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Missouri Court of Appeals Doubles Down on Its Strict Application of 180-day Time Limit to Investigate Employment Discrimination

Background

Jeannette Layton, a physician’s office manager for Mercy Health East Community (“Mercy”), filed a complaint against Mercy with the Missouri Commission on Human Rights (“the Commission”), alleging age discrimination. Under § 213.111.1 RSMo., if the Commission fails to complete administrative investigation on alleged discrimination, the Commission must issue a right-to-sue notice upon the aggrieved party’s request in writing. Layton requested a right-to-sue notice in writing approximately 185 days after the filing of her complaint. Without issuing the requested notice, the Commission sent Layton correspondence about a month after her request, stating that the agency was still conducting investigation on the matter. More than 300 days after the filing of the complaint, the Commission issued Layton a notice of termination of proceedings indicating that the agency lacked jurisdiction over the matter. The termination notice stated that Mercy is owned or operated by a religious group and therefore exempt from the Missouri Human Rights Act prohibiting discrimination based on age. Following her receipt of the notice of termination, Layton filed a petition for a writ of mandamus requesting the circuit court to compel the Commission to rescind the termination and issue her a notice of right to sue. The Circuit Court of Cole County granted the writ and ordered the Commission to rescind and set aside the termination and issue a right-to-sue letter to Layton. The Commission and Mercy appealed, and the Court of Appeals affirmed.

On appeal, the Commission and Mercy (collectively the “appellants”) raised two main points. First, the appellants argued that the circuit court erred in directing the Commission to issue a right-to-sue notice because the Commission was “required to make a determination regarding its jurisdiction pursuant to [§] 213.075.1 and was not bound by the 180-day time limit prescribed by [§] 213.111.1.” Second, the appellants contended that Layton’s complaint failed to allege discrimination by an “employer” because Mercy is not an “employer” under the Act. The court, relying on Najib v. Missouri Comm'n on Hum. Rts., 645 S.W.3d 528 (Mo. Ct. App. 2022), another recent case with similar facts, rejected both arguments.

Holding

The Court of Appeals affirmed the circuit court judgment in favor of Layton. Denying the appellants’ first point, the court explained that, while the Commission is not required to complete its administrative processing or determine the merits of a complaint under § 213.111.1, the Commission must issue the right-to-sue notice if the complainant requests a notice of her right to sue following the Commission’s failure to complete the administrative processing within 180 days.The court added that under the appellants’ argument, a claimant could potentially have the right to a civil action foreclosed before having had a chance to bring such an action if the Commission does not determine jurisdiction within the two-year statute of limitations. The court further rejected the notion that whether Mercy is an “employer” falls under the jurisdictional determination process described in § 213.075.1. The court stated that the statutory purpose of the jurisdictional determination is to ensure the timeliness of complaints, and not any other issues affecting the jurisdiction.

The court also rejected the appellants’ second point, reasoning that the mere fact that an allegation necessary to entitle the claimant to a remedy was disputed does not deprive the Commission of its authority over the complaint. Because the Commission did not make its determination as to the disputed allegation that Mercy is an “employer” under the Act within 180 days, the Commission lost authority to continue its processing of Layton’s complaint when she requested a right-to-sue notice.

Implications

The Missouri Supreme Court recently elected not to accept the Najib case for review and is likely to do the same in Layton. The Commission should now be squarely on notice that if they see a possible jurisdictional problem in a complaint filed with the agency, they must act within 180 days, or risk losing the ability to rule on that issue. And the message for employers is clear: if you detect a jurisdictional problem with a charging party’s complaint, it is imperative that you (firmly but politely) ride herd over the Commission to rule on that jurisdictional flaw before 180 days have passed.

* Ryan Sim, Summer Law Clerk, assisted in the research and drafting of this post. Sim is a rising 3L student at Washington University School of Law in St. Louis.