation or association" within the meaning of  Executive Law §296(4)? If it is an “education corporation or association,” then the New York State Division of Human Rights (SDHR) has jurisdiction to investigate complaints filed against public school districts under that provision. Otherwise it does not. The Court of Appeals decided “not.”

The case arose when a number of public school students filed complaints with the SDHR claiming that their respective school districts engaged in an "unlawful discriminatory practice" barred by §296(4) of the Executive Law, the "Human Rights Law," by permitting their harassment on the basis of race and/or disability.

The school districts involved filed Article 78 petitions seeking a writ of prohibition* barring the SDHR from investigating the complaints on the ground that a public school district is not an "education corporation or association" as contemplated by Executive Law §296(4).**

The Appellate Division concluded that as a school district is a "municipal corporation" and therefore a "public corporation" under the General Construction Law, it could not be an "education corporation" within the meaning of Executive Law §296(4)]. However, the Court of Appeals, noting that this “approach is a legitimate one,” decided that there was some problem in SDHR's relying on the General Construction Law because the provision at issue in the Executive Law was enacted 15 years prior to General Construction Law §§65 and 66.

The Court, however, said that it did not need to address whether the General Construction Law is applicable here as there was an independent basis, supported by legislative history of Tax Law §4(6), for its conclusion that a public school district is not an "education corporation or association."

The Court of Appeals said that the legislative history surrounding the enactment of Tax Law §4(6), in concert with the circumstances under which the Legislature transferred the term "education corporation or association" from Tax Law §4(6) to Executive Law §296(4), “bespeaks the Legislature's intention that the term was to have the same meaning in the Executive Law as it did in former Tax Law §4(6).” Moreover, said the court, the use of the phrase "non-sectarian" was plainly included in Executive Law  296(4) to carve out an exception for parochial schools, while reserving for the SDHR the jurisdiction to investigate §296(4) complaints against private, non-sectarian education corporations or associations.

The Court then noted that “Public school districts are different from private, non-sectarian institutions and fall outside the purview of the SDHR's jurisdiction relative to §296(4) claims … [as] a public school district receives tax-exempt status by virtue of the fact that it is public, so there would never be any need for it to 'hold itself out to the public to be non-sectarian' as, say, a private school."

The fact that the SDHR did not have jurisdiction to consider the students’ complaints did not mean that they did not have a forum in which to seek relief. The Court said that “In addition to potential remedies under federal law, public school students may file a complaint with the Commissioner of Education (see Education Law §310).”

Further, said the court, in 2010, the Legislature enacted the "Dignity for All Students Act," establishing article 2 of the Education Law, designed "to afford all [public school] students an environment free of any harassment that substantially interferes with their education, regardless of the basis of the harassment, and free of discrimination based on actual or perceived race, color, weight, national origin, ethnic group, religion, disability, sexual orientation, gender, or sex," commenting that while SDHR lauded this legislation by noting that it "addresses a myriad of harassment and discrimination issues that arise within a school context and its goals comport with the goals of the [Human Rights Law]," noticeably absent from SDHR’s correspondence was any indication that the Division had previously handled similar claims of that nature arising in public schools.***

The Court’s conclusion: Because a public school district is not an "education corporation or association" under Executive Law §296(4), the SDHR lacked jurisdiction to investigate the complaints filed by the students in these appeals.

* A writ of prohibition, one of the ancient writs under English Common Law, is an order issued by a higher tribunal barring a lower tribunal prohibiting the litigation from going forward because the lower tribunal lacks jurisdiction to consider the matter before it.

**Executive Law § 296 (4) provides, in relevant part, that "[i]t shall be an unlawful discriminatory practice for an education corporation or association which holds itself out to the public to be non-sectarian and exempt from taxation pursuant to … [RPTL Article 4] … to permit the harassment of any student or applicant, by reason of his race … [or] disability …."

***The Court of Appeals referred to a letter from New York State Div. of Human Rights, dated July 22, 2010, and included in the Bill Jacket for Chapter 482 of the Laws of 2010, in support of this statement.

The decision is posted on the Internet at:

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