State by Cooper v. French

Citation460 N.W.2d 2
Decision Date31 August 1990
Docket NumberNo. C2-89-1064,C2-89-1064
PartiesSTATE of Minnesota, by Stephen W. COOPER, Commissioner, Department of Human Rights, Respondent, v. Layle FRENCH, Petitioner, Appellant.
CourtMinnesota Supreme Court

Syllabus by the Court

1. Refusing to rent real property to unmarried woman for the reason that her fiance would be residing with her is not a violation of the Minnesota Human Rights Act.

2. The Minnesota Constitution protects a person's religious beliefs in the rental of real property under the facts of this case.

James R. Anderson, Marshall, for appellant.

Hubert H. Humphrey, III, Atty. Gen., Andrea Mitau Kircher, Carl M. Warren, Earll M. Pott, Sp. Asst. Attys. Gen., St. Paul, for respondent.

Heard, considered, and decided by the court en banc.

YETKA, Justice.

Appellant was found guilty of discrimination by an administrative law judge to whom a complaint filed with the Department of Human Rights was referred for hearing. Appellant had refused to rent his property to one Susan Parsons because she planned to live there with her fiance. A trial de novo before the district court was denied, and the court of appeals affirmed the action of the administrative law judge. French was ordered to pay $368.50 in compensatory damages to Parsons, $400 for mental anguish and suffering, and $300 civil penalties. We reverse the administrative law judge and the court of appeals.

A summary of the facts are as follows:

French owned and occupied a two-bedroom house ("subject property") in Marshall, Minnesota, until moving to a house he purchased in the country. While attempting to sell the subject property, French rented it to both single individuals and married couples. From January to March 1988, French advertised the subject property as being available for rent. On February 22, 1988, French agreed to rent the property to Parsons and accepted a $250 check as a security deposit.

Shortly thereafter, French decided that Parsons had a romantic relationship with her fiance, Wesley Jenson, and that the two would likely engage in sexual relations outside of marriage on the subject property. On February 24, 1988, French told Parsons that he had changed his mind and would not rent the property to her because unmarried adults of the opposite sex living together were inconsistent with his religious beliefs. French is a member of the Evangelical Free Church in Marshall, and his beliefs include that an unmarried couple living together or having sexual relations outside of marriage is sinful. Despite being questioned by French, neither Parsons nor Jenson told French whether they were planning to have sexual relations on the subject property. The record is in dispute as to whether appellant had knowledge of Parsons' intended sexual activity with her fiance, but Parsons did not deny such an intent when queried by French. Even if they would not have had sexual relations on the property, French believes that living together constitutes the "appearance of evil" and would not have rented to them on that basis. French admits that if Parsons had been married to Jenson, he would not have objected renting to them.

Parsons filed a charge of discrimination against French with respondent department alleging that French committed marital status discrimination in violation of the Minnesota Human Rights Act (MHRA) when he refused to rent the subject property to her because she planned to live there with her fiance. Following an investigation, the department issued a complaint against French.

An administrative law judge granted the department partial summary judgment on the issue of liability, ruling that French violated the act's (Minn.Stat. Sec. 363.03, subd. 2(1)(a) (1986)) prohibition of marital status discrimination by refusing to rent the subject property to Parsons because she was single and living with her fiance and rejected French's defenses. Following a hearing on damages, the judge found French liable to Parsons for $368.50 in compensatory damages and $400.00 in mental anguish and suffering. In addition, the judge assessed a civil penalty of $300 to be paid to the State of Minnesota by French, but declined to award punitive damages. French's motion for a trial de novo in district court was denied.

After issuing French a writ of certiorari, a court of appeals panel affirmed that French discriminated against Parsons because of her marital status in violation of the Human Rights Act and that neither the free exercise of religion nor any of French's other arguments provided a defense. We granted French's petition for further review.

On an appeal from summary judgment, we ask two questions: (1) whether there are any genuine issues of material fact and (2) whether the lower courts erred in their application of the law. Offerdahl v. University of Minn. Hosp. & Clinics, 426 N.W.2d 425, 427 (Minn.1988).

