Meet the Staff



Photo of Commissioner Maria Imperial

Maria L. Imperial was appointed by Governor Kathy Hochul as Commissioner for the NYS Division of Human Rights in October 2021.

Prior to her appointment, Ms. Imperial served as the CEO of the YWCA White Plains & Central Westchester, whose mission is eliminating racism and empowering women. Under Ms. Imperial's leadership, the YWCA completed a $26 million green renovation of its Residence, a $4 million bond refinancing of its North St. Activity Center, re-aligned the organization's programs to better reflect its mission, including the creation of the Westchester Center for Racial Equity opening April 2021.

Previous to her tenure at the YWCA, Ms. Imperial was Executive Director of the City Bar Justice Center, and Assistant Director and General Counsel of Safe Horizon. She began her career working as an associate at O'Melveny and Myers law firm.

Ms. Imperial has been recognized by Westchester 914 as a 2018 Women in Business Awardee and received Fordham Law School's Feerick Center for Social Justice Champion of Justice Award, the Westchester Human Rights Commission Award for promoting human rights in the County and also the Westchester Community Opportunity Program (WESTCOP) Community Service Award.

She is a graduate of Harvard University, the NYU Wagner Graduate School of Public Service, and Harvard Law School.

First Deputy Commissioner


Photo of Cicely Harris

Cicely Harris was appointed First Deputy Commissioner of the New York State Division of Human Rights in May 2022.  In her role, she serves as the chief administrative officer of the agency and works to implement efficiencies and maximize resources and productivity while continuing to strengthen the agency's presence around the State. 

Prior to this, Ms. Harris had served as the Acting First Deputy Commissioner of the Division since March 2020.  She joined the Division in 2019 as the Director of Compliance. 

Previously, Ms. Harris served for over 11 years as an Assistant District Attorney in the Bronx District Attorney’s Office, and as their Diversity and Inclusion Lead, and EEO Officer/Career Counselor.  She has also worked as a change/business management consultant for Accenture, LLC.

Ms. Harris is a member of the Metropolitan Black Bar Association, New York Hampton University Alumni Association, the Mid-Manhattan Branch of NAACP, Phi Alpha Delta Legal Fraternity, and New York Alumnae Chapter of Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, Inc.  Ms. Harris has been an active member of Manhattan Community Board 10 for the past ten years and currently serves as Board Chairperson.

Ms. Harris holds a BA in English from Hampton University in Virginia, a JD from Howard University School of Law, and has studied at the University of Cape Town in South Africa.

Deputy Commissioner, Enforcement


Photo of Melissa Franco

In October 2011, Ms. Franco was appointed to serve as Deputy Commissioner for Enforcement. In that capacity, she is responsible for identifying potentially high impact cases and designing investigative plans to carry out Division Initiated complaints. Ms. Franco also oversees the prosecuting attorneys.

Prior to joining the Division, Ms. Franco was with the King’s County District Attorney’s office where she served in various capacities including First Deputy Bureau Chief of a Trial Division; Deputy Bureau Chief of the Grand Jury Bureau; and a Senior Trial Attorney.

Ms. Franco holds a JD from Fordham University and BA in Psychology from the University of South Florida.





Deputy Commissioner, Regional Affairs & Federal Programs


Photo of Gina Martinez

In May 2015, Ms. Martinez was appointed Deputy Commissioner for Regional Affairs and Federal Programs. In this capacity, she is responsible for overseeing all of the Division's regional and satellite offices throughout New York State. She is also responsible for overseeing the Division's federal contracts with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) and the Federal Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD).

Prior to joining the Division, Ms. Martinez served as the Downstate Director in the Office of Administrative Hearings with the NYS Office of Temporary and Disability Assistance. Before coming to work for NYS, she was employed with the NYC Department of Education in various capacities including Deputy Director in the Office of Personnel Investigation, Litigation Attorney in the Teacher Performance Unit and Compliance Officer for the Office of Equal Opportunity. Ms. Martinez also worked with the NYC Mayor's Commission to Combat Police Corruption and previously served as an Assistant District Attorney in the Bronx County District Attorney's Office.

Ms. Martinez holds a BA in Psychology from the State University of New York at Binghamton and a JD from St. John's University School of Law.

Chief Administrative Law Judge


Lilliana Estrella-Castillo

Lilliana Estrella-Castillo was appointed Chief Administrative Law Judge of the New York State Division of Human Rights in May 2013.  As Chief Administrative Law Judge, she is responsible for the day to day statewide operations of the Hearing Unit, involving supervision of Administrative Law Judges, as well as the Calendar Unit which schedules all administrative matters coming before the Unit.

