Pa.: SEPTA May Be Bound by Philadelphia’s Discrimination Law

By Rosemarie Lally Dec 16, 2014

A state court’s finding that the Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority (SEPTA) was not bound by Philadelphia’s local discrimination law was rejected by the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, which sent the case back to the lower court to determine whether the goals of the city or the transportation authority should prevail.

The case arose from seven discrimination complaints brought against SEPTA by both employees and passengers who claimed the authority had violated the Philadelphia Fair Practices Ordinance (FPO). Atleasttwooftheadministrativecomplaintsincludedclaimsofdiscriminationcovered bytheFPO, but not by the Pennsylvania Human Relations Act (PHRA). Among other things, the FPO protects against discrimination in employment based upona person’s race, ethnicity, color, sex, sexual orientation, gender identity,religion,national origin, ancestry, age, disability, marital status, familial status,geneticinformation,ordomesticorsexualviolencevictimstatus, andinpublicaccommodationsbased upon the same factors with the exception of age and genetic information. The PHRA protects most, but not all, of the categoriesofindividuals covered by the FPO.In general terms, the PHRA protectsagainstdiscriminationinemployment,housing,andpublicaccommodationbecauseofrace,color,familialstatus,religiouscreed,ancestry,handicapordisability,age,sex,andnationalorigin.

In the initial proceedings, SEPTA argued that the state had placed an implicit limitation on Philadelphia's powers and prohibited the city from regulating state agencies. Making a regional agency comply with a more stringent anti-discrimination law in one city than it faces elsewhere would create regulatory chaos, SEPTA contended.

On the other hand, the city argued that a decision in SEPTA’s favor would clearly frustrate the Philadelphia Commission on Human Relations’ goals of enforcing the Fair Practices Ordinance while a finding for the city would not impede SEPTA's main goal of providing public transportation.

The Commonwealth Court ruled that SEPTA, established as an agency and instrumentality of the state, was bound only by the state’s anti-discrimination law, and not by the provisions of the FPO enforced by the Philadelphia Commission on Human Relations. The court found that the city anti-discrimination ordinance did not explicitly state that it covered SEPTA.

On appeal, the Supreme Court said that the lower court had not properly analyzed the statutes or followed precedent. "This court has held that a commonwealth agency's challenge to a municipality's exercise of authority over it does not represent 'a contest between superior and inferior governmental entities, but instead a contest between two instrumentalities of the state,'" the court said, citing its 1984 decision in Commonwealth v. Ogontz Area Neighbors Association.

The legislature authorized both entities—SEPTA and the city of Philadelphia—and also set limits on the authority of each, the high court noted, rejecting SEPTA's argument that, for a local government agency to prevail, the legislature had to expressly state its intent in that regard. It is the court's responsibility to examine the relevant statutes to determine which entity the legislature intended to have preeminent powers, the court held, remanding the case to the lower court for further consideration.

A dissenting opinion stated that the majority holding had created the possibility that “SEPTA, a multistate transportation authority operating in over 100 municipalities across southeastern Pennsylvania, will be forced to ensure compliance with every anti-discrimination ordinance enacted by a municipality in which it operates.”

Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority v. City of Philadelphia, Pa., No. 20 EAP 2013 (Sept. 24, 2014).

Rosemarie Lally, J.D., is a freelance legal writer and editor based in Washington, D.C.

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