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Klee v. Missouri Commission on Human Rights

Court of Appeals of Missouri, Western District, Fourth Division

April 25, 2017


         Appeal from the Circuit Court of Cole County, Missouri The Honorable Daniel R. Green, Judge

          Before: Mark D. Pfeiffer, Chief Judge, Presiding, Lisa White Hardwick, Judge, Gary D. Witt, Judge

          Gary D. Witt, Judge

         Appellant Christopher Klee ("Klee") appeals from the judgment of the Circuit Court of Cole County denying his petition for judicial review of a non-contested case pursuant to section 536.150.[1] Klee had filed a complaint under the Missouri Human Rights Act ("MHRA") with the Respondent the Missouri Human Rights Commission ("MHRC") claiming unlawful discrimination in his conditions of employment with the Southeast Missouri Mental Health Center ("SMMHC"). The MHRC dismissed Klee's complaint for lack of jurisdiction. Klee filed this action with the circuit court, seeking review of the MHRC's dismissal of his complaint. The circuit court found that Klee was not protected by the MHRA as he was not an employee of SMMHC. Klee now raises two points on appeal challenging the circuit court's judgment. We reverse and remand.

         Factual Background

         Klee was admitted as a patient of SMMHC on November 29, 2010, after pleading not guilty by reasons of mental disease or defect under section 552.040, and was diagnosed by his treating psychiatrist with pedophilia, non-exclusive type. SMMHC is a part of the Missouri Department of Mental Health, a state agency. Klee resides at and receives services from SMMHC.

         On March 9, 2011, Klee began to perform part-time work for SMMHC. Klee primarily worked as a dishwasher, but has also worked to help build a greenhouse and grow food. For the years 2011 through 2013, Klee received compensation from SMMHC for his work in the form of wages. He is currently paid $7.71 per hour and has never been paid less than minimum wage. In 2011, Klee earned $1, 762.70. He had elected on his W-4, the Employee's Withholding Allowance Certificate, to have $50 withheld from every paycheck. In 2012, Klee earned $4, 729.41 in wages and on his W-4 elected to have $100 withheld from every paycheck. In 2013, Klee earned $4, 321.25 in wages and on his W-4 elected to have $200 withheld from every paycheck. For each of these years, Klee's W-2 form listed Klee as an employee and the State of Missouri as his employer.

         On March 19, 2013, Klee was told by his psychiatrist Dr. Veera Reddy ("Dr. Reddy") that he had to file a second W-4 form with a decrease in deductions or else he would be terminated from his job. Pursuant to a state regulation, SMMHC was able to automatically deduct from Klee's paycheck a certain percentage of his wages for reimbursement of his care. SMMHC felt that Klee was "gaming the system" by taking too large a withholding from his check, thereby depriving the State of Missouri of the compensation to which it was entitled. Klee did as he was instructed and filed a new W-4 form.

         On August 26, 2013, Klee filed a charge of discrimination based on his disability with the MHRC. The MHRC provided to Klee on April 24, 2014 a Notice of Termination of Proceedings in which it made an administrative finding that it lacked jurisdiction over the claim because there was no employer-employee relationship between Klee and SMMHC.

         Pursuant to section 536.150, Klee filed his Petition for Administrative Review of the MHRC's decision with the Circuit Court of Cole County, which was subsequently amended. A hearing on the matter was held before the circuit court at which evidence was presented.

         The evidence at the hearing established that Klee has been seeing his psychiatrist, Dr. Reddy, at SMMHC for approximately five years. Klee works at SMMHC and receives wages in return, even though patients are not required to work. Dr. Reddy testified that SMMHC wants all patients to work to improve their self-esteem and keep their job skills so that they have those skills when they leave the facility. Both Dr. Reddy and Work Therapy Specialist Ms. Lisa Nokes ("Ms. Nokes") did not believe Klee's disability would have prevented him from performing the job tasks he was assigned at SMMHC. Ms. Nokes is in charge of assessing clients, placing them in the therapeutic work program, and assessing their progress and behaviors on an ongoing basis. Klee, in performing his work duties, is given a work shift and is required to arrive and leave work at a particular time.

         Ms. Kelly LaBruyere ("Ms. LaBruyere"), a Reimbursement Officer at SMMHC, has a case load of consumers, patients and clients for whom she is responsible in determining whether those individuals have resources with which they can reimburse the State for their treatment. The Department of Mental Health applies, pursuant to 9 CSR 10-31.011(10), the standard means test, which requires the department to apply toward the cost of a client's services forty percent of all net earned income exceeding $100 per month for working clients. Klee is on the payroll of SMMHC.

         On May 5, 2016, the circuit court affirmed the determination of the MHRC that there was no employer-employee relationship between Klee and SMMHC for two reasons. First, the circuit court found that Klee meets a statutory exception to the definition of "employee" as defined by section 290.500(3). Second, the circuit court found that considering Klee an employee would be inconsistent with the MHRA. Klee appeals.

         Standard of Review

         Individuals bringing claims under the MHRA pursuant to section 213.055 may, within 180 days of the alleged act of discrimination, file a complaint with the MHRC. Any person aggrieved by the order of the MHRC may appeal as provided in Chapter 536. See Section 213.075.16. Section 536.150.1 authorizes review by "suit for injunction, certiorari, mandamus, prohibition or other appropriate action . . . . "

         "On appeal from the circuit court's review of a non-contested administrative decision, we review the circuit court's judgment, not the administrative agency's decision." Spurgeon v. Mo. Consolidated Health Care Plan, 481 S.W.3d 604, 606 (Mo. App. W.D. 2016).

Appellate review of the circuit court's judgment in a noncontested case is essentially the same as the review for a court-tried case. [State ex rel. Straatmann Enter., Inc. v. County of Franklin, 4 S.W.3d 641, 645 (Mo. App. W.D. 1999).] Thus, the scope of appellate review is governed by Rule 73.01 as construed in Murphy v. Carron, 536 S.W.2d 30 (Mo. banc 1976). Cade v. State, 990 S.W.2d 32, 37 (Mo. App. W.D. 1999). Accordingly, the appellate court reviews the circuit court's judgment to determine whether its finding that the agency decision was or was not unconstitutional, unlawful, unreasonable, arbitrary, capricious, or the product of an abuse of discretion rests on substantial evidence and correctly declares and applies the law. Id.

Mo. Nat'l Educ. Assoc. v. Mo. State Bd. of Educ., 34 S.W.3d 266, 274-75 (Mo. App. W.D. 2000); see also Sch. Dist. of Kansas City, Mo. v. Mo. Bd. of Fund Comm'rs, 384 S.W.3d 238, 264 (Mo. App. W.D. 2012).


         In Point One, Klee argues the circuit court erred in finding that he meets a statutory exception to the definition of "employee" under section 290.500(3)(b) as the Missouri Human Rights Act does not define "employee" and it was legal error to apply the statutory exception relied upon by the trial court to deny his employee status.[2] Klee argues there was ...

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