Ms. Estrella-Castillo joined the Division in January 1999, as a Senior Attorney in the Office of Administrative Law Judges, a title she held until September 2002 when she was appointed Administrative Law Judge.  As Administrative Law Judge, she presided over pre-hearing settlement conferences, preliminary conferences, and public hearings in cases where the Division issued a finding of probable cause.

Prior to joining the Division, Ms. Estrella-Castillo was an attorney in private practice for a boutique general practice law firm.  She is a member of the National Association of Administrative Judiciary, a recipient of the 2022 State Academy for Public Administration Public Service Excellence Award, and a member of Governor Kathy Hochul’s Latina Mentoring Initiative with the New York State Mentoring Program.

Ms. Estrella-Castillo is a graduate of Fordham University and New York Law School. 

General Counsel

General Counsel

Photo of Caroline Downey

Caroline Downey is an experienced attorney and long-term employee of the New York State Division of Human Rights.

As of January 2007, Ms. Downey became General Counsel for the Division of Human Rights.  As General Counsel, she advises the Commissioner on all legal matters affecting the Division.  She supervises the Legal Bureau, including the Legislation and Legal Opinions Unit, the Litigation and Appeals Unit, and the Legal Records Management Unit.  She also serves as the Division's Ethics Officer.

Ms. Downey joined the Division as a Legal Bureau Senior Attorney in 1981, after four years as Litigation Associate with the New York City law firm of Hawkins, Delafield and Wood. She first served in the Appeals and Litigation Unit at the Division, where she litigated many discrimination cases in the Appellate Divisions and the Court of Appeals, including Binghamton Federal Credit Union v. SDHR, which established that the denial of credit disability insurance to pregnant women constituted sex discrimination in the offering of credit under the Human Rights Law, and SDHR v. Onondaga Sheriff's Department, where the Court of Appeals, in a race and sex discrimination case, recognized that an employer's shifting explanations for its employment actions may give rise to an inference that later explanations are pretextual.  In 1992, Ms. Downey was promoted to the position of Director of Legislation and Legal Opinions for the Division, where her responsibilities included overseeing the Division's legislative and regulatory programs.  Ms. Downey was promoted to Supervising Attorney for the Division in June, 2005, the position she held until her promotion to General Counsel.

Ms. Downey lectures frequently in all areas involving interpretation of the Human Rights Law.

Ms. Downey is a graduate of Lake Erie College for Women and the Antioch School of Law.

Director of Disability Rights

Director of Disability Rights

Photo of John Herrion

John P. Herrion is an attorney with extensive experience in disability rights.

In March 2008, Mr. Herrion became Director of Disability Rights for the New York State Division of Human Rights. In this capacity, he assists with enforcement of the New York State’s Human Rights Law provisions that prohibit discrimination against persons with disabilities.

Prior to working at the New York State Division of Human Rights, Mr. Herrion was Counsel to the United Spinal Association for twelve years, where he represented and assisted persons with disabilities on a wide variety of issues relating to employment, housing, and access to places of public accommodation.

Mr. Herrion has published articles and lectured extensively, including Continuing Legal Education programs for attorneys, on the rights of persons with disabilities. He is a past Chair and Secretary of the New York City Bar Association’s Committee on Legal Issues Affecting Persons with Disabilities.

Mr. Herrion holds a law degree from Pace University School of Law, and a Bachelor of Arts degree from Manhattan College.

Senior Director, Hate & Bias Prevention Unit


Joan Pangilinan-Taylor

Joan Pangilinan-Taylor is the Senior Director of the Hate and Bias Prevention Unit (HBPU) at the New York State Division of Human Rights.  In her role, Joan oversees program development and implementation of the unit’s initiatives (Regional Councils, Rapid Response Team, Public Awareness Campaign, and the Youth Initiatives) and conducts conflict resolution trainings. 

Prior to this position, she was the Coordinator of the Alternative Dispute Resolution (ADR) Program at the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York where she worked as a staff mediator and supported program development. 

Joan also served as the Vice President of Mediation & Training at Community Mediation Services where she oversaw the development and supervision of mediation programs in Queens Civil Court, Surrogate's Court, Housing Court, Family Court, Community Mediation, Desk Appearance Ticket Mediation, Special Education Mediation, Elder Care Mediation, Divorce Mediation and Lemon Law Arbitration.  In addition, she supervised the growth and development of CMS training programs including the Basic Mediation Training, Apprenticeship Training, Surrogate’s Court Mediation Training and Restorative Justice practices. 

As a certified mediator, Joan has mediated over hundreds of civil, community, and family mediation cases.  She received her Juris Doctor degree from Northern Illinois University in 2004 and is a member of the Illinois State Bar since 2005.