Judge Takes on NYC Consumer Affairs

BROOKLYN (CN) – New York City’s Department of Consumer Affairs retaliated against an administrative law judge for opposing its practice of pressuring judges to issue decisions in favor of the department and imposing maximum fines, the judge claims in court.
     The Hon. Michele Mirro sued The City of New York and its Department of Consumer Affairs in Federal Court.
     Mirro, who is the department’s senior ALJ, claims that as retaliation for complaining, she has been assigned hearings that run into her lunch hour, and is given burdensome clerical tasks and a large caseload.
     She claims that in 2008, her supervisor was changed to Nancy Schindler, director of the Adjudication Division, and Bruce Dennis, deputy director of the division. Both are defendants.
     Mirro claims that for five years Schindler and Dennis have pressured administrative law judges to rule in favor of the consumer affairs office, by removing judges’ power to issue decisions without supervisory approval. Dennis informed the judges that all decisions must be drafted as recommended decisions, “to be approved by Dennis prior to the issuance of the decision,” the lawsuit states.
     The defendants also required administrative law judges to issue recommended decisions, to be reviewed by Dennis and Schindler, using newly created templates to speed up the decision-making process, “removing the majority of the ALJ’s discretion in writing decisions, reducing the amount of writing time an ALJ had to write decisions and to impose high fines,” according to the complaint.
     Mirro claims Dennis provided instructions on how he wanted decisions to be decided, and that his approval was required on any ALJ decision.
     Commissioner Jonathan Mintz “has consistently approved this pattern and practice,” Mirro says. Mintz also is a defendant.
     Mirro cites a series of examples in which she recommended a not guilty decision or a mitigation of a fine, but says pressure from Dennis and his repeated corrections to the decisions forced her to find for the Department of Consumer Affairs and impose a maximum fine.
     Mirro claims she received a negative evaluation for not using the templates for decisions, though she did use them.
     The administrative law judges sent a protest letter to Civil Service Bar Association President Gloria Johnson in October 2009 regarding Dennis’ and Schindler’s practices, Mirro says.
     In retaliation, Mirro says, she and other ALJs were “threatened with disciplinary action, based on false allegations that decisions were not made in a timely manner and not found in favor of the DCA.”
     Mirro says she was unfairly criticized for her written decisions in a second performance evaluation.
     In one example, Mirro says, her ruling was overturned by Dennis, who “chose to ignore certain evidence presented at the hearing,” and imposed a fine of $800.
     She was given an “unsatisfactory” rating in April 2012.
     On June 17 this year, the New York Daily News reported that “following an investigation, it was discovered that DCA officials had secretly implemented a quota system several years ago to get their inspectors to write more citations and drive up revenue for the city, with those inspectors failing to meet their quota being given poor evaluations,” according to the complaint.
     “Instead of protecting consumers, the entire agency has been turned into a piggy bank for the city,” the lawsuit says, quoting a high-ranking DCA official in the Daily News story.
     Mirro seeks damages for violations of her First Amendment rights.
     She is represented by Stewart Lee Karlin.

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