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Discrimination | Public Accommodations | Rhode Island

Rhode Island Public Accommodations Q&A

What is a “place of public accommodation”?

Places of public accommodation are places that are open to the public and include, but are not limited to, stores, restaurants, bars, public transportation, garages, hotels, hospitals, clinics, rest rooms, barber shops, salons, amusement parks, gyms, golf courses, swimming pools, theaters, fairs, libraries, public housing projects, and so on (R.I. Gen. Laws § 11-24-3).

Does Rhode Island have an anti-discrimination law protecting LGBT individuals from discrimination in places of public accommodation?

Yes.  Since 1995, Rhode Island has had a comprehensive anti-discrimination law concerning sexual orientation in employment, housing, credit and public accommodations and has included sexual orientation under its equal opportunity and affirmative action law.  In 2001, Rhode Island added gender identity or expression to each of these statutory protections (R.I. Gen. Laws, ch. 11-24 (public accommodations); ch. 28-5 (employment); ch. 28-5.1 (equal opportunity and affirmative action); and ch. 34-37 (housing and credit)).

Does it also protect people perceived to be LGBT in places of public accommodation?

Yes.  The anti-discrimination laws define “sexual orientation” as “having or being perceived as having an orientation for heterosexuality, bisexuality or homosexuality and define “gender identity or expression” as including a “person’s actual or perceived gender” (R.I. Gen. Laws §§ 28-5-6(11)(gender identity or expression) and (16)(sexual orientation) (employment); 34-37-3(9)(gender identity or expression) and (15)(sexual orientation) (housing and credit); and 11-24-2.1(h)(sexual orientation) and (i)(gender identity or expression) (public accommodations)). Thus, if a person is fired because they are perceived to be gay (whether they are or not), they may still invoke the protection of the anti-discrimination law to challenge the firing.

What does the law say about discrimination in places of public accommodation?

Such places shall not “directly or indirectly refuse, withhold from, or deny to any … person any of the accommodations, advantages, facilities or privileges of that public place,” and shall not advertise or state that their accommodations are so limited, because of a person’s sexual orientation or gender identity or expression (or other protected characteristics) (R.I. Gen. Laws § 11-24-2).

How do I file a claim of discrimination?

You may file a charge of discrimination in person or in writing at the Rhode Island Commission For Human Rights (RICHR), 180 Westminster Street, 3rd floor, Providence, RI 02903. If you plan to go in person, you can call in advance to set up an appointment and find out what you need to bring. Their phone number is (401) 222-2661 (voice) and 401-222-2664 (TTY). The fax number is (401) 222-2616.

The charge must be under oath and must state the name and address of the individual making the complaint as well as the name and address of the entity against which he or she is complaining (called the “respondent”). The complaint must set out the particulars of the alleged unlawful acts and (preferably) the times they occurred.

Do I need a lawyer?

No, but GLAD strongly encourages people to find lawyers to represent them throughout the process. Although the process is designed to allow people to represent themselves, there are many legal rules governing the RICHR process, and employers and other defendants are almost certain to have legal representation.

What are the deadlines for filing a complaint of discrimination?

A complaint must generally be filed with the RICHR within one year of the discriminatory act or acts (R.I. Gen. Laws §§ 28-5-17(a); 34-37-5 (b); see Rules and Regulations of the RICHR Rule 4.05). There are very few exceptions for lateness, and GLAD encourages people to move promptly in filing claims.

Can I file more than one type of discrimination complaint at once, for example, if I believe I was fired both because I am a lesbian and Latina?

Yes, you can file several claims if you have suffered discriminatory treatment based on more than one personal characteristic. The state antidiscrimination laws for employment and public accommodations forbid taking an action against someone because of sexual orientation or gender identity or expression as well as race, color, religion, sex (including pregnancy and sexual harassment), disability, age, or country of ancestral origin (R.I. Gen. Laws § 11-24-2 and § 28-5-7 (1)(i)).

 

What happens after a charge is filed with the RICHR?

The RICHR may initiate a preliminary investigation in an employment, credit, housing, or public accommodations case. If the RICHR determines it is probable that a defendant is or was engaged in unlawful practices, then the RICHR shall attempt to eliminate the unlawful practices by “informal methods of conference, conciliation and persuasion” (See, e.g., R.I. Gen. Laws, § 28-5-17(a) and § 34-37-5(b); see also Rules and Regulations of the RICHR Rule 5.02).

If conciliation is unsuccessful, or at any time when the circumstances so warrant (including before investigation in egregious cases), the RICHR may serve a complaint and notice of hearing on the respondent. This process involves a trial type hearing but is not as formal as an actual trial in court. This process must be commenced within 2 years of when the complainant first filed his or her charge with the RICHR (R.I. Gen. Laws §§ 28-5-18; 34-37-5).

After the RICHR rules (either because it has found no probable cause to proceed, or because it has ruled on the merits after a hearing), any complainant, intervener, or respondent claiming to be aggrieved by a final order of the commission may obtain judicial review in Superior Court (R.I. Gen. Laws §§ 28-5-28; 34-37-6).

