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R.M.A. v. Blue Springs R-IV School District

Court of Appeals of Missouri, Western District, Third Division

July 18, 2017

R.M.A. (A MINOR CHILD), BY HIS NEXT FRIEND: RACHELLE APPLEBERRY, Appellant,
v.
BLUE SPRINGS R-IV SCHOOL DISTRICT AND BLUE SPRINGS SCHOOL DISTRICT BOARD OF EDUCATION, Respondents.

         Appeal from the Circuit Court of Jackson County, Missouri The Honorable Marco Roldan, Judge

          Before: Anthony Rex Gabbert, Presiding Judge, Victor C. Howard, Judge and Cynthia L. Martin, Judge

          Cynthia L. Martin, Judge

         R.M.A., a minor child, by his next friend, appeals from a judgment dismissing with prejudice his petition against the Blue Springs R-IV School District ("School District") and the Blue Springs School District Board of Education ("School Board") which alleged discrimination in public accommodation, specifically, the boys' locker rooms and restrooms, based on sex. We affirm.

         Factual and Procedural History[1]

         On October 24, 2014, R.M.A. filed a charge of discrimination with the Missouri Commission on Human Rights ("MCHR"). R.M.A.'s charge alleged discrimination in public accommodation based on sex. The MCHR charge alleged that R.M.A. was a female to male transgender teenager attending school in the School District as a high school freshman. R.M.A. alleged that he lives as a male, has changed his legal name to a traditionally male name, and presents himself as male to all faculty, staff and other students in the School District. R.M.A. alleged that the School District had permitted him to participate in boys' physical education class, boys' football, and boys' track, but that he had not been permitted to use the boys' locker room or bathroom "based on my sex and gender identity for the entire school year of 2013-2014."

         On July 8, 2015, the MCHR issued a notice of right to sue, terminating its administrative proceedings. On October 2, 2015, R.M.A. filed suit against the School District and the School Board (collectively "Defendants") alleging discrimination in the use of a public accommodation in violation of section 213.010 et seq.[2] "on the grounds of his sex." Specifically, R.M.A.'s petition alleged that Defendants' exclusion of him from the boys' restrooms and locker rooms subjected him "to different requirements for accessing the services of the school because of his sex." R.M.A.'s petition alleged that he is a female to male transgender teenager who transitioned to living as a male in September 2009. R.M.A.'s petition alleged that his name was legally changed in 2010 to a name traditionally given males, that his School District records reflect his name as changed, and that he received a court order authorizing the amendment of his birth certificate to amend his gender from female to male in December 2014.[3] R.M.A.'s petition alleged that access to the same locker rooms and restrooms as other boys who participate in physical education and athletics has been denied because R.M.A. "is transgender and is alleged to have female genitalia."

         The Defendants filed a motion to dismiss R.M.A.'s lawsuit for failure to state a claim upon which relief could be granted. The motion asserted two grounds for dismissal: (i) that the School District and School Board are not "persons" within the scope of section 213.010(14) and 213.065.2; and (ii) that "the Missouri Human Rights Act does not extend its protection to claims based on gender identity." In later filed supplemental suggestions, the Defendants added a third ground for dismissal, arguing that R.M.A. was collaterally estopped to assert his claim of discrimination by the determination made in R.M.A.'s separately filed mandamus action that the Missouri Humans Rights Act does not extend its protection to claims based on gender identity.

          The trial court entered an order of dismissal and entry of judgment ("Judgment") on June 28, 2016, granting the Defendants' motion to dismiss with prejudice. The Judgment did not explain the basis for the trial court's ruling. R.M.A. filed a motion to reconsider and to amend the Judgment, repeating the arguments expressed in R.M.A's pleadings filed in opposition to the motion to dismiss.[4] The motion to reconsider was denied on August 18, 2016. R.M.A. filed this appeal on August 25, 2016.

         Timeliness of Appeal

         Before reaching the merits of R.M.A's appeal, we are obligated to address the timeliness of the appeal. "Timely filing of a notice of appeal is jurisdictional." Spicer v. Donald N. Spicer Revocable Living Tr., 336 S.W.3d 466, 471 (Mo. banc 2011) (quoting Berger v. Cameron Mut. Ins. Co. 173 S.W.3d 639, 640 (Mo. banc 2005)). "If a notice of appeal is untimely, the appellate court is without jurisdiction and must dismiss the appeal." Id. at 471-72 (quoting Popular Leasing USA, Inc. v. Universal Art Corp. of New York, 57 S.W.3d 875, 877 (Mo. App. E.D. 2001)). We have "a duty to determine sua sponte whether we have jurisdiction to review an appeal." Rocking H Trucking, LLC v. H.B.I.C., LLC, 427 S.W.3d 891, 895 (Mo. App. W.D. 2014) (quoting Gerken v. Mo. Dep't of Soc. Servs., 415 S.W.3d 734, 737 (Mo. App. W.D. 2013)).

          "No . . . appeal shall be effective unless the notice of appeal shall be filed not later than ten days after the judgment or order appealed from becomes final." Section 512.050; Rule 81.04(a). Here, the Judgment was a Rule 74.01(a) judgment, and was thus subject to Rules 75.01 and 81.05(a)(1), which combine to provide that a judgment becomes final at the expiration of thirty days after its entry if no timely authorized after-trial motion is filed.

