Castrataro Oversees 2007 BHRI Initiative

Thursday, August 12th, 2010

Palm Beach Daily Business Review, Copyright 2007 ALM Properties, Inc. All rights reserved.

October 17, 2007


Dael Reyes, a former delivery driver at Lowe's in Southwest Ranches, loved his job – until the alleged harassment started. Shortly after Reyes reported a fellow employee stole something, Reyes' supervisor allegedly began to make disparaging comments about his sexual orientation.

Reyes, who is gay, filed a complaint with the Broward Civil Rights Division last October alleging his supervisor referred to him repeatedly as a "maricon." In one instance the manager allegedly walked up to Reyes and another employee and remarked: "Between you guys there is one chivato. I don't like chivatos. There are (sic) mother f- – - – - – marricones (sic)," according to the complaint. ( Mariconis the Spanish expletive equivalent of faggot and chivato is Spanish for snitch.)  Reyes also began to receive more difficult delivery work and was stalked at home, according to the complaint. Soon after, Lowe's fired him for leaving early one day and then missing a shift.

Reyes, who missed work due to an injury, filed the complaint under the county's human rights ordinance. The ordinance protects people in Broward County from discrimination in employment, housing and public accommodation based on their age, sex, race and sexual orientation. In April 2007, Reyes and Lowe's settled for $18,500 and the case was dismissed. Reyes did not return calls seeking comment. In a brief interview, Reyes' attorney Richard Bagdasarian said his client would have never received a dime representing himself against Lowe's corporate counsel. Reyes "never would have settled anything without a lawyer," Bagdasarian said. Reyes is one of the few gays to avail themselves of protections offered under the county's human rights ordinance. Many people don't know it exists and those who do file complaints often represent themselves because they can't find attorneys to take their cases.

But Legal Aid Service of Broward County hopes to improve the odds with a new effort to help gays press cases before the Broward Civil Rights Division and increase public awareness of the county's human rights ordinance.  Legal Aid's new Broward Human Rights Initiative, which kicked off last weekend, will have one staff attorney and refer cases to other pro bono attorneys who work with Legal Aid.

"We want to focus on impact litigation, taking on cases where the wrong is so egregious that by successfully litigating it, we can not only restore plaintiffs to their rightful position but also can send a message to other wrongdoers that the practices are intolerable," said George Castrataro, a Legal Aid supervising attorney who will oversee the initiative.

Legal Aid initiative Legal Aid is launching the initiative as Broward County continues to deal with the fallout from statements by Fort Lauderdale Mayor Jim Naugle about the gay community. Naugle caused a public uproar this summer when he remarked that he calls gay people "homosexuals" because they are not "gay. They're unhappy."

His statements came when he was promoting the potential purchase of a $250,000 one-stall robotic toilet to deter gays from having sex in public bathrooms. He said that this was a prevalent problem in tourist areas of Fort Lauderdale's beachfront. Naugle later held a news conference to purportedly apologize, but then used it as a platform to blame gays for the county's high AIDS rate.

Paying for an attorney

Legal Aid's Castrataro says Naugle's statements had nothing to do with the initiative. Castrataro said gays who face discrimination often find it difficult to find attorneys willing to take the cases on a contingency-fee basis because cases often yield small amounts of money and require a lot of work. And most people can't afford to pay attorneys an hourly rate that can amount to thousands of dollars before a case even gets to a hearing. And for gays who get no protection under state or federal employment laws, the county's human rights ordinance is the only opportunity for relief. "Cases go untried, and a consequence of that is a pattern of discrimination that goes unchecked," Castrataro said.

Prominent Fort Lauderdale employment attorney Bill Amlong said although the human rights ordinance is designed to help people navigate the system without legal assistance, an attorney could make or break the case.

"The people in the Human Rights Division are not the advocates of the people who are filing charges," Amlong said. "If you go in there pro se [representing yourself], you're going in with no one on your side. And the employer is most likely going to have a lawyer who knows what to do and is going to either throw up roadblocks or conceal pitfalls."

