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Harris v. Watyerloo Human Rights Comm.

United States District Court, N.D. Iowa, Eastern Division
May 24, 2001
No. C00-2017 MJM (N.D. Iowa May. 24, 2001)


No. C00-2017 MJM.

May 24, 2001



This cause of action for money damages, injunctive and declaratory relief is based upon a claim by Plaintiff, Leanne Renee Harris (Harris), that the Defendant, the Waterloo Commission on Human Rights (the WCHR), failed to properly investigate and adjudicate her claim of race discrimination. Harris alleges a Constitutional Due Process violation, stating she was improperly deprived of a property interest when the WCHR did not allow her to file a formal written complaint, thereby prohibiting her from having her claim of discrimination received, investigated, and a decision rendered on the merits at the local level. Following are those material facts the Court finds undisputed.


The parties' time-line of events differs somewhat. However, the Court does not believe the specific dates are in any way dispositive of the issues raised in this case. Accordingly, the following recitation of facts focuses on the actions taken by the parties; namely Harris' claim of discrimination and the WCHR's investigation of that claim.

Harris is an African-American woman who was terminated from her employment with John Deere Community Credit Union. Harris believes her termination was based on her race and sought to file a complaint with the WCHR alleging as much. The WCHR is a commission mandated by statute to process charges of discrimination arising under the City of Waterloo's civil rights ordinance, Iowa Code § 216.19, et seq.

On about December 28, 1999, Harris contacted the office of the WCHR to file a complaint against the John Deere Community Credit Union. Harris spoke with Constance McGovern (McGovern), a Human Rights Specialist/Investigator. McGovern's duties include receiving and investigating complaints of discrimination arising under the City's civil rights ordinance. Harris informed McGovern that she had been discharged from her employment at the John Deere Community Credit Union and believed that her discharge was due to her race. The two discussed the facts that gave rise to her claim of discrimination. McGovern maintains, and Harris does not appear to dispute, that she asked Harris a series of questions, including: did she know of any other incidents with the same supervisor who fired her which would indicate race was factor in her termination?; did the supervisor verbalize race was a factor?; and could Harris name any person outside of her protected class who was treated differently? McGovern contends Harris did not provide answers to any of these questions which would support her claim of race discrimination. While Harris maintains she was treated differently than other employees, she does not direct this Court to any evidence which would indicate McGovern had such evidence at her disposal and ignored it or failed to pursue it.

Harris provided the following information to McGovern: an "Employee Warning Record;" Harris' time sheets for the period November 14, 1999, to December 11, 1999; Harris' time card for the period November 14, 1999 to November 27, 1999; a statement by Harris dated December 16, 1999; and the John Deere Community Credit Union employee policy manual with excerpts therefrom. McGovern told Harris that she would compile the information and have the director of the WCHR, Walter Reed, review it. McGovern reviewed the information and concluded that John Deere Community Credit Union had a legitimate business reason for terminating Harris' employment. McGovern contends that she also discussed Harris' case with her co-worker, Becky Johnson, a Human Rights Specialist/Investigator, who concurred in her assessment that the employer had a legitimate business reason to terminate Harris' employment.

Sometime later, Harris returned to WCHR to ascertain the status of her complaint. Harris met with McGovern and explained she was very upset after having read an article stating the John Deere Community Credit Union recently gave the WCHR an award of $12,000. After expressing her concern that the award gave the WCHR an image of impropriety, Harris questioned whether Director Reed had ever reviewed her file. McGovern again explained she planned to compile the information for Director Reed to review. Harris then requested to speak with Director Reed personally. McGovern told Harris he was unavailable. McGovern contends that she did ultimately discuss Harris' complaint with Director Reed who concurred in her decision that it had no merit.

