§ 34-37-5. Prevention of unlawful housing practices.
(a) The commission is empowered and directed to prevent any person from violating any of the provisions of this chapter, provided that before instituting a formal proceeding it shall attempt by informal methods of conference, persuasion, and conciliation to induce compliance with this chapter.
(b) Upon the commission's own initiative or whenever an aggrieved individual or an organization chartered for the purpose of or engaged in combating discrimination or racism or of safeguarding civil liberties, that organization acting on behalf of one or more individuals being hereinafter referred to as the complainant, makes a charge, in writing, under oath, to the commission that any person, agency, bureau, corporation, or association, hereinafter referred to as the respondent, has violated or is violating, to the best of complainant's knowledge and belief, any of the provisions of this chapter, and that the alleged discriminatory housing practice has occurred or terminated within one year of the date of filing, the commission may initiate a preliminary investigation and if it shall determine after the investigation that it is probable that unlawful housing practices have been or are being engaged in, it shall endeavor to eliminate the unlawful housing practices by informal methods of conference, conciliation, and persuasion. Nothing said or done during these endeavors may be used as evidence in any subsequent proceeding. If after the investigation and conference, the commission is satisfied that any unlawful housing practice of the respondent will be eliminated, it may, with the consent of the complainant, treat the charge as conciliated, and entry of that disposition shall be made on the records of the commission. If the commission fails to effect the elimination of the unlawful housing practices and to obtain voluntary compliance with this chapter, or, if the circumstances warrant, in advance of any preliminary investigation or endeavors, the commission shall have the power to issue and cause to be served upon any person or respondent a complaint stating the charges in that respect and containing a notice of hearing before the commission, a member thereof, or a hearing examiner at a place therein fixed to be held not less than ten (10) days after the service of the complaint.
(c) The commission, member thereof, or hearing examiner conducting the hearing shall have the power reasonably and fairly to amend any written complaint at any time prior to the issuance of an order based thereon. The respondents shall have like power to amend its answer to the original or amended complaint at any time prior to the issuance of the order. The commissioner assigned to the preliminary hearing of any charge shall take no part in the final hearing except as a witness upon competent matters and will have no part in the determination or decision of the case after hearing.
(d) The respondent shall have the right to file an answer to the complaint and shall appear at the hearing in person or otherwise with or without counsel to present evidence and to examine and cross-examine witnesses.
(e) In any proceeding the commission, its member, or its agent shall not be bound by the rules of evidence prevailing in the courts.
(f) The commission shall in ascertaining the practices followed by the respondent take into account all evidence, statistical or otherwise, which may tend to prove the existence of a predetermined pattern of discrimination in housing.
(g) The testimony taken at the hearing shall be under oath and shall be reduced to writing and filed with the commission. Thereafter, in its discretion, the commission upon notice may take further testimony or hear argument.
(h)(1) If upon all the testimony taken the commission shall determine that the respondent has engaged in or is engaging in unlawful housing practices, the commission shall state its findings of fact and shall issue and cause to be served on the respondent an order requiring the respondent to cease and desist from the unlawful housing practices, and to take such further affirmative or other action as will effectuate the purposes of this chapter.
(2) The commission may also order the respondent to pay the complainant damages sustained thereby; costs, including reasonable attorney's fees incurred at any time in connection with the commission of the unlawful act, and civil penalties, any amounts awarded to be deposited in the state treasury. The civil penalty shall be (i) an amount not exceeding ten thousand dollars ($10,000) if the respondent has not been adjudged to have committed any prior discriminatory housing practice; (ii) in an amount not exceeding twenty-five thousand dollars ($25,000) if the respondent has been adjudged to have committed one other discriminatory housing practice during the five (5) year period ending on the date of filing this charge; and (iii) in an amount not exceeding fifty thousand dollars ($50,000) if the respondent has been adjudged to have committed two (2) or more discriminatory housing practices during the seven (7) year period ending on the date of the filing of this charge; except that if the acts constituting the discriminatory housing practice that is the object of the charge are committed by the same natural person who has been previously adjudged to have committed acts constituting a discriminatory housing practice, then the civil penalties set forth in (ii) and (iii) may be imposed without regard to the period of time within which any subsequent discriminatory housing practice occurred. When determining the amount of civil penalties, the commission shall consider as a mitigating factor whether the respondent has acted in good faith and whether the respondent has actively engaged in regular antidiscrimination educational programs. Provided that no order shall affect any contract, sale, encumbrance, or lease consummated before the issuance of the order and involving a bona fide purchaser, encumbrancer or tenant without actual notice of the charge filed under this title.
