By Karen Orlando
Friday, December 29, 2000
The New York City Council passed two laws for victims of gender-based violence: One allows victims to sue their attackers for damages; the other bars employers from firing or discriminating against victims of domestic violence.
NEW YORK (WOMENSENEWS)--Women's legal advocates succeeded in obtaining passage of two laws designed to protect and assist victims of gender-based violence.
In early December, the city gave victims of sexual and other gender-related violence the right to sue their attackers for civil damages in courts here, becoming the first citizens in the nation with that right of civil, economic redress.
"This law recognizes that victims of domestic violence are in fact victims of a criminal act and should be permitted the same justice permitted to victims of other acts of violence, including the right to financial compensation from their attacker," said Kim Susser, director of the Domestic Violence Initiative at New York Legal Assistance Group.
The city's Gender-Motivated Violence Protection Act is similar to, but stronger than, a 1994 anti-gender violence law. While the federal act contained a four-year statute of limitations, the New York City law has a seven-year limit.
Last May, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled Congress had gone too far in the federal Violence Against Women Act when it gave victims of gender-based violence the right to sue their attackers in federal courts for punitive damages and payment of lawyers' fees.
However, states and municipalities remained free to enact their own similar laws. In addition to New York, Illinois and Arizona have similar bills pending. The law was adopted unanimously, supported by the mayor and public advocate, as well as by numerous women's and community organizations. It went into effect Dec. 19 when Mayor Rudolph Giuliani signed it into law.
The New York City Council passed a second bill on Dec. 19. It prohibits employers from firing or discriminating against victims of domestic violence. Giuliani opposes the bill, which was passed by a veto-proof margin.
Dorchen A. Leidholdt, director of the Sanctuary for Families' Center for Battered Women's Legal Services, said the laws were needed even though the legal climate for battered women has improved in the past decade.
"While it is true that victims are more likely to obtain protection and batterers are more likely to be arrested than they were a decade ago, meaningful economic justice for victims of gender-based violence remains an elusive goal," she said in her testimony before the council.
Some critics of the new right-to-sue law say that it will have little practical effect because currently the city did not appropriate funds to facilitate women's access to the courts, to pay for attorneys or to educate them about their rights.
However, Leidholdt is gearing up to make use of the new law. Her office, which serves New York City victims of domestic violence, represents many immigrant women who might benefit, she said. Some of these women have husbands or ex-husbands with more-than-meager sources of income, though the women might not have been able to receive an adequate divorce settlement because their marriages were relatively short-lived or they had little bargaining power.
For many women, any amount of money, even $1,500, to compensate for injuries, lost work or damaged property, could make a huge difference, Leidholdt added. The seven years they have to file suit, she said, will enable more women to take civil action once they have addressed their immediate needs for protection, acceptance and healing.
Leidholdt agrees that it might be difficult to prove the violence was gender-motivated, but she intends to try.
The second piece of legislation, Victim Job Protection, amends the New York City Human Rights Law to "provide employment discrimination protection for New Yorkers who are actual or perceived victims of domestic violence." The act attempts to address the impact of domestic violence in the workplace.
The bill's supporters said studies have determined that between 24 percent and 52 percent of battered women surveyed had lost a job due in part to domestic violence. Further, 66 percent of senior executives at Fortune 500 companies surveyed believe that their companies' financial performance would improve if they addressed the issue of domestic violence.
"The consequences of domestic violence run deep, for women, for children and for employers," said New York Public Advocate Mark Green, author of the bill. "By prohibiting firms from discriminating against domestic violence victims, New York City can lead the nation in helping both thousands of women and children escape abuse and businesses keep good dedicated employees."
The Mayor's office, however, said that without a clear standard of proof of victimization, the legislation left room for abuse, and that the bill unfairly gives special status to the victims of one particular crime, domestic violence. After a public hearing, Giuliani will decide whether to sign the bill.
Supporters countered that crimes associated with gender violence, such as domestic abuse, are different from other types of crimes. In other criminal cases, the abuser or attacker is usually a stranger, and the crime may be a one-time occurrence. But domestic violence is a personal act that occurs repeatedly, they said.
"The abused person is never safe because the abuser knows where they work, knows where they live and can find them in order to continue the abuse at any time. They are in danger 24 hours a day and under extreme stress," said Tamara Steckler, Esq., assistant executive director of the Family Law Unit of the New York Legal Assistance Group.
The legislation is necessary because abusers often deliberately make troubles by creating daycare problems or filing lawsuits, so that the victims must take time off from work, Steckler added.
The city of Miami, the state of Maine and a few other jurisdictions have passed similar laws to protect women's jobs or have provided unpaid leaves of absence in the case of domestic violence.
Another proposed New York City bill is modeled on the national Family Leave Act and would provide unpaid leaves of absence, in some cases as long as 12 weeks, for certain victims of domestic violence. However, the City Council has not yet voted on it.
Karen Orlando is a free-lance writer in New York.
Sanctuary for Families:
Legal-Aid Society of New York:
New York Legal Assistance Group:
Public Advocate for City of New York:
New York City Council: