Town Fails to Exhaust Administrative Remedies in Challenge to SDHR

The N.Y. Court of Appeals rejected a lawsuit by the Town of Oyster claiming an administrative complaint by the State Division of Human Rights (SDHR) was unconstitutional reverse discrimination. In Matter of the Town of Oyster Bay v. Kirkland, the SDHR had asserted a claim that certain provisions of the Town of Oyster Bay zoning ordinance discriminated against minorities in violation of the State Human Rights Law. Oyster Bay, without awaiting completion of the SDHR investigation, brought an action raising a number of claims. Except for the reverse discrimination claim the other claims were ultimately dropped by the Town.

The Court began by analyzing the exhaustion of administrative remedies rule and the exceptions to that rule:

"The exhaustion rule, however, is not an inflexible one. It is subject to important qualifications. It need not be followed, for example, when an agency's action is challenged as either unconstitutional or wholly beyond its grant of power, or when resort to an administrative remedy would be futile or when its pursuit would cause irreparable injury" (Watergate II Apts. v Buffalo Sewer Auth., 46 NY2d 52, 57 [1978] [citations omitted]). Here, the Town has abandoned its argument that the SDHR's complaint was ultra vires, but pursues its claim that the SDHR is engaged in unconstitutional "reverse discrimination.'"

However, the Court noted that, " 'merely asserting a constitutional violation will not excuse a litigant from first pursuing administrative remedies that can provide the requested relief'." Therefore, the Court concluded that the matter should be addressed first at the administrative level, as an administrative law judge could find that the zoning is not discriminatory.

-Steven Silverberg