East Chop Tennis Club v. Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination

Decision Date24 December 1973
Citation364 Mass. 444,305 N.E.2d 507
CourtUnited States State Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts Supreme Court

Joel P. Suttenberg, Deputy Asst. Atty. Gen., for the Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination.

Vincent L. Hennessy, Boston (Douglas Smerdon, Taunton, with him), for plaintiffs.


QUIRICO, Justice.

This bill in equity is for both declaratory and injunctive relief under G.L. c. 231A. The plaintiffs are the East Chop Tennis Club and the club's president, vice-president and treasurer (hereinafter collectively called the club); the defendants are the Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination and its commissioners (hereinafter called the commission). The club seeks a declaratory decree that it is not a public accommodation within the purview of G.L. c. 272, § 92A, which prohibits certain types of discrimination in such facilities, and a permanent injunction restraining the commission from continuing proceedings against the club and its officers.

The commission filed a demurrer alleging as a ground that the court lacked jurisdiction over the suit. A judge of the Superior Court overruled the demurrer and the case was heard on the merits. Thereafter, a final decree was entered, declaring that the club was a private facility and not a place of public amusement or accommodation with the scope of G.L. c. 272, § 92A, and ordering the commission, its agents, servants and employees to cease and desist from further proceedings against the club. The commission appeals from both the interlocutory decree overruling its demurrer and the final decree.

We summarize the pertinent facts leading up to the filing of the club's bill for declaratory relief in the Superior Court, as alleged in the bill and documents incorporated therein and admitted by the commission in its answer. On September 1, 1970, the commission sent a notice to the club which indicated that an investigation was being conducted pursuant to a complaint that the club's membership policies tended 'to discriminate against and restrict from membership black and/or Spanish-speaking applicants in violation of . . . (G.L. c.) 272, § 98 . . ..' On December 15, 1970, the club's president appeared before the commission's investigating commissioner for an informal conference and at that time filed an answer which denied every allegation of the complaint, alleged that the club was a private club not within the scope of G.L. c. 272, § 92A, and requested that the complaint be dismissed as a matter of law. 1

Thereafter, on February 5, 1971, the commission, through its investigating commissioner, sent the club president a copy of its complaint against the club. This document was in the form of a letter to him which (1) stated that the investigating commissioner had found probable cause to credit the allegations in the complaint and had made the determination that the club was not a private facility, (2) set forth the facts underlying such determination, and (3) proposed terms of conciliation to correct the wrongs complained of. The letter ended with a request that the club inform the commission of its determination concerning the conciliation terms by July 1, 1971. On March 12, 1971, the club, through its officers, brought the present suit in the Superior Court for declaratory and injunctive relief against the commission. The interlocutory 2 and final decrees entered therein are the subjects of this appeal.

The first question which must be answered is whether it was error to overrule the commission's demurrer. Put another way, we must determine whether the Superior Court had jurisdiction to entertain the club's suit while proceedings against the club were pending before the commission. We begin by examining the statutory provisions governing that agency.

The commission is established under G.L. c. 6, § 56, as amended by St.1950, c. 479, § 2, and its functions, powers and duties are set forth in G.L. c. 151B, §§ 2, 3, 5, 6, as amended. A reading of these sections indicates that the commission has been given broad jurisdiction to administer and effectuate the provisions of anti-discrimination statutes of the Commonwealth, including G.L. c. 272, §§ 92A and 98, at issue here. Under c. 151B, § 5, a person claiming to be aggrieved by an alleged violation of §§ 92A and 98 may file a complaint with the commission. Section 5 also sets forth the series of steps to be taken by the commission in handling the complaints: an investigating commissioner is assigned to investigate the complaint; if he finds from his investigation that there is probable cause to credit the complainant's allegations, he is to try to eliminate the unlawful practices complained of by 'conference, conciliation and persuasion'; if these conciliatory measures fail to eliminate the practices (or in advance thereof if he finds the circumstances so warrant), the investigating commissioner shall cause to be issued and served on the person complained of (the respondent) a written notice of a hearing on the complaint, to be held before the commission.

The same section then sets forth the procedures to be followed at the commission hearing. These include the right of the respondent to appear with or without counsel and submit testimony, and the discretionary power of the commission to permit the complainant to intervene and present testimony. Of relevance here also is the provision that the investigating commissioner shall not participate at the hearing except as a witness and shall not participate in the commission's deliberations on the case. If upon all the evidence submitted at the hearing the commission finds the respondent has engaged in certain discriminatory practices including those in violation of c. 272, §§ 92A and 98, it shall state its findings of fact, and shall order the respondent to cease and desist from the unlawful practices and to take such other affirmative steps as it deems necessary.

The right to judicial review of such an order issued by the commission is established in G.L. c. 151B, § 6. Under this section, a 'complainant, respondent or other person aggrieved by such order' may initiate a proceeding in the Superior Court. That court shall review the commission's order or decision according to the standards for review established in G.L. c. 30A, § 14(8), shall not consider any objection that was not raised before the commission except in extraordinary circumstances, and has the power to enter an order or decree enforcing, modifying, or setting aside in whole or in part the commission's order. The section gives the Superior Court exclusive initial jurisdiction over the review of such proceedings, with review of its decisions by this court in the same manner as in appeals in equity. In addition, § 6 sets forth the right of the commission to secure an order from the Superior Court to enforce its own decision or order.

As this summary of the statutory provisions makes clear, the legislature has established a comprehensive scheme of administrative procedures and remedies which persons appearing before the commission must follow before seeking relief from the Superior Court. The club's bill shows that it sought judicial relief at the preliminary point when the commission's investigating commissioner had found probable cause to credit the complaint and had set terms of conciliation. The full commission had not held or even scheduled any hearing on the complaint, and obviously had not issued an order requiring the club to cease and desist from any acts or practices. Clearly the club failed to exhaust its administrative remedies under the statutory provisions outlined above before it brought the bill in the Superior Court. The question then becomes whether such failure is fatal to the club's suit for declaratory and injunctive relief.

Our court has long followed the rule that '(i)n the absence of a statutory directive to the contrary, the administrative remedies should be exhausted before resort to the courts.' GORDON V. HARDWARE MUT. CAS. CO., MASS., 281 N.E.2D 573,A and cases cited therein. 3 The club argues, however, that the general rule does not apply in its case because proceedings for declaratory relief constitute an exception to the requirement of exhaustion. In support of this contention, it relies on a number of cases including Meenes v. Goldberg, 331 Mass. 688, 122 N.E.2d 356 (1954), where this court granted declaratory relief before the plaintiffs had pursued their administrative remedies.

In the Meenes case, the plaintiffs sought a declaratory decree with respect to the validity of a lien for sewer assessments. The plaintiffs were former owners of the property subject to the lien, and two of the defendants were successor owners of such property. Their dispute centered on the question of who was responsible for the lien in question, and the declaratory suit was brought to determine the validity of the lien on the land, not the validity of the assessment itself. The Superior Court entered a decree that the lien had been discharged. On appeal, the defendant city of Worcester argued that the court had no jurisdiction over the case because the statutory remedies of abatement and payment of the tax under protest were adequate. This court affirmed the Superior Court decree and held that the statutory language concerning exclusive remedies did not prevent it from granting equitable relief in certain circumstances, which it felt were present in that case. We pointed out that the statute establishing a procedure for declaratory relief provided an appropriate form of remedy, and said, at p. 691, 122 N.E.2d at p. 359, 'Commonly relief under . . . (G.L. c. 231A) should not be denied because of the possibility of some other form of remedy, if the case presented comes within the general scope of...

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