On February 2, 2000, Harris made a series of calls to McGovern and Director Reed but received no response. Harris received notice dated February 2, 2000, that her complaint with the WCHR was denied upon a "jurisdictional review." Harris was never permitted the opportunity to file a formal written complaint; nor was she allowed to review her informal complaint, as it were, prior to its dismissal upon "jurisdictional review."



"Under Rule 56(c), summary judgment is proper `if the pleadings, depositions, answers to interrogatories, and admissions on file, together with the affidavits, if any, show that there is no genuine issue as to any material fact and that the moving party is entitled to a judgment as a matter of law.'" Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 322-23 (1986) (quoting Fed.R.Civ.Pro. 56); see also Krentz v. Robertson Fire Prot. Dist., 228 F.3d 897, 902 (8th Cir. 2000). A court considering a motion for summary judgment must view all the facts in the light most favorable to the nonmoving party and give the nonmoving party the benefit of all reasonable inferences that can be drawn from those facts. See Matshusita Elec. Indus. Co. v. Zenith Radio Corp., 475 U.S. 574, 587 (1986); see also Rabushka, ex rel. U.S. v. Crane Co., 122 F.3d 559, 562 (8th Cir. 1997), cert. denied, 523 U.S. 1040 (1998).


A cursory review of the record reveals it is replete with factual disputes which in many instances would prohibit a grant of summary judgment. However, the WCHR's motion for summary judgment is premised on three questions of law which can be resolved at this stage, even when viewing the facts in the light most favorable to Harris. First, the WCHR contends Harris does not have the requisite Article III standing to bring this claim. Second, the WCHR maintains Harris' subsequent filing of a complaint with the Iowa Civil Rights Commission and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission renders her action in this Court moot. Finally, the WCHR contends that Harris has failed to state a claim upon which relief can be granted because she does not have a protected property interest in filing a formal complaint with the WCHR. The Court will address each argument, beginning with the WCHR's challenge to Harris' ability to state a claim upon which relief can be granted.


Harris brings the present action for a violation of her Fourteenth Amendment right to due process pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983. In determining whether a claimant has sufficiently claimed a constitutional due process violation courts must first determine whether there is a protected property interest at stake. See Kentucky Dep't of Corr. v. Thompson, 490 U.S. 454, 459-60 (1989); Logan v. Zimmerman Brush Co., 455 U.S. 422, 428 (1982). "Property interests are not created by the Constitution, `they are created and their dimensions are defined by existing rules or understandings that stem from an independent source such as state law. . . .'" Cleveland Bd. of Educ. v. Loudermill, 470 U.S. 532, 537 (1985) (quoting Board of Regents v. Roth, 408 U.S. 564, 577 (1972)). Here Harris points to the procedures put in place by the City of Waterloo to address claims of employment discrimination. Specifically she cites the Waterloo City Ordinance No. 4064, § 20-1(c), which states the purpose of the WCHR, is, in part:

To provide, at a local level, a Commission on Human Rights dedicated to the following: effective enforcement of this Ordinance, service as a source of information to employers, laborers, businesspersons, employees, tenants, and other citizens, relative to various civil rights legislation and regulation; and active assistance to prevent and eliminate the effects of discriminatory practices.

The Ordinance goes on to specify the duties of the WCHR, including the duty "[t]o receive, investigate, and finally determine the merits of complaints alleging unfair or discriminatory practices." Id. at § 20-5(c). The Ordinance also specifies the complaint procedure which states, in part, that:

a person claiming to be aggrieved by a discriminatory practice. . . . may file with the Commission a written complaint, stating that a discriminatory practice has been committed, setting forth the facts upon which the complaint is based, and setting forth facts sufficient to enable the Commission to identify the person charged (hereinafter the respondent). A member of the Commission staff . . . shall promptly investigate the allegations of discriminatory practice set forth in the complaint and shall promptly furnish the respondent with a copy of the complaint. . . . .

Id. at § 20-15(a).