There are a few times when the case can be taken from the RICHR and filed in court. For example:

  • Once the complaint has been pending at the RICHR for at least 120 days, (but less than 2 years and before any conciliation agreement has been made), the complainant may request permission to remove the case from the RICHR. That request should be granted, and the complainant then has 90 days from when he or she receives a “right to sue” letter to file the case in Superior Court (R.I. Gen. Laws § 28-5-24.1(a) and § 34-37-5(l); see also Rules and Regulations of the RICHR Rule 17.01).
  • After the RICHR finds probable cause to credit the allegations in a complaint, either party may elect to terminate the proceedings at the RICHR and file in court as long as they do so within the strict timelines set by the RICHR rules (See R.I. Gen. Laws, § 28-5-24.1(c) and § 34-37-5(n)).
  • In addition, in housing cases, the RICHR may go to court to seek an order forbidding the respondent from selling, renting or otherwise disposing of the property at issue while the case is pending (R.I. Gen. Laws § 34-37-5(m)).

If probable cause is found lacking, the case is over unless you seek judicial review of the “lack of probable cause” finding. There are special rules and time constraints on this process which must be observed strictly (R.I. Gen. Laws § 28-5-28 and § 34-37-6).

What are the legal remedies the RICHR may award for discrimination if an individual wins their case there?

In all cases alleging different treatment discrimination, the remedies for a successful complainant in an intentional discrimination case may include compensatory damages (including for emotional distress), attorney’s fees (including expert fees and other litigation expenses), cease and desist orders, and any other action which will effectuate the purpose of the anti-discrimination laws (R.I. Gen. Laws § 28-5-24 (b)(employment); § 34-37-5(h) (housing cases); § 11-24-4 (public accommodations cases); Rules and Regulations of the RICHR Rule 12.02).

When complainants prevail in court, the remedies named above may be awarded, as well as punitive damages when the challenged conduct is shown to be motivated by malice or ill will, or when the action involves reckless or callous indifference to the statutorily protected rights of others (R.I. Gen. Laws § 28-5-29.1 (employment); § 11-24-4 (public accommodations); § 34-37-5 (o) (3) (housing)). The only exception is that punitive damages may not be awarded against the State.

Can I also file a discrimination complaint with a federal agency?

Yes, in many cases. Since federal law and state law contain overlapping provisions, someone bringing a discrimination claim may sometimes pursue protections under both. For example, the federal employment non-discrimination law, called Title VII, applies to employers with at least 15 employees and forbids employment discrimination based on race, sex, age, religion, and disability (which includes HIV status).

While Title VII does not expressly forbid discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity, a growing number of courts and government agencies have taken the position that its proscription against sex discrimination encompasses both (See, e.g., United States & Dr. Rachel Tudor v. Southeastern Oklahoma State University, 2015 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 89547 (2015) (denying motion to dismiss professor’s Title VII complaint that school had subjected her to a hostile work environment based on her gender identity)). In two separate decisions in 2012 and 2016, the EEOC itself concluded that sexual orientation discrimination, gender identity discrimination, and sex discrimination are one and the same, since the latter two are based on preferences, assumptions, expectations, stereotypes, and norms associated with masculinity and femininity (See Macy v. Holder, EEOC Appeal No. 0120120821 (Apr. 20, 2012); Baldwin v. Foxx, EEOC Appeal No. 0120133080 (July 15, 2015)). Although the EEOC’s decisions are not binding on the courts, many have used similar reasoning in affirming Title VII’s applicability to discrimination based on gender identity and sexual orientation (See, e.g., Smith v. City of Salem, 378 F.3d 566 (6th Cir. 2004) (holding that Title VII prohibits discrimination against transgender people based on gender stereotyping); Videckis v. Pepperdine Univ., 150 F. Supp. 3d 1151, 1160 (C.D. Cal. 2015) (holding “sexual orientation discrimination is a form of sex or gender discrimination”)).

Should I file a complaint with a federal agency?

GLAD recommends that, where there may be overlapping state and federal jurisdiction, you explore filing with the state first but keep in mind the possibility of pursuing a federal claim as well. Federal complaints must be filed within 180 days of the discriminatory act with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). However, if you initially institute your complaint with the RICHR and indicate that you wish to have the complaint cross-filed with the EEOC, then the time limit is extended to the earlier of 300 days or 30 days after the RICHR has terminated the case (42 United States Code § 2000e-5(e)(1)). (People who work for federal agencies are beyond the scope of this publication.)

If you have a sexual orientation or gender identity or expression complaint, you should check off “sex” as well as “sexual orientation” or “gender identity” as the bases for your claim and request that the RICHR cross-file your complaint with the EEOC.

Are there other options for filing a complaint for discrimination?

Possibly yes, depending on the facts of your particular situation.

State or Federal Court: After filing with the RICHR, the EEOC, or both, you may decide to remove your discrimination case from those agencies and file the case in court. There are rules about when and how this must be done, as discussed above. In addition, you may file a court case to address other claims which are not appropriately handled by discrimination agencies. For example, if you are fired in violation of a contract; fired without the progressive discipline promised in a handbook; or fired for doing something the employer doesn’t like but which the law requires, then these matters are beyond the scope of what the agencies can investigate and the matter should be pursued in court. Similarly, if your claim involves a violation of constitutional rights, such as a teacher or governmental employee who believes his or her free speech or equal protection rights were violated, then those matters must be heard in court.

What can I do to prepare myself before filing a complaint of discrimination?

Contact GLAD Answers by email or live chat at www.GLADAnswers.org or by phone at 800-455-GLAD (4523) any weekday between 1:30 and 4:30 p.m. to talk about options.

Some people prefer to meet with an attorney to evaluate the strength of their claims before filing a case. It is always helpful to bring the attorney an outline of what happened on the job that you are complaining about, organized by date and with an explanation of who the various players are (and how to get in touch with them); what happened; who said what; and who else was present.

 


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