On July 23, SEPTA attorneys filed legal papers in Common Pleas Court claiming the PCHR has no jurisdiction to investigate bias complaints filed against SEPTA because SEPTA is a state agency.
SEPTA also requested a preliminary injunction to stop the PCHR from investigating seven pending bias complaints against SEPTA, claiming the agency otherwise would suffer “immediate and irreparable harm.”
The case has been assigned to Common Pleas Judge Gary F. DiVito, who had not issued a hearing date by press time.
“Pennsylvania law prohibits the City of Philadelphia or the Philadelphia Commission on Human Relations from applying the Fair Practices Ordinance to a Commonwealth agency like SEPTA,” the lawsuit states.
SEPTA’s attorneys argue that any bias complaints against SEPTA should be filed with the Pennsylvania Human Relations Commission, which has the authority to investigate stage agencies.
However, Pennsylvania state law doesn’t explicitly protect LGBT people from bias in housing, employment and public accommodations, and SEPTA’s lawsuit could limit the ability of LGBT people to file bias complaints against SEPTA.
At press time, city attorneys hadn’t responded to SEPTA’s lawsuit.
The seven bias complaints filed against SEPTA are pending at the PCHR, including two complaints dealing specifically with LGBT issues.
Richard Maloney, director of public affairs for SEPTA, said the jurisdictional challenge was filed because the PCHR allegedly is exceeding its scope of authority — not because SEPTA wishes to single out the LGBT community for exclusion.
“Regardless of what the issue might be, we are a state-chartered authority, and we have to abide by the charter,” he said. “Legal challenges have to go to the appropriate judicial authorities.”
One of the seven complaints in question deals with the placement of gender markers on SEPTA’s TransPasses. Members of the LGBT community say the gender markers add to the stigmatization of gender-variant community members, and some riders have been denied services due to disputes with SEPTA operators about their gender.
Maloney said SEPTA may phase out the gender markers within a year as it overhauls its fare-collection system. He said last month’s lawsuit has no bearing on SEPTA’s timetable for discontinuing the gender markers.
SEPTA receives about $62.9 million in city subsidies every year for its operating budget, according to budget records released by the transit agency.
Maloney said that any financial support SEPTA receives from the city wouldn’t confer jurisdictional rights to the PCHR.
Rue Landau, executive director of the Philadelphia Commission on Human Relations, expressed confidence that PCHR’s jurisdiction over SEPTA will be maintained.
“We’re confident that we’ll prevail in court, because we believe we do have jurisdiction over SEPTA,” Landau told PGN. “We’re confident that Judge DiVito will deny SEPTA’s request for a preliminary injunction along with the underlying complaint. The request for a preliminary injunction is particularly dubious because of SEPTA’s spurious claims of urgency and irreparable harm.”
Amary S. Chaudhry, legal director of Equality Advocates Pennsylvania, was disappointed with SEPTA’s lawsuit. She said the lawsuit doesn’t bode well for a prompt resolution of the TransPass gender-marker dispute.
“SEPTA’s decision to file this lawsuit is just the latest development in an ongoing series of delay tactics,” Chaudhry said. It’s disappointing that SEPTA doesn’t appear willing to resolve this TransPass issue.”
Timothy Cwiek can be reached at (215) 625-8501 ext. 208.