Local civil rights ordinances not enforceable in state court, Iowa Supreme Court rules

by Rox Laird | July 9, 2020

Municipal ordinances created to protect residents’ civil rights are not enforceable in state court, the Iowa Supreme Court ruled June 30.

The Iowa Civil Rights Act authorizes the state Civil Rights Commission to issue “right to sue” letters to complainants, who are then able to file a civil suit in state district court. Iowa cities with local civil rights agencies do not have that authority, however, the Court said in the 5-1 decision.

“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,” Justice Edward Mansfield wrote for the majority. “For a municipality to enact law that would be binding between those parties in state court, specific authorization from the General Assembly is needed.” The Iowa Civil Rights Act does not contain such authorization, the Court said.

Mansfield’s opinion in Petro v. Palmer College of Chiropractic was joined by all justices except Thomas Waterman, who did not participate, and Brent Appel, who filed a dissent arguing that the Iowa Civil Rights Act, read broadly as the Legislature intended, does provide for enforcement of local civil rights ordinances in state court.

Former chiropractic student Darren Petro filed a complaint with the Davenport Civil Rights Commission accusing Palmer College of discrimination because of his age (44 at the time) and disability due to a back injury.

After conducting an investigation, the commission found probable cause to believe the local ordinance had been violated, but rather than take the matter to a public hearing, the commission issued a right-to-sue letter under the Davenport ordinance. The Scott County District Court dismissed the complaint on summary judgment, holding the Iowa Civil Rights Act “does not provide for a general civil cause of action for an aggrieved plaintiff for wrongs alleged solely under municipal ordinances.”

In affirming the trial court, the Supreme Court cited its 1985 decision in Molitor v. City of Cedar Rapids, which said Iowa District Court jurisdiction is conferred by the Iowa Constitution and by legislation, not local ordinance. “If municipal corporations had the power to confer jurisdiction on the District Court,” the Supreme Court said in Molitor, “the jurisdiction of the court potentially could be fragmented into as many components as there are municipalities.”

While the Iowa Civil Rights Act does not “directly preclude” a local civil rights commission from issuing a right-to-sue letter under a local ordinance, Mansfield wrote, in light of Molitor and Iowa Code Section 364.1 outlining cities’ powers and duties, “there must be something more — an affirmative grant of authority from the General Assembly. And the affirmative provision for judicial review in section 216.19(7) suggests, by negative implication, that the General Assembly did not envisage a judicial forum in other contexts.”

The Legislature’s intent may have been limiting litigation, Mansfield wrote.

The right to sue under local civil rights ordinances matters only when the local ordinance is broader than the Iowa Civil Rights Act, he wrote. “Otherwise, the existing right to sue under the ICRA suffices. But the Legislature might have been concerned that allowing local commissions to create additional protected classes — and then to authorize private suits for discrimination based on these forms of protected status — might have been too much too soon.”

He suggested an example of a municipality that bans discrimination based on a person’s credit score: “The Legislature might have been willing to accept this exercise of municipal autonomy to the extent the local commission was willing to enforce the ban itself but did not want a tide of private litigation,” Mansfield wrote.

In his dissenting opinion, Justice Appel faulted the majority for taking a “tight-fisted, highly restrictive approach to remedies for civil rights violations” in its reading of a statute that was intended to be interpreted broadly to protect Iowans’ civil rights.

“The purpose of the [Iowa Civil Rights Act] is to provide robust remedies for violations of the antidiscrimination laws and ordinances,” Appel wrote. “Is there anyone who, after reading the opinion in this case, thinks the majority has construed the statute ‘broadly to effectuate its purposes’?”


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