State ex rel. Green v. Mo. Comm'n on Human Rights, WD84592

CourtCourt of Appeal of Missouri (US)
Writing for the CourtKaren King Mitchell, Presiding Judge
PartiesSTATE OF MISSOURI ex rel. MEREDITH GREEN, Respondent, v. MISSOURI COMMISSION ON HUMAN RIGHTS, et al., Appellants.
Decision Date07 June 2022
Docket NumberWD84605,WD84592

STATE OF MISSOURI ex rel. MEREDITH GREEN, Respondent,
v.

MISSOURI COMMISSION ON HUMAN RIGHTS, et al., Appellants.

Nos. WD84592, WD84605

Court of Appeals of Missouri, Western District, Second Division

June 7, 2022


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

Before Karen King Mitchell, Presiding Judge, and Edward R. Ardini, Jr., and Thomas N. Chapman, Judges

Karen King Mitchell, Presiding Judge

The Missouri Commission on Human Rights (MCHR), its Executive Director Alisa Warren, and Mercy Health and Mercy Clinic Joplin, LLC (collectively, Mercy) appeal from summary judgment granted in favor of Meredith Green on her petition for a permanent writ of mandamus directing the MCHR to issue her a right-to-sue letter. On appeal, the MCHR raises two points, arguing that the circuit court erred in granting the writ because (1) the MCHR could not issue a right-to-sue letter until it determined whether it had jurisdiction over Green's discrimination complaint against Mercy and (2) Green failed to establish that she met the requirements for

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issuance of a right-to-sue letter in that the parties dispute whether her complaint alleged discrimination by an "employer" covered by the Missouri Human Rights Act (MHRA).

Mercy raises six points on appeal. For Points I-V, Mercy claims that the court erred in granting the writ because (1) the MCHR lacked authority to issue a right-to-sue letter until it determined whether it had jurisdiction over Green's complaint; (2) Mercy is not a covered "employer" because it is not a "person" under the MHRA; (3) Mercy is not an "employer" because it does not have six or more employees; (4) Mercy was not Green's employer; and (5) Mercy is exempt from the MHRA because Mercy is owned and operated by a religious organization. For Point VI, Mercy contends that the court erred in granting summary judgment for Green because she failed to show that she requested a right-to-sue letter after her complaint had been pending with the MCHR for 180 days.

Because the MCHR had a ministerial duty to issue a right-to-sue letter to Green and terminate its investigation of her complaint, we affirm.

Background

On February 27, 2018, Green filed, with the MCHR, a charge of discrimination against Mercy. In her charge, Green alleged that Mercy discriminated against her on the basis of disability and perception of disability, denied her reasonable accommodations and, ultimately, terminated her on December 4, 2017.[1] On March 21, 2018, counsel for Mercy sent a letter to the MCHR

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requesting dismissal of Green's complaint, asserting that Mercy is exempt from the MHRA's definition of "employer."[2]

Green requested a right-to-sue letter from the MCHR on April 24, 2018, and the MCHR issued the letter on August 27, 2018-181 days after Green filed her complaint. The right-to-sue letter stated, in part, "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 determination of jurisdiction, has not been completed." The letter advised Green that the MCHR was administratively closing the case and terminating all MCHR proceedings regarding her complaint. No party appealed issuance of the right-to-sue letter. Green then filed suit against Mercy on November 20, 2018.

On January 10, 2019, the MCHR notified Green that it was vacating its closure of her complaint because the closure was in error. The next day, the MCHR administratively closed Green's complaint and terminated all MCHR proceedings relating to her complaint without issuing a right-to-sue letter because the MCHR determined that Mercy was owned or operated by a religious organization and, therefore, was exempt from the MHRA.

On February 13, 2019, Green filed a two-count petition seeking a writ of mandamus compelling the MCHR and Warren to issue a right-to-sue letter or, in the alternative, judicial

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review of a non-contested case under § 536.150. On February 19, 2019, the circuit court issued preliminary writs of mandamus to the MCHR and Warren. Thereafter, Mercy moved to intervene.

On October 27, 2020, Green moved for summary judgment on her writ petition, arguing that the MCHR was required to issue a right-to-sue letter under § 213.111.1 because she had requested a letter in writing and the MCHR had failed to complete its administrative processing of her complaint within 180 days of its filing. On November 6, 2020, Mercy moved for summary judgment, asserting that (1) Green had submitted her request for a right-to-sue letter too early because § 213.111.1 requires that a request for a right-to-sue letter be made no earlier than 180 days after the filing of the complaint and (2) Green had not been employed by Mercy. In response to the motions for summary judgment, the MCHR argued, among other things, that Green failed to allege that an "employer" subject to the MHRA engaged in "an unlawful discriminatory practice" and, as a result, the MCHR was required to dismiss Green's complaint for lack of jurisdiction. But the MCHR expressly rejected Mercy's argument that Green submitted her request for a right-to-sue letter too early, stating that "MCHR accepts right[-]to[-]sue requests at any time."

