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McDonald v. Chamber of Commerce of Independence

Court of Appeals of Missouri, Western District, Second Division

May 21, 2019

LOIS McDONALD, Appellant,
v.
CHAMBER OF COMMERCE OF INDEPENDENCE, MISSOURI, Respondent.

          Appeal from the Circuit Court of Jackson County, Missouri The Honorable Kenneth R. Garrett, III, Judge.

          Before: Thomas N. Chapman, Presiding Judge, and Mark D. Pfeiffer and Cynthia L. Martin, Judges.

          Mark D. Pfeiffer, Judge.

         Ms. Lois McDonald ("McDonald") appeals from the judgment entered by the Circuit Court of Jackson County, Missouri ("circuit court"), granting the Chamber of Commerce of Independence, Missouri's ("Chamber") motion to dismiss McDonald's petition for damages under the Missouri Human Rights Act ("MHRA").[1] Because the circuit court has conflated statutory prerequisites to filing suit with subject matter jurisdiction, the circuit court's ruling is erroneous. We reverse and remand.

         Factual and Procedural History[2]

         McDonald, born August 7, 1952, was hired by the Chamber in 2011 as Vice-President of Community Development at a salary of $80, 000 per year. With the exception of the Chamber's president, McDonald was the oldest employee at the Chamber. On November 28, 2016, the Chamber's president informed McDonald that her salary was being reduced to $50, 000 per year. No other employees, all of whom were younger than McDonald, had their salaries reduced. McDonald also had not been offered the same opportunities for career development as those offered to younger employees. On March 2, 2017, McDonald filed a Charge of Discrimination against the Chamber with the Missouri Commission on Human Rights ("Commission") and thereafter requested a notice of her right to sue and was notified by the Commission that a response to such request would be forthcoming on or before August 15, 2017. However, the Commission did not issue a right-to-sue letter to McDonald until September 28, 2017.

         On August 25, 2017, McDonald filed a petition for damages against Chamber, alleging age discrimination.[3] Thereafter, and four days after the Commission had issued its right-to-sue letter (which shows that Chamber was copied), Chamber filed a motion to dismiss McDonald's petition for lack of subject matter jurisdiction arguing that, without an allegation included in the petition that McDonald had received her right-to-sue letter from the Commission (even though Chamber had actual knowledge that such right-to-sue letter had, by then, been issued), McDonald had failed to plead that she had exhausted her administrative remedies under the MHRA. Consequently, Chamber argued that the circuit court did not have subject matter jurisdiction over McDonald's claims and should dismiss the petition.[4]

         McDonald responded by arguing that the right-to-sue letter had been issued and, hence, all statutory prerequisites had been met authorizing the MHRA claim to proceed.[5]

         The circuit court granted Chamber's motion to dismiss, expressly concluding that it lacked subject matter jurisdiction, and thereafter, the circuit court denied McDonald's Rule 67.06 motion to amend her petition to add an allegation that, in fact, the right-to-sue letter had been issued by the Commission.[6]

         This appeal follows.

         Standard of Review

         We review the granting of a motion to dismiss de novo. Avery Contracting, LLC v. Niehaus, 492 S.W.3d 159, 161-62 (Mo. banc 2016). We assume all facts alleged in the petition are true and liberally construe all inferences from those facts in favor of the plaintiff. Id. at 162. We review the petition "to determine if the plaintiff has alleged facts that meet the elements of a recognized cause of action or of a cause that might be adopted in that case." Id. "In determining the appropriateness of the trial court's dismissal of a petition, an appellate court reviews the grounds raised in the defendant's motion to dismiss." Goldsby v. Lombardi, 559 S.W.3d 878, 881 (Mo. banc 2018). "If the motion to dismiss cannot be sustained on any ground alleged in the motion, the trial court's ruling will be reversed." Id. (internal quotation marks omitted).

         Analysis

         Elements of McDonald's MHRA Lawsuit

         "The MHRA protects persons aged 40 to 70 from age discrimination." Kerr v. Curators of the Univ. of Mo., 512 S.W.3d 798, 806 (Mo. App. W.D. 2016) (internal quotation marks omitted). Section 213.055.1(1)(a), as it relates to McDonald's petition alleging age discrimination, provides, in part:

1. It shall be an unlawful employment practice:
(1) For an employer, because of the . . . age . . . of any individual:
(a) To . . . discriminate against any individual with respect to his compensation, terms, conditions or privileges of employment, because of such ...

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