A Chicago trial lawyer and his firm filed a lawsuit Jan. 18 in Cook County Circuit Court, alleging that the Chicago Commission on Human Relations ( CCHR ) has "knowingly and intentionally been engaging in the unauthorized practice of law."
The suit was filed by Robert Scott of the law firm Scott, Halsted & Babetch. CCHR investigates complaints about violations of, and enforces rules pertaining to, both the Chicago Human Rights Ordinance and the Chicago Fair Housing Ordinance.
The Commission has been headed by Commissioner Mona Noriega, who is lesbian, since 2011; she is also named in Scott's suit. CCHR hears complaints of anti-LGBT bias in matters of employment, public accommodations and other realms.
According to a statement released by Scott's firm in conjunction with the suit, CCHR's decisions "have consistently and intentionally run contrary to basic and established Federal and State law and procedure. Mr. Scott's lawsuit maintains that there are an adequate number of legitimate legal forums presently operating in conformity with the Illinois and U.S. Constitutions, available for plaintiffs with claims of discrimination to seek justice."
The suit maintains that Scott and his firm have sustained monetary damages thanks to CCHR's practices and asks that the agency be barred from unauthorized practice of law, that its decisions be rendered null and void and that monetary and punitive damages be awarded. In Oct. 2016, CCHR ruled against Scott and the firm in a case of pregnancy-related sex discrimination.
James O'Roarke, Smith's attorney, said his client's complaint stemmed not from a dispute with CCHR's mission and work, but from having a non-legal professional such as Noriega penning its opinions.
"A legal opinion has consequences on my client," O'Roarke said. "She wrote a legal opinion and she's not an attorney. The law is very clearif you want to write legal opinions and practice law, you need to be a lawyer and she's not."
Ed Yohnka, director of communications and public policy for ACLU-Illinois, said, however, that, "These bodies serve a really important function in that they represent our broad public policy commitment to non-discrimination. While who gets covered is different from area to area, what is clear is that we've made public-policy announcements of non-discrimination, and that there are vehicles protecting for that."
Yohnka also emphasized that bodies such as CCHR and Equal Emplyment Opportunity Commission also play a role in educating the public about discrimination. He added, "There are a lot of people who file complaints in a pro se manner, who just wouldn't have the capacity to get their complaint heard if they couldn't do it through a vehicle like thiswe're talking about broadening and expanding access. That should be something we all applaud."
Ken Gunn, CCHR's public information officer, said that the Commission was unable to comment on pending litigation.