Minn. Discrimination Case Backlog Weighing Down Judicial System

Updated: 02/22/2013 10:45 PM KSTP.com By: Stephen Tellier

The scales of justice in Minnesota are being weighed down by a heavy backlog of discrimination cases.

A new report shows hundreds of potential victims are stuck waiting months, and sometimes years, just for the state to tell them whether they have a good case. And when it takes the state a long time to process discrimination cases, it can also bog down the judicial system as a whole.
"Justice delayed is justice denied," said Larry Schaefer, an employment attorney who files many of those cases.
The Minnesota Department of Human Rights' biannual report shows that at the end of 2012, the state had 842 pending discrimination cases. 169 were more than one year old, and on average, it took 325 days to close a case.
"Eradicating discrimination goes to the very foundations of democracy," said Kevin Lindsey, the commissioner of the DHR, which handles those cases.
Lindsey was an attorney until he took the job two years ago.
"There were some cases in which I literally picked up the complaint and was standing in front a jury in less time than it's taking us to investigate charges of discrimination," Lindsey said.
But his task is a tall one. The DHR's staff is half what it was in the mid-1990's.
"The caseload roughly for the number of investigators that we have in the office is about 76 cases," Lindsey said. "That's too many cases."
"We've had cases sitting in the department for 18 months or more," Schaefer said.
He also said they often rely on time-sensitive evidence.
"If you have a year, 18 months, 2 years before you proceed into the court system on a case that relies on that kind of evidence, it can have a tragic effect," Schaefer said.
Schaefer also said the backlog discourages some from filing claims in the first place.
But he understands the DHR is buried in cases, and only has a small shovel to dig out with.
"We are working very hard to continue to reduce the length of time, and we're going to continue to make progress," Lindsey said.
To some degree, they already have. Lindsey credits a streamlined investigative process for decreasing the backlog slightly since he took over. But he said he's unsure the state can make much more progress without more resources.
Gov. Mark Dayton's budget proposal includes adding two more employees, at a cost of $129,000 per year.
Minnesota's discrimination case backlog pales in comparison to the problem at the federal level. It's estimated that the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission currently has a backlog of more than 80,000 cases.