Petro v. Palmer Coll. of Chiropractic

Decision Date30 June 2020
Docket NumberNo. 18-2201,18-2201
Citation945 N.W.2d 763
Parties Darren PETRO, Appellant, v. PALMER COLLEGE OF CHIROPRACTIC, Appellee.
CourtIowa Supreme Court

Thomas J. Duff and Jim T. Duff of Duff Law Firm, P.L.C., West Des Moines, for appellant.

Mikkie R. Schiltz and Alexander C. Barnett of Lane & Waterman, LLP, Davenport, for appellee.

Latrice L. Lacey, Davenport, for amicus curiae Iowa League of Civil and Human Rights Agencies.


This case presents an important question about the extent to which municipalities can confer state-court jurisdiction over individual lawsuits. In particular, does state law authorize municipalities to give state courts jurisdiction over private claims under municipal civil rights ordinances?

A student who attended a chiropractic college contends he was discriminated against on the basis of age and disability and ultimately had to leave the school. In 2014, he lodged a complaint with the Iowa Civil Rights Commission (ICRC). The complaint was screened out and administratively closed, but the student did not seek a right-to-sue letter. Instead, he filed an identically worded complaint with the local civil rights commission. Notably, while both state and local law prohibit disability discrimination, only the local civil rights ordinance prohibits discrimination in education on the basis of age.

Three years later, in 2017, the local commission completed its investigation and found probable cause to believe violations of the local ordinance had been committed. It declined to take the matter to a public hearing, however. Instead, at the student's request, the local commission issued a right-to-sue letter under the local ordinance.

The student subsequently brought claims in district court for violations of the local ordinance, violations of the Iowa Civil Rights Act (ICRA), and breach of contract. The district court dismissed all claims, reasoning that it had no jurisdiction over the local ordinance claims, that the ICRA claims were barred because they were the second round of claims based on the same conduct, and that the student did not have a viable breach of contract claim. The student appeals.

On our review, we affirm. We conclude that home rule in Iowa generally stops at the point where a municipality attempts to bring about enforceable legal relations between two private parties. For a municipality to enact law that would be binding between those parties in state court, specific authorization from the general assembly is needed. After a close review, we also conclude that the ICRA does not contain such authorization. Additionally, we agree with the district court's resolution of the ICRA and breach of contract claims. Accordingly, we affirm the judgment below.

I. Background Facts & Proceedings.

A. Overview of the Dispute. Darren Petro enrolled as a student at Palmer College of Chiropractic (Palmer) in Davenport in the spring of 2012. Petro was a nontraditional student. Prior to enrolling at Palmer, Petro served as an officer in the United States Navy and as both a civil servant and contract consultant with the Central Intelligence Agency. Petro sustained a lower back injury while serving in Iraq in 2009. At the time of enrollment, Petro was forty-four years old.

Petro contends that during his time at Palmer, various faculty commented on his age. Petro also maintains that during a cervical technique class, he received derogatory comments because of his lower back injury. In January 2014, Petro contends he was falsely accused of an ethics violation. The following month, according to Petro, a false text message was passed around stating that Petro had threatened two women professors. At that point, Petro left the Palmer campus and did not return.

The gist of Petro's civil claim is that Palmer engaged in a series of discriminatory acts based on age and real or perceived disability while Petro was a student. Petro also alleged Palmer engaged in unlawful retaliatory actions when he complained about the discriminatory conduct.

In Palmer's online application form, a "Notice" appears that includes the following statement:

In order to provide an environment that encourages respect, dignity, and equal opportunity and is in compliance with applicable federal and state laws and regulations, Palmer College of Chiropractic and its respective colleges do not discriminate in employment or in educational programs, services or activities on the basis of age, race, creed, color, sex, national origin, ancestry, citizen status, religion[,] disability, veteran status or other characteristics protected by law.

Palmer's Board of Trustees required the college's executive administration to develop, institute, and enforce institutional policies to govern the operations of the college. At the time of Petro's attendance, Palmer had adopted a policy regarding equal opportunity. The opening statement of the policy provided that

Palmer College of Chiropractic (College) does not discriminate in employment, admissions or in educational practices, programs, services or activities on the basis of age, ancestry, citizenship status, color, creed, disability, national origin, race, religion, sex, sexual orientation, gender identity; veteran status or other characteristic protected by law in the state in which the applicable College premise is located.

