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New Commissioner Vows to Revitalize Agency That Fights Discrimination in New York

The New York Times—Rachel L. Swarns

Every year, thousands of New Yorkers turn to the Commission on Human Rights, the city agency responsible for battling discrimination in the workplace, the housing market and beyond.

They describe sexual harassment and racial discrimination on the job, public buildings that remain inaccessible to disabled people, and landlords who refuse to rent to people who receive public assistance.

Then they wait. And wait. And wait.

Finally, some people realize what city officials already know: The commission, the watchdog empowered to investigate and prosecute violators of the city’s anti-discrimination law, is largely toothless. The agency files too few cases, initiates too few investigations, levies too few fines and fails to meet its own timelines for resolving complaints, officials say.

That is why Carmelyn P. Malalis, the new commissioner appointed by Mayor Bill de Blasio, received such a warm welcome last week from members of the City Council and advocates for the poor. In her second week on the job, Ms. Malalis was vowing to vigorously enforce the law and to revitalize the chronically underfinanced agency, which primarily serves residents who cannot afford to hire their own lawyers.

“I get that folks want to see results,” Ms. Malalis, a 40-year-old lawyer who specializes in workplace discrimination cases, said in an interview. “I know that we’re going to do some great work here.”

She certainly received a boost from the City Council speaker, Melissa Mark-Viverito, a Democrat from East Harlem, who promised last month to add $5 million to the commission’s $6.9 million budget in the coming fiscal year, enough to more than double the number of staff lawyers while also increasing the number of human rights specialists.

Even so, reinvigorating the commission will be no easy task.                              

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The city, which financed 173 positions at the commission in 1992, now pays for only 11. (The federal government provides funding for an additional 55 positions.) And it shows.

The commission received 4,975 inquiries from the public in 2014, but formally opened only 633 cases, city statistics show. Of the cases resolved that year, only 10 percent were found to have probable cause to move forward. (Lawyers for the indigent, who believe many more cases are viable, say the agency’s staff receives inadequate training in how to enforce the law.)

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All of this means that Ms. Malalis, a former partner at Outten & Golden, an employment law firm, has plenty on her plate.

Ms. Malalis, who replaces Patricia L. Gatling, an appointee of former Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg, has already begun reviewing the commission’s operations, its cases and how it investigates and processes complaints. She also wants to initiate more proactive investigations and respond to public complaints.

But that will take time, Ms. Malalis said at last week’s City Council hearing, voicing her opposition to proposed legislation that would require the commission to immediately organize and conduct investigations into housing and employment discrimination and to provide more information about its operations to the public. She said she needs more time to assess the agency.

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Ms. Malalis said she was keenly aware of the urgency. At Outten & Golden, she often represented clients who faced discrimination at work because of their sexual orientation, family status or disabilities.

But the new commissioner, who lives in Park Slope, Brooklyn, also has a personal stake in the fight.

Ms. Malalis, the daughter of Filipino immigrants, is married to a woman from Ethiopia and has two biracial daughters. Their photographs sit on her new desk, a private, daily reminder of why the battle to combat discrimination and intolerance in New York City is so important.