The circuit court held a hearing on the competing motions for summary judgment and, on May 9, 2021, the court granted Green's motion for summary judgment and denied Mercy's motion. The court concluded that Green "is entitled to a [r]ight-to-[s]ue letter against Mercy Clinic Joplin, LLC because [the MCHR] failed to complete its administrative processing within 180 days and such a letter was requested in writing."

Having made no determination within 180 days and with the Relator having requested a right-to-sue letter in writing, the [MCHR] lost the ability to make any jurisdictional determination. Any act taken after that date is void. As a result no determination was made as to whether or not Intervenor was Relator's employer [or] the Intervenor was an employer . . . subject to the MHRA and nothing in this judgment should be so construed.
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(Emphasis in original.) The court issued a permanent writ directing the MCHR to rescind its determination that it lacked jurisdiction over Green's complaint (which effectively denied Green a right-to-sue letter) and to issue a right-to-sue letter on her allegations against Mercy Clinic Joplin, LLC.[3] The court expressly adopted its reasoning in Najib v. Missouri Commission on Human Rights, Cole County Case No. 20ACCC00189, "for the 180 day analysis and for the issue of requesting a [r]ight-to-[s]ue letter prior to 180 days." The MCHR and Mercy appeal.

Standard of Review

The MCHR and Mercy seek review of the circuit court's grant of summary judgment in favor of Green on her petition for a writ of mandamus. As we noted in our opinion in Najib, "[t]his procedural posture is unusual, and there are different standards for reviewing the grant of summary judgment and the issuance of a writ of mandamus." Najib v. Mo. Comm'n on Hum. Rts., No. WD84344, 2022 WL 677883, at *3 (Mo. App. W.D. Mar. 8, 2022). "A circuit court's grant of summary judgment is subject to de novo review on appeal." Holmes v. Steelman, 624 S.W.3d 144, 148 (Mo. banc 2021). A writ of mandamus is a discretionary writ and, thus, we "review[] the grant of a writ of mandamus under an abuse of discretion standard." State ex rel. Mo. Clean Energy Dist. v. McEvoy, 557 S.W.3d 473, 478 (Mo. App. W.D. 2018) (quoting Burnett v. Kansas City Sch. Bd., 237 S.W.3d 237, 238 (Mo. App. W.D. 2007)).

Here, the circuit court's grant of Green's request for a writ of mandamus was based on the court's interpretation of the relevant sections of the MHRA. "Matters of statutory interpretation are reviewed de novo." Id. (quoting Burnett, 237 S.W.3d at 239). Thus, "because the facts material to the circuit court's issuance of the writ of mandamus are not in dispute, and because the issuance

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of the writ was based on the circuit court's interpretation of the [MHRA], our review is de novo." Najib, 2022 WL 677883, at *3.

Analysis

The MCHR raises two points on appeal, asserting that the circuit court erred in granting the writ of mandamus because (1) the MCHR lacked authority to issue a right-to-sue letter until it determined whether it had jurisdiction over Green's complaint and (2) Green failed to establish that she met the requirements for issuance of a right-to-sue letter in that the parties dispute whether her complaint alleged discrimination by an "employer" covered by the MHRA.

Mercy raises six points on appeal. For Points I-V, Mercy claims that the court erred in granting the writ because (1) the MCHR lacked authority to issue a right-to-sue letter until it determined whether it had jurisdiction over Green's complaint; (2) Mercy is not an "employer" because it is not a "person" under the MHRA; (3) Mercy is not an "employer" because it does not have six or more employees; (4) Mercy was not Green's employer; and (5) Mercy is exempted from the MHRA because Mercy is owned and operated by a religious organization. For Point VI, Mercy contends that the court erred in granting summary judgment for Green because she failed to show that she requested a right-to-sue letter after her complaint had been pending with the MCHR for 180 days.

"The purpose of the extraordinary writ of mandamus is to compel the performance of a ministerial duty that one charged with the duty has refused to perform." State ex rel. Henderson v. Asel, 566 S.W.3d 596, 598 (Mo. banc 2019) (quoting Furlong Cos. v. City of Kansas City, 189 S.W.3d 157, 165 (Mo. banc 2006)). "Mandamus may not be used to establish a legal right; it may . . . be used [only] to compel performance of a right that already exists." Clarkson Constr. Co. v....

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