A bill to create a state option for people who feel they have been discriminated against by hotels, bars and restaurants, theaters and stores led senators into an impassioned discussion of discrimination, the woes of small business and frivolous lawsuits on Thursday morning.

The bill doesn’t make any sweeping changes. Under federal law, people who are discriminated against by any “local places of accommodation” can file a discrimination lawsuit in federal court. The bill would allow a victim of discrimination to be able to bring these complaints to the Maryland Commission on Human Relations instead of having to file a federal lawsuit.

The talking started when Sen. Douglas Peters, D-Prince George’s, proposed an amendment to the bill. Siding with small businesses, he feared that the legislation creates more regulations for them to comply with. He felt the legislation had too broad of a scope. His amendment would have turned the bill into a study.

Sen. Delores Kelley

Remembering being speedily evicted from her apartment near New York University as a college student because of racial discrimination, Sen. Delores Kelley, D-Baltimore County, was quick to oppose the amendment. She shared the story of the discrimination that took place against her many years ago.

“It isn’t trivial. You are made to feel like you are less than human,” said Kelley, who had been sent to NYU by her native Virginia because it didn’t want to de-segregate.

Nobody disagreed with Kelley’s argument, but Sen. E.J. Pipkin, R-Upper Shore, brought up another issue. Nationwide, there are lawyers who work with disabled people who go to older restaurants or other facilities. The disabled people take a look at things like entrances, bathrooms, and other accessibility issues. If everything is not 100% compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act, the disabled person and the lawyer they work with brings a lawsuit. Restaurants and other facilities are persuaded to settle because the amount being demanded is too much.

Several senators talked about lawsuits they knew about where disabled people and crafty attorneys tried to shut down or squeeze money out of establishments. Sen. David Brinkley, R – Frederick County, talked about county restaurants that had shut down because of onerous costs inflicted through lawsuits.

Sen. Allan Kittleman, R-Howard County, said that the lawsuits brought by people with disabilities are a serious issue, referencing a news article a few years old that detailed some of them filed in Maryland. He added that the concerns about discrimination – like the kind Kelley described – are real, even in this day and age. However, he said, anything that’s more onerous for businesses to deal with could be problematic.

“We all want access, but the concern some of us have is the greed for riches,” Kittleman said.

Sen. Lisa Gladden

Several senators said that a study couldn’t do much to stop the kinds of lawsuits that were described by their colleagues. Laws are already on the books to try to stop frivolous lawsuits, they argued. Bill sponsor Sen. Lisa Gladden, D-Baltimore City, said the legislation just allows people who feel they were discriminated against to file complaints about it in the local courts closer to home.

“This bill is not new. It’s like moving the car from the driveway to the garage. You don’t change the car, and you don’t move houses,” Gladden said.

Peters’ amendment was rejected with a vote of 18-26.

Sen. Thomas “Mac” Middleton, D-Charles County, recalled that provisions to specifically give protections from false claims were included in a Medicaid bill a couple years ago. He proposed inserting an amendment to do the same thing to protect small businesses from lawsuits filed by disabled people and their lawyers. The bill will be considered further on Friday.

–Megan Poinski
Megan@MarylandReporter.com