This Court finds Harris has a property interest in having her grievance heard and redressed pursuant to the City's statutory scheme. See Logan, 455 U.S. at 431 (holding the right to adjudicatory procedures of the Illinois Fair Employment Practices Act is a protected property interest); Mullane v. Central Hanover Bank Trust Co., 339 U.S. 306 (1950) (holding that a cause of action is a species of property interest protected by the due process clause); see also Luckett v. Jett, 966 F.2d 209 (7th Cir. 1992) (finding due process right in procedures of Illinois Human Rights Act), cert. denied, 507 U.S. 922 (1993); New York State National Organization for Women v. Pataki, 189 F.R.D. 286, 306-07 (S.D.N.Y. 1999) (finding administrative delay in processing complaints is sufficient to show deprivation under the due process clause); Long v. District of Columbia, 3 F. Supp.2d 1477, 1479 (D.D.C. 1998) (finding plaintiff has property interest in having her claim heard and redressed by local agency), aff'd by 194 F.3d 174 (D.C. Cir. 1999); New York State National Organization for Women v. Cuomo, 14 F. Supp.2d 424, 430 (S.D.N.Y. 1998) (citing Logan and finding New York State Division of Human Rights cannot thwart investigation or resolution of claims brought pursuant to Human Rights Law); and Lemon v. Tucker, 695 F. Supp. 963, 968-69 (N.D.Ill. 1988) (holding right to use adjudicatory procedures under state act was protected property interest).

The WCHR cites a series of cases for the proposition that ordinances such as the one cited herein do not create a property right to have a discrimination claim adjudicated by a civil rights agency. See, e.g., Scheerer v. Rose State College, 950 F.2d 661, 663 (10th Cir. 1991) (finding Title VII does not provide either an express or implied cause of action against the EEOC to challenge its investigation and processing of a charge), cert. denied, 505 U.S. 1205 (1992); Ward v. EEOC, 719 F.2d 311, 313 (9th Cir. 1983) (same), cert. denied, 466 U.S. 953 (1984); Francis-Sobel v. University of Me., 597 F.2d 15, 17-18 (1st Cir.) (same), cert. denied, 444 U.S. 949 (1979); see also Baba v. Japan Travel Bureau Int'l, Inc., 111 F.3d 2, 5-6 (2d Cir. 1997) (finding no private cause of action against EEOC for failure properly to process or investigate employment discrimination charge); Smith v. Casellas, 119 F.3d 33, 34 (D.C. Cir.) (same), cert. denied, 522 U.S. 958 (1997). These cases deal with a related, but distinct legal principle; that is, whether Congress created a cause of action, or in the alternative, whether an implied private right action exists under Title VII to challenge the investigation and processing of a charge by the EEOC. As these cases reveal, those circuits which have addressed this issue unanimously held there is no such cause of action. However, whether a claimant has a due process right to a remedy created by the local or state civil rights ordinance is not at issue in these holdings. This Court's research has instead revealed that courts addressing state or local civil rights ordinances have found a claimant has a property interest in the adjudication of their claim before that local civil rights agency. See cases cited supra.

The question then becomes what level of process is Harris due? The governing approach for determining what process is due was set forth by the Supreme Court in Mathews v. Eldridge, 424 U.S. 319, 335 (1976). According to Mathews, three factors should be considered when identifying the specific dictates of due process:

First, the private interest that will be affected by the official action; second, the risk of an erroneous deprivation of such interest through the procedures used, and the probable value, if any, of additional or substitute procedural safeguards; and finally, the Government's interest, including the function involved and the fiscal and administrative burdens that the additional or substitute procedural requirement would entail.

