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In the Matter of North Syracuse Central School District v. New York State Division of Human Rights

June 12, 2012

IN THE MATTER OF NORTH SYRACUSE CENTRAL SCHOOL DISTRICT, APPELLANT,
v.
NEW YORK STATE DIVISION OF HUMAN RIGHTS, RESPONDENT. IN THE MATTER OF ITHACA CITY SCHOOL DISTRICT, APPELLANT,
v.
NEW YORK STATE DIVISION OF HUMAN RIGHTS ET AL., RESPONDENTS.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Pigott, J.:

This opinion is uncorrected and subject to revision before publication in the New York Reports.

At issue on these appeals is whether a public school district is an "education corporation or association" as contemplated by Executive Law § 296 (4). We conclude that it is not, and, therefore, the New York State Division of Human Rights ("SDHR") lacks jurisdiction to investigate complaints against public school districts under that provision.

Procedural Background

The public school students in these proceedings filed complaints with the SDHR, claiming that their respective school districts engaged in an "unlawful discriminatory practice" under Article 15 of the Executive Law (Executive Law § 290, et seq., or the "Human Rights Law") by permitting their harassment on the basis of race and/or disability (Executive Law § 296 [4]).

Both school districts commenced a CPLR article 78 proceeding 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). Supreme Court in Matter of North Syracuse Central School District granted the petition on that ground; Supreme Court in Matter of Ithaca City School District held otherwise, concluding that a school district is an "education corporation" that the SDHR could investigate.

At this point, the procedural paths of the appeals diverged. The SDHR appealed in the North Syracuse Central School District matter, and the Appellate Division, Fourth Department, reversed, holding that the SDHR's exercise of jurisdiction should have been challenged first during administrative review, not in a CPLR article 78 proceeding (83 AD3d 1472 [4th Dept 2011]).

The Ithaca City School District then withdrew its appeal to the Appellate Division, Third Department. The parties proceeded to a hearing on the discrimination complaint before an administrative law judge, who concluded, among other things, that the district had permitted discriminatory conduct and awarded complainant and her mother $500,000 each. The Commissioner of Human Rights reduced each award to $200,000. The Ithaca City School District thereafter commenced a CPLR article 78 proceeding seeking vacatur and annulment of the SDHR's determination.

Supreme Court annulled the SDHR's determination, holding that it lacked the authority to hear and determine complaints against the district because a school district is not an "education corporation" under § 296 (4). The Appellate Division, Third Department, with one Justice dissenting, modified the mother's award by reducing it to $50,000 and otherwise confirmed the determination. Relying on the legislative findings set forth in Executive Law § 290 (3) that the Human Rights Law was intended "to eliminate and prevent discrimination . . . in educational institutions," the Appellate Division held that "public school districts are among the 'educational institutions' over which [the SDHR] has jurisdiction and that Executive Law § 296 (4) is the statutory mechanism by which it can seek to eliminate any discrimination by such school districts" (87 AD3d 268, 273 [3d Dept 2011]). This Court granted leave in both appeals.

Analysis

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 . . ." (emphasis supplied). The parties acknowledge that there is no definition of "education corporation or association" in the Human Rights Law.

Given the absence of a definition, one Appellate Division looked to the General Construction Law for guidance (see Matter of East Meadow Union Free School Dist. v New York State Div. of Human Rights, 65 AD3d 1342, 1343 [2d Dept 2009] [holding that because 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)]). That approach is a legitimate one given that the General Construction Law is "applicable to every statute unless its general object, or the context of the language construed, or other provisions of law indicate that a different meaning or application was intended" (General Construction Law § 110 [emphasis supplied]). On the other hand, application of the General Construction Law is problematic, however, because the provision at issue in the Executive Law was enacted 15 years prior to General Construction Law §§ 65 and 66 -- the provisions upon which the Appellate Division relied on in East Meadow Union Free School Dist. -- and the SDHR, relying on the exceptions contained in General Construction Law § 110, contends that the Legislature never meant for those definitions to apply to Executive Law § 296 (4). We need not address whether the General Construction Law is applicable here, however, because there is independent basis, supported by legislative history, for our conclusion that a public school district is not an "education corporation or association."

The SDHR asks this Court to adopt the Appellate Division's rationale in Matter of Ithaca City School Dist. and liberally construe the "general purpose" of the Human Rights Law, which is to "eliminate and prevent discrimination . . . in educational institutions" (Executive Law § 290 [3]), and conclude that a public school district is an "educational corporation or association." That argument, however, overlooks the basic premise that there must first be an underlying directive in the statute before this Court can apply such a construction. And it is evident from the legislative history that the term "education corporation or association," the origins of which can be traced to the Tax Law, refers to only private, non-sectarian entities that are exempt from taxation under RPTL article 4.

The demarcation between tax exemption for public and certain private property dates back to 1896, when the Legislature enacted Tax Law § 4. That section expressly differentiated between the tax-exempt status for "[p]roperty of a municipal corporation of the state held for public use . . ." (Tax Law § 4[3]), i.e., school district property, from the tax-exempt status of

"[t]he real property of a corporation or association organized exclusively for the moral or mental improvement of men or women, or for religious, bible, tract, charitable, benevolent, missionary, hospital, infirmary, educational, public playground, scientific, literary, bar association, library, patriotic, historical or cemetery purposes, or for the enforcement of laws relating to children or animals, or two or more such purposes and used ...


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