Initially, the department must establish a prima facie case of discrimination. State ex rel. McClure v. Sports & Health Club, Inc., 370 N.W.2d 844, 849 (Minn.1985), appeal dismissed, 478 U.S. 1015, 106 S.Ct. 3315, 92 L.Ed.2d 730 (1986). We must examine whether appellant's refusal to rent to Parsons constituted a prima facie violation of the Human Rights Act's prohibition of marital status discrimination. The act provides in relevant part:

It is an unfair discriminatory practice:

(1) For an owner, lessee * * *

(a) to refuse to sell, rent, or lease * * * any real property because of race, color, creed, religion, national origin, sex, marital status, status with regard to public assistance, disability, or familial status.

Minn.Stat. Sec. 363.03, subd. 2. As applied to this case, French was the owner and lessee of the subject property, and Parsons attempted to rent the property from him.

I. The Definition of "Marital Status"

The administrative law judge (ALJ) found that appellant refused to rent to Parsons because she "was single and planned to cohabit 1 with another person of the opposite sex." The version of the MHRA in effect at the time the alleged discrimination occurred and when the charge was filed did not contain a definition of the term "marital status." 2 See Minn.Stat. Sec. 363.01 (1987 Supp.).

It is well settled that, in the interpretation of ambiguous statutes, this court is required to discover and effectuate legislative intent. State on Behalf of Forslund v. Bronson, 305 N.W.2d 748, 751 (Minn.1981). The term "marital status" is ambiguous because it is susceptible to more than one meaning, namely, a meaning which includes cohabiting couples and one which does not. Mister v. A.R.K. Partnership, 197 Ill.App.3d 105, 143 Ill.Dec. 166, 170, 553 N.E.2d 1152, 1156 (1990); see Alley, Marital Status Discrimination: An Amorphous Prohibition, 54 Fla.B.J. 217 (1980), cited with approval in Cybyske v. Independent School Dist. No. 196, 347 N.W.2d 256, 261 n. 4 (Minn.1984). In order to show that construing "marital status" to include unmarried cohabiting couples is inconsistent with public policy, legislative intent, and previous decisions of this court, it is necessary to examine the history of the MHRA and our cases interpreting it.

The MHRA was amended in 1973 to add the prohibition against discrimination on the basis of "marital status." Act of May 24, 1973, ch. 729, Sec. 3, 1973 Minn.Laws 2158, 2162 (codified at Minn.Stat. Sec. 363.03, subd. 2 (1988)). This court, in construing the term "marital status" has consistently looked to the legislature's policy of discouraging the practice of fornication and protecting the institution of marriage. See Kraft, Inc. v. State ex rel. Wilson, 284 N.W.2d 386, 388 (Minn.1979) (8-0 decision). Kraft presented the question of whether an employer's anti-nepotism policy constituted marital status discrimination within the meaning of the MHRA. Id. at 387-88. In answering this question in the affirmative, Chief Justice Sheran stated:

Endorsing a narrow definition of marital status and uncritically upholding an employment policy such as respondent's could discourage similarly situated employees from marrying. In a locale where a predominant employer enforced such a policy, economic pressures might lead two similarly situated individuals to forsake the marital union and live together in violation of Minn.Stat. Sec. 609.34 [fornication statute]. Such an employment policy would thus undermine the preferred status enjoyed by the institution of marriage.

In view of these considerations, we hold the employment policy of respondent presumptively invalid under Minn.Stat. Sec. 363.03, subd. 1.

Kraft, 284 N.W.2d at 388 (emphasis added) (footnote omitted). The Kraft court unanimously concluded that the fornication statute was a valid expression of Minnesota public policy. Moreover, the Kraft court did not ignore the destructive practical effect of a contrary ruling simply because there was no direct evidence of fornication. It is easy to see that, but for these important public policies, the Kraft decision would have been different.

The respondent cites State ex rel. McClure v. Sports & Health Club, Inc., 370 N.W.2d 844, 849-50 (Minn.1985), as binding precedent as to the definition of "marital status" in the context of cohabitation. A careful reading of Sports & Health Club, however, reveals that this reliance is misplaced. In Sports & Health Club, this court said:

Justice Peterson, in dissent, argues that the discrimination claim predicated upon questioning of employees and applicants on cohabitation of unmarried persons is not a ground under the statute for finding discrimination. Even though we agree with his contention, yet the record appears clear to us that Sports and Health went far beyond permissible bounds in questioning employees and applicants in areas clearly prohibited by the act.

Id. at 850 n. 10 (emphasis added). The contention the Sports & Health Club majority was agreeing with was Justice Peterson's observation that the hearing...

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