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State ex rel. Tivol Plaza, Inc. v. Missouri Commission on Human Rights

Supreme Court of Missouri

August 22, 2017

STATE OF MISSOURI EX REL. TIVOL PLAZA, INC., Appellant,
v.
MISSOURI COMMISSION ON HUMAN RIGHTS, ET AL., Respondents. And STATE OF MISSOURI EX REL. CAESARS ENTERTAINMENT OPERATING CO., INC., ET AL., Appellants,
v.
MISSOURI COMMISSION ON HUMAN RIGHTS, ET AL., Respondents.

         Appeals from the Circuit Court of Cole County, Missouri The Honorable Patricia S. Joyce, Judge.

         EN BANC

          LAURA DENVIR STITH, JUDGE.

         Tivol Plaza, Inc. appeals the dismissal of its writ of mandamus petition against the Missouri Commission on Human Rights (MCHR). The circuit court rejected Tivol's argument that the MCHR was required to first determine whether Tivol's employee's complaint of discrimination was filed timely with the MCHR before the MCHR had authority to issue the employee a right-to-sue letter.

         In a separate appeal of an entirely separate case, Caesars Entertainment Operating Co., Inc., also appeals the dismissal of a writ of mandamus petition it similarly filed against the MCHR. The circuit court similarly rejected Caesars' identical argument that the MCHR was required first to determine whether Caesars' employee's complaint of discrimination was filed timely with the MCHR before the MCHR had authority to issue the employee a right-to-sue letter. While the two cases are not related, because each turns on identical legal issues, the two cases are addressed together in this opinion.

         This Court affirms the circuit court's dismissal of the employers' petitions for writs of mandamus. To the extent cases decided by the court of appeals have interpreted Farrow v. St. Francis Medical Center, 407 S.W.3d 579 (Mo. banc 2013), as permitting an employer to seek a writ of mandamus to force the MCHR to determine the timeliness of an employee complaint even after 180 days have passed and the employee has requested and been issued a right-to-sue letter, they are incorrect. Farrow involved a case in which 180 days had not yet passed before the right-to-sue letter issued. Farrow's suggestion in dicta that a mandamus action might be appropriate in such a case has no application here.

         Section 213.111.1, RSMo Supp. 2013, [1] of the Missouri Human Rights Act (MHRA), requires the MCHR to issue a right-to-sue letter and terminate all proceedings related to a complaint if 180 days have elapsed and the employee has made a written request for a right-to-sue letter. That is what occurred in each of these cases. Accordingly, the MCHR lost authority to continue processing the charges and was required to issue the right-to-sue letters. The circuit court had no authority to direct the MCHR to perform an act the MHRA prohibits, and it properly refused to issue writs directing the MCHR to do so.

         I. BACKGROUND

         A. Tivol

         On December 18, 2013, Karen Norton filed complaints with the MCHR and with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) against her former employer, Tivol. In her complaint to the MCHR, Ms. Norton alleged retaliation, sex discrimination, age discrimination, and a hostile work environment. Ms. Norton claimed Tivol subjected her to a hostile work environment as well as sex and age-based harassment and discrimination during her employment beginning April 1, 2012. She further claimed Tivol discriminated and retaliated against her by firing her November 18, 2013.

         Tivol sent a letter to the MCHR alleging:

any allegations occurring before June 21, 2013 (i.e., the 180th day occurring before December 18, 2013) are untimely and must be dismissed by the Commission. The Commission has no authority to take any action - including no authority to issue a right to sue - on any untimely aspects of the Charge. Instead, the Commission must dismiss the untimely aspects of the Charge.

         It cited section 213.075.1. On June 30, 2014, more than 180 days later, at Ms. Norton's request, the MCHR issued Ms. Norton a right-to-sue letter, stating in part:

The Missouri Commission on Human Rights (MCHR) is terminating its proceedings and issuing this notice of your right to sue under the Missouri Human Rights Act because you have requested a notice of your right to sue. You are hereby notified that you have the right to bring a civil action within 90 days of the date of this letter …. You are also notified that the Executive Director is administratively closing this case and terminating all MCHR proceedings relating to your complaint …. This notice of right to sue is being issued as required by Section 213.111.1, RSMo, because it has been requested in writing 180 days after filing of the complaint. Please note that administrative processing of this complaint, including determinations of jurisdiction, has not been completed.

(Emphasis in original).

         Tivol filed a petition for writ of mandamus asking the circuit court to vacate the right-to-sue letter and determine whether the MCHR had jurisdiction over Ms. Norton's claims. Tivol claimed the MCHR had a statutory duty to determine the timeliness of Ms. Norton's complaint and the MCHR lacked the authority to issue a right-to-sue letter if her claims were not timely filed. The circuit court issued summonses, rather than a preliminary writ of mandamus, to Ms. Norton, the MCHR, and its director, requesting they appear, file a "pleading to the petition, " and serve the pleading on Tivol.

