Court rules SEPTA isn’t covered by city’s nondiscrimination law

A state appeals court has delivered a blow to Philadelphia’s civil rights watchdog, ruling that the city’s nondiscrimination law doesn’t apply to SEPTA.

The Philadelphia Human Relations Commission had received seven separate complaints between 2007 and 2009 that the authority was violating the city’s fair practices ordinance, which bans discrimination in public accommodations and in employment. The commission, whose members are appointed by the mayor, is in charge of enforcing the ordinance and can levy fines and penalties for noncompliance.

One of those complaints involved SEPTA’s controversial use of gender stickers on weekly and monthly transit passes. Transgender rights advocates have argued that the passes discriminate against people whose gender is unclear or doesn’t appear to match their appearances.

(SEPTA has promised that the new smart card won’t use gender stickers but says the stickers are important because they deter rider fare evasion. The new fare collection system is scheduled for rollout over the next two to three years.)

The other complaints came from both SEPTA riders and employees alleging race or gender discrimination.

After the commission began investigating the complaints, SEPTA filed suit in the Philadelphia Court of Common Pleas in 2009, arguing the city agency had no authority over it. Though the court dismissed SEPTA’s complaint, the authority appealed to Commonwealth Court.

Last week, the court came down firmly on SEPTA’s side.

Judge Johnny J. Butler, writing for the majority, said that the Pennsylvania Human Relations Commission, a state agency, was the appropriate body to hear discrimination complaints against SEPTA. He said the authority is a state agency and that its own authorizing legislation specifically prevents counties and municipalities from exercising powers over it.

Though the city’s human relations commission argued that state law allows the state commission to delegate investigations to it, the court ruled that the law doesn’t allow the city to take enforcement action against SEPTA on its own.

In a dissent, Judge Dan Pellegrini disagreed with that interpretation of state law, saying that the law that created the state human relations commission also gave the city’s commission overlapping jurisdiction over SEPTA.

Pellegrini also argued that previous state Supreme Court decisions allow local municipalities to exercise control over state agencies in regards to things like zoning provisions.

He wrote that the state Legislature never intended for SEPTA to be considered a state agency ― and thus covered by the state law. Rather, Pellegrini said, the Legislature created SEPTA to avoid having the state provide mass transit on its own.

SEPTA spokeswoman Jerri Williams said that the decision doesn’t mean that riders don’t have a way of filing discrimination complaints against the authority. Instead, she echoed the court’s majority by saying that they can lodge complaints at the state or federal level.

The Philadelphia Human Relations Commission didn’t return a call for comment on whether it would appeal the decision to the state Supreme Court.

SEPTA Riders Against Gender Exclusion, an activist group critical of the gender stickers, didn’t immediately return an email for comment ― though it appears the ruling deals a blow to the group’s stated goals. The state nondiscrimination law is less comprehensive than the city’s ordinance, which provides protections for sexual orientation and gender identity.

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