         After the Judgment was entered, R.M.A. filed a motion for reconsideration. "[A] motion for reconsideration is not recognized by . . . Missouri rules." Mayes v. Saint Luke's Hosp. of Kansas City, 430 S.W.3d 260, 264 n.7 (Mo. banc 2014) (citing St. Louis Cnty. v. Prestige Travel, Inc., 344 S.W.3d 708, 712 (Mo. banc 2011)). A motion for reconsideration is not, therefore, an authorized after-trial motion. An authorized after-trial motion is one which seeks relief expressly provided by Rule 75.01, which authorizes a trial court during the thirty-day period after the entry of a judgment to "vacate, reopen, correct, amend, or modify its judgment."

         Though R.M.A.'s motion to reconsider is not recognized by Missouri rules, "[t]he legal character of a pleading is determined by its subject matter and not its designation to the extent that courts ignore the denomination of a pleading and look to its substance to determine its nature." Hague v. Trs. of Highlands of Chesterfield, 431 S.W.3d 504, 510 (Mo. App. W.D. 2014) (quoting Weber v. Weber, 908 S.W.2d 356, 359 (Mo. banc 1995)). The motion for reconsideration asked the trial court to deny the Defendants' motion to dismiss, and thus effectively asked that the Judgment be vacated. We therefore disregard R.M.A's denomination of his after-trial motion, and deem it to be a Rule 75.01 motion to vacate. See Mayes, 430 S.W.3d at 264 n.7 (holding that a motion to reconsider filed after an order of dismissal, and which asked the trial court to vacate its dismissal order, would be viewed as a Rule 75.01 motion to vacate).

         The trial court denied R.M.A's motion to reconsider (vacate) on August 18, 2016. The Judgment became final on that date. Rule 81.05(a)(2)(B). R.M.A.'s notice of appeal was filed on August 25, 2016, and was therefore timely pursuant to Rule 81.04(a).

         Standard of Review

         We review the grant of a motion to dismiss with prejudice de novo. Ambers-Phillips v. SSM DePaul Health Ctr., 459 S.W.3d 901, 905 (Mo. banc 2015). "When this Court reviews the dismissal of a petition for failure to state a claim, the facts contained in the petition are treated as true and they are construed liberally in favor of the plaintiffs." Lynch v. Lynch, 260 S.W.3d 834, 836 (Mo. banc 2008) (citing Ste. Genevieve Sch. Dist. R-II v. Bd. of Alderman, 66 S.W.3d 6, 11 (Mo. banc 2002)). "If the petition sets forth any set of facts that, if proven, would entitle the plaintiffs to relief, then the petition states a claim." Id. (citing Ste. Genevieve Sch. Dist. R-II, 66 S.W.3d at 11). A "petition states a cause of action if 'its averments invoke principles of substantive law [that] may entitle the plaintiff to relief.'" Id. (quoting Asaro v. Cardinal Glennon Mem'l Hosp., 799 S.W.2d 595, 597 (Mo. banc 1990)). We will affirm the trial court's dismissal of a petition for failure to state a claim "if it can be sustained on any ground supported by the motion to dismiss." Beck v. Fleming, 165 S.W.3d 156, 158 (Mo. banc 2005). Where "a trial court fails to state a basis for its dismissal, this Court presumes the dismissal was based on the grounds stated in the motion to dismiss." Lueckenotte v. Lueckenotte, 34 S.W.3d 387, 391 (Mo. banc 2001).

          Analysis

         R.M.A. raises three points on appeal, each claiming error in the grant of Defendants' motion to dismiss. The first point alleges error because the "petition stated a claim for which relief can be granted, in that the Missouri Human Rights Act prohibits sex discrimination in public accommodation, including discrimination on the basis of gender-related traits." The second point alleges error because the "petition stated a claim for which relief can be granted against each [D]efendant, in that both school districts and boards of education are 'persons' under the Missouri Human Rights Act." The third point alleges error because "the doctrine of collateral estoppel does not apply to interpretations of law and . . . was not properly raised." R.M.A.'s points on appeal appropriately address each basis for dismissal argued in the Defendants' motion to dismiss as supplemented, and thus each basis on which the trial court's Judgment could have been entered. However, we need not address all three points on appeal if our resolution of any one point requires us to affirm the trial court's Judgment.

         Point One

         R.M.A. alleges it was error to dismiss his petition for failure to state a claim because the "petition stated a claim for which relief can be granted, in that the Missouri Human Rights Act prohibits sex discrimination in public accommodation, including discrimination on the basis of gender-related traits." To succeed on this point, R.M.A. must demonstrate that his petition includes "averments [which] invoke principles of substantive law [that] may entitle [R.M.A.] to relief." Lynch, 260 S.W.3d at 836 (quoting Asaro, 799 S.W.2d at 597).

          The Missouri Human Rights Act, section 213.010 et seq., ("MHRA") describes the prohibitions against discriminatory conduct recognized by our General Assembly. Relevant to this case, section 213.065 addresses discrimination in public accommodation, as follows:

1. All persons within the jurisdiction of the state of Missouri are free and equal and shall be entitled to the full and equal use and enjoyment within this state of any place of public accommodation, as hereinafter defined, without discrimination or segregation on the grounds of race, color, religion, national origin, sex, ancestry, or disability.
2. It is an unlawful discriminatory practice for any person, directly or indirectly, to refuse, withhold from or deny any other person, or to attempt to refuse, withhold from or deny any other person, any of the accommodations, advantages, facilities, services, or privileges made available in any place of public accommodation, as defined in section 213.010 and this section, or to segregate or discriminate against any such ...

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