The equal opportunity statement was incorporated into the student handbook at Palmer. Petro claims that these statements created a contractual obligation on Palmer to comply with antidiscrimination law.

B. Petro's First Complaint Filed with the Iowa Civil Rights Commission.

1. Substance of Petro's first complaint. After withdrawing from Palmer, Petro filed his first civil rights complaint with the ICRC on April 24, 2014. In his answers on the complaint form filed with the ICRC, Petro stated "Yes" to the question of whether he believed he was discriminated against because of a "disability, real or perceived." Petro also stated, "I have low back pain and physical restrictions caused by an injury from military service." To a question asking whether he was discriminated against based on age in employment or credit, he answered "Yes." Petro also answered "Yes" to a question regarding whether he had been retaliated against as a result of complaining about discrimination. He claimed on the questionnaire that he was "constructively expelled" from Palmer.

2. Action of ICRC on first complaint. The ICRC screened out Petro's claim as not warranting investigation. The ICRC staff reasoned that age is not a protected class under the education section of the ICRA. While the ICRC staff reasoned that Petro might have a disability arising out of his back injury, the evidence submitted in the screening process did not "demonstrate a reasonable possibility of a probable cause determination." The ICRC staff noted that Petro had received a favorable grade in the cervical technique class. The ICRC administratively closed the file on September 18. Petro did not request a right-to-sue letter from the ICRC at that time.

C. Petro's Second Complaint Filed with the Davenport Civil Rights Commission and Cross-Filed with the ICRC.

1. Substance of Petro's second complaint. Instead, less than a month later, on October 10, Petro brought a second civil rights complaint, although this time with the Davenport Civil Rights Commission (DCRC). Soon thereafter, the DCRC cross-filed Petro's second complaint with the ICRC. Petro's complaint with the DCRC was supported by exactly the same four-page narrative that Petro had attached to his ICRC complaint.

2. Action of DCRC on second complaint. Almost three years after the complaint was filed, the director of the DCRC issued a finding of probable cause on July 17, 2017. The director provided a forty-three-page analysis of the facts and her conclusions. According to the DCRC director, there was sufficient evidence to support Petro's discrimination claims based upon disability and retaliation. Among other things, the director found that the ethics charge was "questionable"; that Palmer's employees did not believe Petro posed a physical threat, although one woman in the administration had begun to feel "intimidated and disrespected" at a meeting; and that there had been no need for a security alert regarding Petro. The director also faulted Palmer for not taking adequate action when an outside contractor's security guard sent a defamatory text message about Petro to a Palmer student. (The security guard had a relationship with that Palmer student, and the text was subsequently disseminated among other Palmer students.) The director initially found no probable cause for discrimination based upon age. However, on September 26, the DCRC director amended her previous finding and found probable cause to support Petro's age discrimination claim as well.

After DCRC-sponsored conciliation failed, the DCRC on October 10 declined to hold a public hearing on Petro's complaint and instead issued an administrative closure of the file. In a letter to Petro's counsel, the DCRC stated,

An administrative closure is not a final determination of the merits of the case but merely a determination based on the limited resources of the commission. However, it does not mean that your client is without a remedy.
A complainant who wishes to take the case into district court can do so by requesting a right to sue letter from the Davenport Civil Rights Commission before 2 years have elapsed from the issuance date of the administrative closure.

Petro obtained a right-to-sue letter from the DCRC on October 19 and filed suit in the Iowa District Court for Scott County on January 16, 2018.

D. District Court Litigation.

1. Initial proceedings. Petro's original petition alleged discriminatory practices by Palmer exclusively under the Davenport civil rights ordinance, Davenport Municipal Code chapter 2.58. Count I charged age discrimination and harassment, count II charged disability discrimination and harassment, and count III...

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    ...shows no genuine issues of material fact and the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law." Petro v. Palmer Coll. of Chiropractic , 945 N.W.2d 763, 769 (Iowa 2020) (quoting Munger, Reinschmidt & Denne, L.L.P. v. Lienhard Plante , 940 N.W.2d 361, 365 (Iowa 2020) ).III. Legal A......
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    ...v. Palmer College of Chiropractic , this court held that local agencies did not have the power to issue right to sue letters, 945 N.W.2d 763, 769–79 (Iowa 2020), thus leaving a complainant "high and dry" if the agency, for whatever reason, declined to act, id. at 792 (Appel, J., concurring ......
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