Veterinarian wins 14-year old discrimination case against Government
A Bermudian vet has won a court battle to have human rights commissioners hear her 14-year-old discrimination case against Government.
Dr Susann Smith claims she’s been unfairly blocked from gaining a license to practise on the Island. She became the first black Bermudian woman to qualify as a vet when she gained her doctorate of veterinary medicine from Alabama’s Tuskegee University.
However, she claims she’s been discriminated against for going to Jamaica to gain further qualification to practise rather than passing American or European exams.
Last year, Acting Minister of Cultural Affairs Michael Scott blocked the recommendation of the Human Rights Commission [HRC] that a HRC board of inquiry should look into the issue.
Dr Smith, from Devonshire, challenged the Minister’s decision in the Supreme Court with the backing of Ombudsman Arlene Brock. In a Supreme Court ruling yesterday, Puisne Judge Ian Kawaley backed Dr Smith’s appeal for a HRC board of inquiry and awarded legal costs in her favour.
HRC boards of inquiry have the power to order that human rights-related grievances be addressed, and compensation paid to the injured party.
Dr Smith’s complaint dates back more than a decade. She was hired in 1994 as Government’s Veterinarian Trainee. In order to reach the position earmarked for her, Government Veterinarian, she had to qualify as a practising private vet.
Dr Smith was released from her Government contract in April 1997 after failing to pass US licensing board exams.
After failing the exams, Dr Smith traveled to Jamaica where vets are licensed to practise after graduation from a recognised university.
Upon her return to Bermuda, she applied to register as a practising vet, but her credentials were not accepted and she was released from her Government contract.
At the time of publicity over her case in 1997, the Bermuda Veterinarian Association said registration in the US or Europe had been the professional standard observed on the Island for decades and should remain so.
Dr Smith argued that a Jamaican veterinarian with the same qualifications as her was licensed in Bermuda just a month before she applied.
She issued a writ against the Minister for the Environment in October 1997 over the decision not to recognise her credentials.
Puisne Judge Geoffrey Bell ruled later that year that the Department of the Environment must set up a Veterinary Committee to hear her application for registration. He also ordered Government to foot the bill for Dr Smith’s legal costs.
However, despite repeated attempts to press Government over the issue, she still did not gain her registration.
In 2004, Dr Smith complained to the HRC, alleging the Minister for the Environment’s refusal to grant this was based on discrimination on the grounds of national origin.
Setting out that complaint in yesterday’s ruling, Mr Justice Kawaley wrote: “She was told that she had to be certified, according to a continuing policy, in either Britain [or a European country with qualifications recognised by Britain], Canada or the United States.
“In particular, as she had a Doctor of Veterinary Medicine degree from Tuskegee University, she was told she had to pass a US National Board Exam [NBE].
“This qualification was neither legislatively required [by the Agriculture Act 1930], nor imposed on a Jamaican vet who had the same doctoral degree from Tuskegee, who had also not taken the NBE, yet was still licensed to practise in Bermuda.”
The HRC dismissed Dr Smith’s complaint in April 2006. However, she complained to the Ombudsman, Ms Brock, over the way it was handled.
The Ombudsman decided Dr Smith’s complaint had been improperly dismissed, as she had not been given the correct information about the process and not given an opportunity to speak before it was dismissed.
Ms Brock recommended Dr Smith’s case should be re-opened by the HRC, which accepted her recommendation.
In December 2009, the HRC asked Acting Minister of Culture Mr Scott who had oversight of the HRC at the time to refer the complaint to a board of inquiry.
Mr Scott refused to do so, saying the HRC had no legal right to reconsider its previous decision to dismiss the complaint. Dr Smith applied to the Supreme Court for a judicial review of his decision.
Ms Brock intervened in the case to back her up, because she was concerned her right to hold public authorities to account in such cases was being called into question [see separate story.]
In yesterday’s ruling, Mr Justice Kawaley remitted Dr Smith’s discrimination case back to the Minister in charge of the HRC who is now Glenn Blakeney with a view to its referral to a board of inquiry.
The judge described Dr Smith’s human rights complaint as “meritorious” and questioned why the Acting Minister blocked her efforts to gain an inquiry in the first place.
He also upheld a point made by Dr Smith that there should be an amendment to the Human Rights Act to remove the role of the Minister as a filter between the HRC and the board of inquiry in the human rights process.
There is no such buffer in the Ontario legislation, which Bermuda’s is based on.
The judge noted the Minister’s involvement can cause delay and also a “legal minefield” if the HRC complaint is against another Government ministry, as in Dr Smith’s case.
He said the issue “merits policy reconsideration”.
Dr Smith does not practise as a vet, and is currently working at a jewellery store.
She did not make any comments during yesterday’s hearing and declined to comment on its outcome.
Mr Scott delined to comment last night.
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