Black lawyers racially profiled when librarian asked for ID, court rules

TORONTO – Two black lawyers were correctly found to be victims of racial profiling when an administrator at a lawyers-only lounge at a courthouse asked them to identify themselves, Ontario’s top court ruled Thursday.

In a rare decision on racial profiling that does not involve law-enforcement officials, the court reinstated a human-rights tribunal ruling that found discrimination against the lawyers and their black articling student.

“The Court of Appeal decision in this case is important to the emerging jurisprudence on racial profiling from which lawyers and other black professionals are not immune,” lawyer Selwyn Pieters said.

The incident occurred five years ago when Toronto-based lawyer Pieters, who has dreadlocks, his colleague Brian Noble and a student were at a proceeding at courthouse in Brampton, Ont. The trio went to the lounge run by the Peel Law Association during a break.

Association policy bars anyone other than lawyers or law students from the facility.

Evidence before the Human Rights Tribunal of Ontario was that the woman in charge of the lounge, Melissa Firth, asked the ungowned trio to identify themselves as lawyers or law students. She asked no one else.

Among other things, Firth maintained she only questioned the three men because they were seated closest to the door.

The tribunal found Firth’s explanation that she knew everyone else in the lounge to be false, and questioned her credibility. It accepted evidence she was “aggressive” in challenging the trio and “blunt and demanding” in contrast to her usual approach.

The tribunal decided Firth failed completely to offer a credible non-discriminatory explanation for her decision to challenge the three black men.

The tribunal awarded $2,000 to each of the three for injury to dignity.

However, the Divisional Court overturned the decision, ruling the tribunal made several errors in concluding the men had been discriminated against. It found the decision unreasonable.

In quashing the Divisional Court ruling, the Appeal Court found the tribunal chairman had provided “clear, intelligible reasons” to explain his decision, which was reasonable.

“The Divisional Court erred in concluding that it did not,” the Appeal Court said.

“Many of (the tribunal’s) findings were supported by the evidence of an independent witness whom (the tribunal) had found to be credible,” the court ruled.

The upper court reinstated the $2,000 tribunal award to the trio. It also awarded them $30,000 in costs.

Five groups intervened in the appeal. Among them was a group that said people with dreadlocked hair experience much discrimination, and the Ontario Human Rights Commission, which argued the Divisional Court failed to give sufficient deference to the tribunal’s findings of fact.