         The MCHR moved to dismiss Tivol's mandamus petition for failure to state a claim. The MCHR addressed the merits of Tivol's petition, arguing it could not "establish either that the Commission was required to determine its jurisdiction over the complaint prior to issuing the right to sue letter or that [Tivol] was prejudiced by the issuance of the letter." The MCHR argued Ms. Norton requested the right-to-sue letter more than 180 days after filing her complaint, the MCHR had a duty under section 213.111.1 to stop the administrative proceedings, and it was not required or permitted to delay issuing the letter until it determined whether the complaint was timely.

         The circuit court sustained the MCHR's motion to dismiss, finding section 213.111.1 required the MCHR to issue Ms. Norton a right-to-sue letter and terminate all administrative proceedings relating to her case because 180 days had lapsed because Ms. Norton had filed her complaint and she had requested a right-to-sue letter be issued. The circuit court also found, because Tivol raised the timeliness issue in its written position statement to the MCHR, Tivol had preserved the right to raise the issue in the civil action and did not need to bring an action for writ of mandamus. Tivol appealed. This Court granted transfer after opinion by the court of appeals. Mo. Const. art. V, § 10.

         B. Caesars

         On November 27, 2013, Rebecca Gleason filed complaints with the MCHR and the EEOC against her former employer, Caesars Entertainment Operating Co., Inc. In her complaint to the MCHR, Ms. Gleason alleged sex discrimination and retaliation in violation of the MHRA. §§ 213.010-213.137. Ms. Gleason claimed Caesars subjected her to sex-based harassment and discrimination during her employment in 2011 and 2012 and discriminated against her after she complained about that discrimination by firing her November 1, 2012. She also claimed this harassment and discrimination contributed to Caesars' opposition to her requests for unemployment benefits in June 2013.

         In response to the charge, Caesars sent a letter to the MCHR alleging the MCHR "does not have jurisdiction over any alleged discrimination or retaliation occurring prior to May 31, 2013, and does not have the authority to issue a right to sue letter related to any alleged discrimination or retaliation occurring prior to May 31, 2013" under section 213.075.1. [2] It also objected to the issuance of a right-to-sue letter relating to any untimely claims. On June 19, 2014, more than 180 days later, at Ms. Gleason's request, the MCHR issued a right-to-sue letter, stating in part:

This letter indicates your right to bring a civil action within 90 days of this notice … Upon issuing of this notice, the MCHR is terminating all proceedings relating to the complaint …. You are also notified that the Executive Director is hereby administratively closing this case and terminating all MCHR proceedings relating to it …. This notice of right to sue is being issued as required by Section 213.111.1, RSMo, because it has been requested in writing 180 days after filing of the complaint …. Please note that administrative processing of this complaint, including determinations of jurisdiction, has not been completed.

(Emphasis in original).

         Caesars filed a petition for writ of mandamus asking the circuit court to compel "the MCHR and Director to withdraw and vacate the [right-to-sue letter] with respect to any claims based upon alleged MHRA violations occurring before May 31, 2013, " although Caesars admitted Ms. Gleason's claims alleging discrimination in opposing her request for unemployment benefits were timely.

         The circuit court issued summonses, rather than a preliminary writ of mandamus, to the MCHR and its director, requesting both to appear before the circuit court, file a "pleading to the petition, " and serve the pleading on Caesars.

         On October 3, 2014, the MCHR moved to dismiss Caesars' petition for writ of mandamus for failure to state a claim. The MCHR addressed the merits of Caesars' petition, arguing it could not "establish either that the Commission was required to determine its jurisdiction over specific claims prior to issuing the right to sue letter or that [Caesars was] prejudiced by the issuance of the letter." The MCHR argued once Ms. Gleason requested the right-to-sue letter more than 180 days after filing her complaint, the MCHR had a statutory duty under section 213.111.1 to stop the administrative proceedings and was not required or permitted to delay issuing the letter until it determined whether the complaint was timely.

         The circuit court sustained the MCHR's motion to dismiss, finding section 213.111.1 required the MCHR to issue Ms. Gleason a right-to-sue letter and terminate all administrative proceedings relating to her case because 180 days had lapsed because Ms. Gleason had filed her complaint and she had requested a right-to-sue letter be issued. It also found, because Caesars raised the timeliness issue in its written position statement to the MCHR, Caesars had properly "preserved [its] right to raise the issue in any subsequent civil action … and [did] not need to challenge the Commission's issuance of a right to sue notice by ...


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