(i) If the commission shall find that no probable cause exists for crediting the charges, or, if upon all the evidence, it shall find that a respondent has not engaged in unfair housing practices, the commission shall state its findings of fact and shall issue and cause to be served on the complainant an order dismissing the complaint as to the respondent. A copy of the order shall be delivered in all cases to the attorney general and such other public officers as the commission deems proper.
(j) Until a transcript of the record in a case shall be filed in a court as provided in subsection (m), the commission may at any time, upon reasonable notice, and in such manner as it shall deem proper, modify or set aside, in whole or in part, any of its findings or orders.
(k) Until such time as a hearing is convened pursuant to this section, no publicity shall be given to any proceedings before the commission, either by the commission or any employee thereof, the complainant, or the respondent, except that in the event of a conciliation agreement the agreement shall be made public unless the complainant and respondent otherwise agree and the commission determines that disclosure is not required to further the purposes of this chapter. After the complaint issues and before an order issues, the commission shall not initiate any public notice of any charge or complaint before the commission, however, the commission may respond to inquiries about the status of a complaint.
(l) A complainant may seek a right to sue in state court if not less than one hundred and twenty (120) days and not more than two (2) years have elapsed from the date of filing of a charge, if the commission has been unable to secure a settlement agreement or conciliation agreement and if the commission has not commenced hearing on a complaint. The commission shall grant the right to sue within thirty (30) days after receipt of the request. This shall terminate all proceedings before the commission and shall give to the complainant the right to commence suit in the superior court within any county as provided in § 28-5-28 within ninety (90) days after the granting of the request. Any party may claim a trial by jury. The superior court may make orders consistent with subsection (h) and may also award punitive damages and such other damages as the court deems just and proper.
(m)(1) The commission is further empowered to file a complaint in the superior court in any county in which the unlawful housing practice allegedly occurs, or has occurred, or in which a defendant resides or maintains a business office, or in Providence County, seeking injunctive relief, including a temporary restraining order, against the defendant.
(2) No preliminary injunction shall be effective for more than thirty (30) days; provided that, if the defendant has sought judicial review of an order of the commission issued pursuant to this section, or if the commission has sought a decree of the court for the enforcement of the order, the preliminary injunction shall remain in full force and effect until such time as the judicial review or the commission's petition for the decree of enforcement is finally heard and determined.
(3) In any proceeding under this subsection, the commission may, if the prayer of the original or amended complaint so requests, proceed at the proper time to obtain the relief provided in § 34-37-6.
(4) The application by the commission for injunctive relief shall not prevent the commission from continuing to prosecute the proceeding before it out of which the application arises.
(5) Whenever a complaint shall be filed under the provisions of this subsection, the state shall be liable, in an action brought against it, for the payment of such costs and damages as may have been incurred or suffered by the defendant should final judgment be entered upon the complaint in favor of the defendant, or should the commission, having been denied temporary relief after the entry of a restraining order, fail to prosecute the matter further, or should the commission, having been granted temporary relief, fail to prosecute the matter further, unless, in the latter two (2) instances, failure to prosecute is caused by the making of an agreed settlement of any kind with the defendant, including a conciliation agreement.
(6) All proceedings taken pursuant to the provisions of this section shall take precedence over all other civil matters then pending before the court.
(n) When a complaint issues after a finding of probable cause under subsection (b), any party may elect to have the claims asserted in that complaint decided in a civil action in lieu of a hearing under subsections (b) (k). The election must be made not later than twenty (20) days after the receipt by the electing person of service of the complaint under subsection (b). The person making the election shall give notice of doing so to the commission, the attorney general, and to all other complainants and respondents to whom the charge relates.
(o) If an election is made under subsection (n):
(1) The complainant, the commission, or the attorney general may commence a civil action on behalf of the aggrieved person in the superior court within any county as provided in § 28-5-28 within ninety (90) days after receipt of notice of an election under subsection (n);
(2) Any party may claim a trial by jury. Any aggrieved person with respect to the issues to be determined in a civil action under this subsection may intervene as of right in that civil action;
(3) The superior court may make orders consistent with subsection (h) and may also award punitive damages and such damages as the court deems just and proper.
(P.L. 1965, ch. 27, § 1; P.L. 1968, ch. 49, § 1; P.L. 1968, ch. 58, § 2; P.L. 1988, ch. 664, § 1; P.L. 1990, ch. 398, § 1.)