Posted on February 15, 2012

Ruling in Lawyer’s Claim of ‘Racial Profiling’ Overturned

Jeff Gray, Globe and Mail, February 14, 2012

A well-known Toronto lawyer who alleged that a librarian “racially profiled” him at a Brampton, Ont., courthouse has seen a ruling in his favour at the Human Rights Tribunal of Ontario thrown out.

Selwyn Pieters, and another lawyer, Brian Noble, were awarded $2,000 each in a 2010 tribunal decision that said they faced discrimination when they were asked for identification in a courthouse lounge reserved for lawyers and law students.

The May, 2008, incident quickly blew up into a heated confrontation with Melissa Firth, a librarian and administrator with the Peel Law Association, according to court documents. Mr. Pieters and Mr. Noble, who were accompanied by a black law student, alleged that Ms. Firth asked them for identification only because they were black.

But in a Divisional Court ruling issued Feb. 13, a three-judge panel led by Madam Justice Sandra Chapnik overturned the Human Rights Tribunal’s ruling and ordered Mr. Pieters and Mr. Noble to pay $20,000 in court costs.

It was wrong to conclude that there was clear evidence of discrimination in this case, the Divisional Court said about the decision by Eric Whist, vice-chair of the Human Rights Tribunal of Ontario.

The ruling notes that the librarian had asked hundreds of other people over the years for ID in the lounge, including white lawyers. And the ruling says there was evidence, ignored by the tribunal, of an alternative reason Ms. Firth asked the three men for ID and not anyone else: They were closest to the door when she came in.

“The decision was not rationally supported,” the Divisional Court ruled. “It does not fall within the range of possible acceptable outcomes defensible in fact and law.”

Mr. Pieters, who has acted in racial discrimination cases and for clients accused of high-profile crimes, said he may seek to appeal the ruling.

“Justice Chapnik’s ruling doesn’t change the way I feel about what happened,” Mr. Pieters said in a telephone interview from Trinidad, where he said he is working for a law firm until April.

“We know that racism in the criminal justice system, in the legal profession, is endemic,” he said. “I think you know it when you feel it.”

Mr. Pieters also called the $20,000 in legal costs he was ordered to pay “totally disproportionate.”

Mark Freiman, a lawyer with Lerners LLP who represented Ms. Firth and the Peel Law Association, said the Divisional Court ruling means those alleging racial discrimination in future cases will have to provide clearer evidence.

“This is an important case because it lays down principles for when there’s an allegation of racial profiling,” Mr. Freiman said.

Ms. Firth and the Peel Law Association did not respond to requests for comment.