Amlong said an attorney would help victims understand their potential damages, provide an adversary to a defendant bent on increasing the legal paperwork and guide them through the court system if he or she chooses that route.

The initiative aims to provide legal support to individuals with annual incomes under $30,000. The John C. Graves Charitable Fund has provided $160,000 to help fund the program for the next two years. Legal Aid also contributed $40,000 for the effort.

Attorney Kara Schickowski was recently hired to shepherd the cases through the system and get them into court. According to Castrataro, she recently passed the Bar. Schickowski did not return call for comment by deadline. Schickowski will be helped by Legal Aid attorneys or pro bono private attorneys with specialties in the areas of housing, employment and accommodations.

Fundraising event

The Human Rights Initiative began with a fundraising cocktail event this past weekend at Fort Lauderdale's Museum of Art. Attended by about 250 people, the event raised about $20,000.  Proceeds from will be used for the initiative's public awareness work. Castrataro said the Broward Human Rights Initiative is not intended as a gay rights advocacy group, but rather an effort to protect rights that already exist. "Our purpose is to focus on what rights are legally protected," Castrataro said. "Until such a time that the law changes, we'll work as hard as we can to enforce it." But gay rights activists said that this type of involvement is advocacy that can only help promote gay rights.

"Court cases and lawsuits do set a tone of what's acceptable and what's not," activist Michael Rajner said. "Having an initiative like this offers another protective factor for a community that is vulnerable at times." Rajner is one of the people pushing for the human rights ordinance to be expanded to provide protections to members of the transgendered community.

Filing cases

Anyone who feels they have been discriminated against in violation of can file a complaint with the Office of Equal Opportunity in the county's Civil Rights Division. People who have lost their jobs due to discrimination can recover lost wages and can seek reinstatement.

Cases are assigned to an investigator in the Office of Equal Opportunity. If the investigator finds probable cause, the parties attempt to reach a settlement. If that process fails, the complaint goes to a hearing before the county's Human Rights Board, an 18-member quasi-judicial committee appointed by the Broward county Commission. The commission can make a finding and either party can then appeal to the Broward Circuit Court.

Under the Human Rights Ordinance, victims can recover actual damages, such as lost wages in an employment case or differences in rent in housing discrimination. There are no specific fines. Civil Rights Division investigators can also encourage the defendants to send errant employment managers to training.

Castrataro said that because the ordinance does not explicitly preclude punitive damages, victims could potentially seek punitives. The ordinance also allows a complainant to go straight to court. That hasn't been tried yet for someone alleging discrimination based on sexual discrimination, Castrataro said, but it's a boundary the initiative backers hope to test soon.

During the past fiscal year, the Civil Rights Division received 23 cases centered on sexual orientation, according to Earlene Horne, who heads the division. She said she did not know how many of the complainants in those cases were represented by lawyers, but said most people who file complaints under the ordinance don't have lawyers. The division produced only three cases in response to a public records request by the Daily Business Review to view the last five cases filed under the ordinance that alleged discrimination based on sexual orientation. And one of the three cases was actually a racial discrimination case.

Legal Aid lawyers began discussing the need for an effort to help victims of discrimination based on sexual orientation about a year ago after noticing the low number of complaints brought by gays under the human rights ordinance, Castrataro said.

According to reports by the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, 35 percent to 50 percent of gay and transgendered people living in major U.S. cities report discrimination. About 20 people serve on the initiative's advisory group, including several lawyers. Broward County Judge Robert W. Lee, who is openly gay, is on the advisory group. Lee said in an interview that the initiative is important to provide legal support to people discriminated against who could not afford to seek relief.

Castrataro said he believes the Broward group is only one of three such initiatives in the country. The other two are in California and Massachusetts. "Regardless of people's opinions of gay and lesbian rights, they [gays] shouldn't face the loss of jobs, the refusal of accommodation or the loss of their home merely because of sexual orientation or gender identity," Castrataro said. "We've had such a positive response that it's almost been surprising."

Jordana Mishory can be reached at (954) 468-2616.