July 30 (Bloomberg) -- A New York City administrative law judge accused the city’s consumer affairs department in a lawsuit of pressuring her to impose maximum fines against businesses in cases where she didn’t think they were warranted.
Judge Michele Mirro, who started at the department in 1990, alleged that officials engaged in a pattern of pressuring judges into finding against businesses accused of code violations and assessing top fines, according to a complaint filed yesterday in federal court in Brooklyn, New York.
Starting in 2008, department officials stripped the judges of the power to issue decisions without supervisory approval, Mirro said in the complaint. Approval became required for “any ALJ decision in which the ALJ does not find the respondent at the hearing guilty with the imposition of a maximum fine,” Mirro said.
In one instance, Mirro said she was forced to change her decision to “guilty” and impose a $20,000 fine after first finding a business not guilty of charges against it.
The New York City Department of Consumer Affairs licenses more than 78,000 businesses and handles cases of violations and consumer protection issues, according to its website. In June, the New York Daily News reported that the department had implemented a quota system encouraging agency inspectors to “keep numbers high” for citations.
Mirro said she was subject to retaliation after complaining about the department’s practices. That included disciplinary charges and a threat of termination in January, she said. She also alleged in her complaint that her decisions have been subject to unusual scrutiny and that she has been assigned “burdensome clerical tasks” and a large caseload “to cause delinquency in submitting decisions.”
The judge seeks to remove negative disciplinary records against her, as well as an injunction against the department’s pressure tactics, compensation for “pain and suffering and damage to plaintiff’s reputation” plus a ruling that the department deprived her of her constitutional rights.
New York City’s law department is reviewing the allegations in the suit, Elizabeth Thomas, a spokeswoman for the city, said in an e-mailed statement.
“The timing of this lawsuit is curious given that the plaintiff was charged by DCA with incompetence a few months ago,” she said.
Stewart Lee Karlin, a lawyer for Mirro, said that disciplinary proceedings against the judge are pending.
“They’re trying to remove her,” he said in a phone interview. “The case really stands for the principle that a judge needs to be truly independent.”
New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg is the founder and majority owner of Bloomberg LP, the parent of Bloomberg News.
The case is Mirro v. The City of New York, 13-cv-04257, U.S. District Court, Eastern District of New York (Brooklyn).