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State ex rel. D&D Distributors, LLC v. Missouri Commission on Human Rights

Court of Appeals of Missouri, Western District, First Division

July 23, 2019

STATE OF MISSOURI, ex rel., D&D DISTRIBUTORS, LLC, d/b/a GREY EAGLE DISTRIBUTORS and NEIL KOMADOSKI, Appellants,
v.
MISSOURI COMMISSION ON HUMAN RIGHTS, ALISA WARREN, PH.D., IN HER OFFICIAL CAPACITY AS EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR OF THE MISSOURI COMMISSION ON HUMAN RIGHTS, and JERRY HOLLOWAY,

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

          Before Cynthia L. Martin, P.J., and Victor C. Howard and Alok Ahuja, JJ.

          Alok Ahuja, Judge.

         Jerry Holloway filed a charge of discrimination with the Missouri Human Rights Commission against his former employer D&D Distributors, LLP (doing business as Grey Eagle Distributors), and against D&D's Chief Operating Officer Neil Komadoski (collectively, "Employer"). Holloway's administrative complaint alleged that Employer had engaged in acts of age- and race-based employment discrimination in violation of the Missouri Human Rights Act, ch. 213, RSMo (the "MHRA"). The Commission issued Holloway a right-to-sue letter. In response, Employer filed a petition in the Circuit Court of Cole County, alleging that the Commission had no authority to issue Holloway a right-to-sue letter because it lacked jurisdiction over his discrimination claims. The circuit court dismissed Employer's petition with prejudice.

         Employer appeals. It argues that, under amendments to the MHRA which became effective in August 2017, the Commission was required to determine its jurisdiction over Holloway's discrimination claims before issuing him a right-to-sue letter. Employer also argues that the Commission lacked jurisdiction over Holloway's claims because he filed those claims too late, and because some of his claims were preempted by federal labor laws. We conclude that the 2017 MHRA amendments do not apply here, because the Commission issued Holloway a right-to-sue letter, and terminated its administrative proceeding, before the 2017 amendments became effective. Under the law in effect prior to the 2017 amendments, as interpreted in State ex rel. Tivol Plaza, Inc. v. Missouri Commission on Human Rights, 527 S.W.3d 837 (Mo. 2017), the Commission was required to issue Holloway a right-to-sue letter whether it had made a jurisdictional determination or not, once Holloway requested a letter more than 180 days after the filing of his administrative complaint. Because the Commission acted lawfully in issuing the right-to-sue letter, we affirm the circuit court's dismissal of Employer's petition.

         Factual Background

         Holloway started working for Employer in July 1982 as a truck driver. While working as a truck driver, Holloway was a member of a collective bargaining unit represented by the International Brotherhood of Teamsters. In September 2007, Holloway was promoted to a position in the marketing department. While working in the marketing department, Holloway was not a member of the union.

         In August 2015, Holloway was informed that his marketing position was being eliminated. Employer told Holloway that he could apply for another job within the company. Holloway applied for other jobs with Employer; he also requested that he be permitted to exercise his union seniority rights and return to his previous position as a truck driver. Holloway was advised that no other position with the Employer was available. Employer also informed him that he had forfeited his seniority rights under the collective bargaining agreement when he resigned as a truck driver to take a position outside the bargaining unit. Because Holloway was not selected for another position with Employer, and was not permitted to return to his previous job, his employment terminated in August 2015.

         On February 12, 2016, Holloway filed a charge of discrimination against Employer with the Missouri Human Rights Commission. In his charge, Holloway claimed that his race and age were contributing factors in Employer's refusal to allow him to return to his previous job as a truck driver, and in Employer's decision to terminate his employment.

         Employer submitted a response to Holloway's charge. Among other things, Employer alleged that Holloway's claims of discrimination relating to the termination of his employment were time-barred, because Holloway was informed that his employment would be terminated on August 6, 2015, but did not file his administrative charge until 190 days later. Employer also argued that Holloway's claim of discrimination relating to its refusal to permit him to return to a job as a truck driver was preempted by federal labor law, because that claim would require the Commission to interpret the terms of Employer's collective bargaining agreement with the Teamsters union. Because of these purported "jurisdictional deficiencies," Employer alleged that the Commission was barred from issuing Holloway a right-to-sue letter.

         In March 2017 - more than a year after the filing of his administrative complaint - Holloway requested that the Commission issue him a right-to-sue letter. The Commission acceded to Holloway's request and issued him a right-to-sue letter on March 29, 2017. The letter stated 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.
This letter indicates your right to bring a civil action within 90 days of this notice against the respondent(s) named in the complaint. . . . Upon issuance of this notice, the MCHR is terminating all proceedings relating to the 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.

         On April 28, 2017, Employer filed a petition for writ of mandamus, judicial review, and declaratory judgment in the Circuit Court of Cole County, naming the Commission, its Executive Director in her official capacity, and Holloway as respondents. Employer argued that the Commission and Director had erred in issuing Holloway a right-to-sue letter because the Commission lacked jurisdiction over Holloway's claims because the claims were untimely, and were preempted by federal law. The circuit court issued a preliminary order in mandamus requiring the respondents to answer Employer's petition. After briefing and oral argument, the circuit court issued its judgment quashing the preliminary writ and dismissing the petition with prejudice. The court concluded that, because the Commission did not render a decision within 180 days of the filing of Holloway's administrative complaint, and because he had requested a right-to-sue letter, the Commission was required by statute to issue the letter.

         Employer appeals.

         While this proceeding was pending in the Circuit Court of Cole County, Holloway filed a race and age discrimination lawsuit against Employer in the Circuit Court of St. Louis County on June 26, 2017. Holloway v. D&D Distrib., L.L.L.P. et al., No. 17SL-CC02285. That action remains pending. In its First Amended Answer to Holloway's petition in the discrimination case, Employer alleged as affirmative defenses that the Commission lacked jurisdiction to issue Holloway a right-to-sue letter because his administrative complaint was untimely, and that any claim concerning his request to return to a truck driver position was preempted by federal labor laws. These are precisely the same jurisdictional arguments which Employer seeks to raise in this proceeding.

         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." "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." But we review questions of law de novo. Thus, we review de novo the legal question of whether the court may direct the [Commission] 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.
Likewise, "[w]e review the dismissal for failure to state a claim upon which relief can be granted de novo." 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." "In order to avoid dismissal, the petition must invoke substantive principles of law entitling plaintiff to relief and . . . ultimate facts informing ...

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