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The Bi-State Development Agency of Missouri-Illinois Metropolitan District v. Warren

Court of Appeals of Missouri, Western District, Fourth Division

May 21, 2019


          Appeal from the Circuit Court of Cole County, Missouri The Honorable Jon E. Beetem, Judge

          Before: Karen King Mitchell, Chief Judge, and Victor C. Howard and Alok Ahuja, Judges

          Karen King Mitchell, Chief Judge

         The Bi-State Development Agency of the Missouri-Illinois Metropolitan District, doing business as Metro, Metro Transit, and MetroLink, (Bi-State) appeals from a judgment dismissing its petition for writs of mandamus and prohibition and de novo judicial review of a right-to-sue letter issued to Scott Gustafson by the Missouri Commission on Human Rights (MCHR). Bi-State argues that the circuit court erred in dismissing its petition because: (1) the MCHR failed to abide by a settlement agreement involving the same allegations of discrimination (Point I); (2) the MCHR lacked jurisdiction over Bi-State due to its interstate compact status (Point II); (3) the court was required to conduct an evidentiary hearing (Point III); (4) the MCHR was equitably estopped from challenging Bi-State's right to seek judicial review because the right-to-sue letter stated that any party aggrieved by issuance of the letter had a right to seek such review (Point IV); and (5) the court improperly relied on facts not alleged in Bi-State's petition (Point V). Finding that dismissal was appropriate under State ex rel. Tivol Plaza, Inc. v. Mo. Commission on Human Rights, 527 S.W.3d 837 (Mo. banc 2017), we affirm.


         Gustafson is blind and uses a guide dog to navigate. Gustafson lives in the City of St. Louis and relies on public transportation when he travels; he is a regular customer of Bi-State.[2]

         In 2006, Gustafson filed both an initial and an amended Complaint of Discrimination with the MCHR (the 2006 complaint), alleging that Bi-State had violated the Missouri Human Rights Act (MHRA) by denying him access to its public transit services based on his disability. Gustafson alleged that, on or about October 10, 2006, Bi-State had discriminated against him by requiring him to seek out a ticket agent to purchase tickets. Gustafson also alleged that, on October 10, 2006, "prior and continuing," Bi-State had discriminated against him on the basis of his disability by passing by him at bus stops, not calling out stops, and not locating ticket and validation machines in the same location within each station.

         In June 2008, the MCHR found probable cause to credit Gustafson's allegations that he was denied service due to his disability and that he was not allowed equal services due to his disability.[3] Following an administrative proceeding initiated by the MCHR, Bi-State and the MCHR executed a settlement agreement in September 2011 resolving those allegations. Paragraph 11 of the settlement agreement stated, in pertinent part, that the "MCHR will not proceed with any administrative or legal action on behalf of [Gustafson] with respect to any matter raised or which could have been raised by [him] prior to the date of this Agreement." In Paragraph 13 of the agreement, the MCHR, on its behalf and on behalf of Gustafson, released Bi-State

from any and all charges, claims, suits, demands, debts, liens, liabilities, costs, expenses, actions, and causes of action, of every kind and nature, whether known or unknown, suspected or unsuspected, that [Gustafson] had, now has, or which he may have against [Bi-State] arising out of, related to or based upon any facts or events which occurred on or prior to the date of this Agreement, including but not limited to, any charge, claim, suit or action arising under or relating to the full and equal use and enjoyment of public places of accommodation, including, without limitation, the MHRA, § 213.065, et seq.

         Although Gustafson participated in the settlement discussions, he did not personally intervene in the administrative action or sign the settlement agreement, nor did he challenge it.

         In April 2014, Gustafson filed another Complaint of Discrimination, which he amended in November of that year (the 2014 complaint). He alleged multiple violations of the MHRA by Bi-State, including buses failing to pick him up at designated stops on the following dates: December 26, 2013; June 13, 2014; and August 5, 2014. He also alleged that Bi-State failed to provide assistive technology on its website or at ticket and transfer machines, adequate markers at bus stops, and audible announcements about routes, transfer points, and stops.

         On November 30, 2015, the MCHR issued a right-to-sue letter to Gustafson. The letter stated, "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 [2014] complaint. Please note that administrative processing of this complaint, including determination of jurisdiction, has not been completed." The letter advised Gustafson that the MCHR was administratively closing the case and terminating all MCHR proceedings regarding his 2014 complaint. The letter also stated, "if any party is aggrieved by this action of the MCHR, that party may appeal the decision by filing a petition under § 536.150 of the Revised Statutes of Missouri in the . . . circuit court of Cole County."

