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State ex rel. Church & Dwight Co. Inc. v. Collins

Supreme Court of Missouri, En Banc

April 3, 2018

STATE ex rel. CHURCH & DWIGHT CO., INC., Relator,
v.
The Honorable WILLIAM B. COLLINS, Respondent. And STATE ex rel. FOCUS WORKFORCE MANAGEMENT, INC., et al., Relators,
v.
The Honorable WILLIAM B. COLLINS, Respondent.

          ORIGINAL PROCEEDINGS IN PROHIBITION

          PATRICIA BRECKENRIDGE, JUDGE.

         Alicia Mulvey filed Missouri Human Rights Act (MHRA) claims for discrimination and retaliation against Focus Workforce Management, Inc., and four Focus employees (collectively, Focus) and Church & Dwight Company, Inc. Church and Focus each filed a motion to dismiss on grounds the MHRA claims were time-barred. Ms. Mulvey then filed a motion for leave to amend her petition to include common law claims of negligence and wrongful discharge. When the circuit court overruled the motions to dismiss and sustained Ms. Mulvey's motion for leave to amend, Church and Focus each filed a petition for a writ of prohibition to prevent the circuit court from taking any action other than vacating its orders overruling their respective motions to dismiss. Church's writ petition also sought to prevent the circuit court from taking any other action than vacating its order sustaining Ms. Mulvey's motion for leave to amend. This Court issued preliminary writs.

         This Court finds the circuit court exceeded its authority in overruling Focus' and Church's motions to dismiss Ms. Mulvey's original petition for failure to state a claim. Ms. Mulvey did not file her claim in the circuit court until May 19, 2016 - 91 days after her right-to-sue letter issued. Ms. Mulvey's MHRA claim, therefore, is barred by the 90-day statute of limitations provided in section 213.111.1.[1]

         Furthermore, the circuit court abused its discretion by sustaining Ms. Mulvey's motion for leave to amend her petition with common law claims of negligence and wrongful discharge against Church. The remedies available at common law are fully comprehended by the remedies provided by the MHRA in section 213.111.2. Accordingly, the amended common law claims against Church are preempted by the MHRA. The preliminary writs are made permanent. Mo. Const. art. V, sec. 4.

         Factual and Procedural Background

         In October 2014, Ms. Mulvey was hired by Focus, a staffing agency, and began work at Church's manufacturing facility. During her employment, Ms. Mulvey asserts she was subjected to offensive and derogatory conduct, comments, and actions based upon her sex. While still employed, Ms. Mulvey complained of these actions to employees at Focus and participated in an investigation of the alleged harassment. At some point after the investigation, she was terminated by Focus and not hired as a permanent employee by Church.

         Ms. Mulvey filed a charge of discrimination with the Missouri Commission on Human Rights. The commission issued Ms. Mulvey a right-to-sue letter dated February 18, 2016, advising her she must bring a civil action under the MHRA "within 90 days of the date of this notice." On May 19, 2016 - 91 days later - Ms. Mulvey filed a petition in the circuit court alleging MHRA claims of retaliation and discrimination against Church and Focus.

         Church and Focus each filed a motion to dismiss Ms. Mulvey's petition for failure to state a claim, asserting her claim was time-barred. Before the circuit court ruled on the motions to dismiss, Ms. Mulvey filed a motion for leave to amend her petition to add common law claims of negligence and wrongful discharge. Church and Focus opposed the motion for leave to amend. The circuit court overruled the motions to dismiss and sustained Ms. Mulvey's leave to amend her petition.

         Church and Focus each seek a writ of prohibition from this Court to prohibit the circuit court from doing anything other than vacating its order overruling their motions to dismiss. Additionally, Church seeks a writ of prohibition prohibiting the circuit court from doing anything other than vacating its order sustaining Ms. Mulvey's motion for leave to amend her petition. The two cases are consolidated for purposes of this opinion.

         Standard of Review

         "Prohibition is a discretionary writ that only issues to prevent an abuse of judicial discretion, to avoid irreparable harm to a party, or to prevent exercise of extrajurisdictional power." State ex rel. Schwarz Pharma, Inc. v. Dowd, 432 S.W.3d 764, 768 (Mo. banc 2014). A writ of prohibition is the proper "remedy to prevent a lower court from proceeding on [a claim] barred by the statute of limitations." State ex rel. Holzum, 342 S.W.3d 313, 315 (Mo. banc 2011). "[P]rohibition will lie if plaintiff's petition does not state a viable theory of recovery, and relator was entitled to be dismissed from the suit as a matter of law." State ex rel. Union Elec. Co. v. Dolan, 256 S.W.3d 77, 81 (Mo. banc 2008) (internal quotations omitted). If the complaint is insufficient to justify court action, it is "fundamentally unjust to force another to suffer the considerable expense and inconvenience of litigation" in addition to being "a waste of judicial resources and taxpayer money." State ex rel. Henley v. Bickel, 285 S.W.3d 327, 330 (Mo. banc 2009).

         Motions to Dismiss the MHRA Claims

         Church and Focus assert they are entitled to writs of prohibition because the circuit court exceeded its authority in overruling the motions to dismiss because Ms. Mulvey's MHRA claims are time-barred. The MHRA provides, in pertinent part, "Any action brought in the court . . . shall be filed within ninety days from the date of the commission's notification letter to the individual." Section 213.111.1. By the statute's plain language, an MHRA claim must be brought in the circuit court within 90 days of the commission's notification letter.

         The commission's notification letter to Ms. Mulvey was dated February 18, 2016. The notification letter twice stated the 90-day filing requirement. Ms. Mulvey did not file her MHRA action in the circuit court until May 19, 2016 - 91 days later. Ms. Mulvey, ...


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