         On December 23, 2015, Gustafson filed a lawsuit in St. Louis County, alleging Bi-State violated the MHRA.[4] Seven days later, Bi-State filed the present lawsuit in the Circuit Court of Cole County, seeking preliminary and permanent writs of mandamus and prohibition against the MCHR and its Executive Director Alisa Warren and de novo judicial review. The MCHR, Warren, and Gustafson moved to dismiss Bi-State's petition for failure to state a claim upon which relief can be granted under Rule 55.27(a)(6).[5] While the motions to dismiss were pending, Bi-State moved for leave to file an amended petition. The court granted Bi-State leave to amend and issued preliminary writs of mandamus/prohibition to the MCHR and Warren, requesting they file a pleading to the amended petition and serve the pleading on Bi-State.[6]

         Bi-State's amended petition requested a writ of mandamus requiring the MCHR and Warren to withdraw Gustafson's right-to-sue letter, a writ of prohibition to prevent the MCHR and Warren from issuing another right-to-sue letter against Bi-State on Gustafson's behalf, and de novo judicial review of the MCHR's decision to issue a right-to-sue letter based on the 2014 complaint. Bi-State offered three reasons the writs of mandamus and prohibition should issue: (1) as the creation of an interstate compact, Bi-State is not subject to the MHRA; (2) the MCHR had an obligation to determine its authority and jurisdiction before issuing the right-to-sue letter; and (3) the allegations in the 2014 complaint mirror those in the 2006 complaint, and those allegations were resolved by the 2011 settlement agreement.[7]

         Thereafter, the circuit court indicated its intention to rule on the motions to dismiss and asked the parties to submit proposed judgments. Bi-State objected, claiming that it had the right to offer evidence, including documents showing that the MCHR had found no probable cause to support some of the allegations in the 2006 complaint and an internal email indicating that MCHR personnel tasked with investigating the 2014 complaint were aware of the 2011 settlement agreement. Bi-State argued that this evidence was sufficient to raise the question of whether the MCHR's decision to issue the right-to-sue letter was unlawful, unreasonable, arbitrary, capricious, or involved an abuse of discretion. Also in support, Bi-State cited a recent decision by the Eastern District of this court holding that the MHRA did not apply to Bi-State because it is an interstate compact entity.

         The circuit court rejected Bi-State's arguments and entered judgment on February 9, 2018, granting the MCHR's motion to dismiss Bi-State's amended petition. The court concluded that the MCHR had properly issued the right-to-sue letter and closed its administrative proceeding. Bi-State filed a motion for new trial or motion to reconsider, again arguing that it had the right to present evidence. On June 6, 2018, the circuit court entered an amended judgment dismissing Bi-State's amended petition with prejudice. The circuit court based its decision on three facts, which the court found to be undisputed: (1) Gustafson filed a complaint with the MCHR; (2) the MCHR did not render a decision on Gustafson's complaint within 180 days of its filing; and (3) Gustafson requested a right-to-sue letter. On those facts, the circuit court concluded that mandamus would not lie. Bi-State appeals.

         Standard of Review

         "An appeal will lie from the denial of a writ petition when a lower court has issued a preliminary order in mandamus but then denies a permanent writ." Tivol Plaza, 527 S.W.3d at 841 (quoting U.S. Dep't of Veterans Affairs v. Boresi, 396 S.W.3d 356, 358 (Mo. banc 2013)). "An appellate court reviews the denial of a petition for a writ of mandamus for an abuse of discretion. An abuse of discretion in denying a writ occurs when the circuit court misapplies the applicable statutes." Id. (quoting Boresi, 396 S.W.3d at 359). But we review questions of law de novo. Laut v. City of Arnold, 491 S.W.3d 191, 196 (Mo. banc 2016). Thus, we review de novo the legal question of whether the court may direct the MCHR to determine its authority or jurisdiction to process a complaint before issuing a right-to-sue letter when the 180-day window following the complaint has passed and the complainant requests a right-to-sue letter. See Tivol Plaza, 527 S.W.3d at 841 (Court reviewed de novo legal question of whether statute permitted the circuit court to direct the MCHR to continue to process a complaint once the MCHR has issued a right-to-sue letter after 180 days had passed).

         Likewise, "[w]e review the dismissal for failure to state a claim upon which relief can be granted de novo." Jordan v. Bi-State Dev. Agency, 561 S.W.3d 57, 59 (Mo. App. E.D. 2018). In doing so, we review the petition "in an almost academic manner, to determine if the facts alleged meet the elements of a recognized cause of action." Id. (quoting State ex rel. Henley v. Bickel, 285 S.W.3d 327, 329 (Mo. banc 2009)). "In order to avoid dismissal, the petition must invoke substantive principles of law entitling plaintiff to relief and . . . ultimate facts informing the defendant of that which plaintiff will attempt to establish at trial." Id. (quoting Otte v. Edwards, 370 S.W.3d 898, 900 (Mo. App. E.D. 2012)) (internal quotations omitted).


         Before analyzing Bi-State's points on appeal, we first consider the MCHR's authority to issue right-to-sue letters under the MHRA.

         I. MHRA Right-to-Sue Letters

         The MHRA authorizes the MCHR "[t]o receive, investigate, initiate, and pass upon complaints alleging discrimination." § 213.030.1(7).[8] "[A]ny person claiming to be aggrieved by an unlawful discriminatory practice may make, sign and file with the commission a verified complaint in writing, within one hundred eighty days of the alleged act of discrimination . . . ." § 213.075.1. After receiving the complaint, the agency shall "promptly investigate the complaint" to determine whether "probable cause exists for crediting the allegations of the complaint." § 213.075.3.

         "[I]f the director determines after the investigation that probable cause exists for crediting the allegations of the complaint, the executive director shall immediately endeavor to eliminate the unlawful discriminatory practice . . . ." Id. If, however, the MCHR does not complete the administrative processing of the complaint within 180 days from the date it was ...

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