424 U.S. at 334-35; see also Logan, 455 U.S. at 431 (holding random termination of property interest in using adjudicatory procedures violated procedural due process); Smith v. Organization of Foster Families, 431 U.S. 816 (1977) (finding informal procedures for determining whether a foster child may be removed from foster home satisfies due process, assuming a liberty interest was involved); Memphis Light, Gas and Water Division v. Craft, 436 U.S. 1 (1978) (holding before municipal utility may cut off services to customer, it must afford customer opportunity to meet with an employee authorized to settle billing disputes). The claimant bears the burden of making "the very difficult factual showing necessary" to invalidate administrative procedures on the basis of the foregoing three-prong test. Walters v. National Assoc. of Radiation Survivors, 473 U.S. 305, 330 (1985).

Again, Harris maintains that her due process rights were violated in that she was prohibited from filing a formal written complaint, thereby prohibiting her from having her claim of discrimination received, investigated, and a decision rendered on the merits at the local level. With regards to the first piece of Harris' charge, the undisputed record reveals Harris was neither permitted to file a formal written complaint, nor was such complaint furnished to the respondent, in this case John Deere Community Credit Union. A careful balancing of competing interests delineated in Mathews leads this Court to conclude that the WCHR's failure to follow their statutorily mandated complaint procedures violated Harris' due process right to file a written formal complaint of discrimination. Looking at the first two factors, allowing Harris to file a formal written complaint would further her interest in resolving her discrimination claim and lower the risk of erroneous deprivation of having that claim adjudicated. Likewise, the cost of permitting such procedural formalities would not be too onerous for the WCHR to bear.

However, after thoroughly reviewing the record, the Court finds McGovern's investigatory measures, the second piece of Harris' claim, did not violate Harris' right to due process. In reaching this conclusion, the Court reiterates Harris' substantial burden of making "the very difficult factual showing necessary" to invalidate McGovern's investigation. Walters, 473 U.S. at 330. Harris has offered little to no evidence in an effort to meet this substantial burden. A review of the undisputed record reveals that McGovern inquired about the circumstances around Harris' termination and her work history, and obtained her probation record, her time slips and the employer's handbook. Harris does not dispute that McGovern questioned her about whether similarly situated people outside her protected class were treated differently and whether her supervisor indicated in any way that race was a factor in her termination. Although Harris maintains that she was treated differently than other co-employees, and that she believes race was a factor in the decision to terminate her employment, she does not proffer any evidence that McGovern had at her disposal and ignored which would support these accusations. In a due process challenge premised on the notion that an investigation was faulty, or constitutionally insufficient, one would imagine the claimant would challenge those things left undone by the investigator, and offer some evidence to suggest had more been done there would be a different result. Harris has done neither. Accordingly, the record before this Court does not support a violation of due process based on the failure to adequately investigate. This ruling is in line with the substantial deference courts afford civil rights agencies in investigating complaints of discrimination. See, e.g., Luckett, 966 F.2d 209 (finding local civil rights agencies investigative procedures did not violate due process); Long, 3 F. Supp.2d at 1479 (finding due process does not require such exacting procedures as a hearing anytime credibility is at issue and holding agency's decision not to pursue discrimination claim did not violate due process); and Lemon, 695 F. Supp. at 971 (finding providing access to agency's investigation file goes beyond what due process requires).


The WCHR further challenges Harris' claim on grounds of standing and mootness. Article III limits the "judicial power" to "cases" and "controversies." U.S. Const., art. III., 2, cl. 1. From this "bedrock requirement," flow several doctrines — e.g., standing, mootness, ripeness, and political question — which "state fundamental limits on federal judicial power in our system of government." Mausolf v. Babbitt, 85 F.3d 1295, 1301 (8th Cir. 1996) (quoting Allen v. Wright, 468 U.S. 737, 750 (1984), and Valley Forge Christian College v. Americans United for Separation of Church and State, Inc., 454 U.S. 464, 471 (1982)).

The doctrine of standing requires a party to satisfy three elements in order to bring suit in federal court: injury in fact, causation, and redressability. See Steel Co. v. Citizens for a Better Env't, 523 U.S. 83, 101 (1998). A case is considered moot, and a federal court thereby lacks jurisdiction to hear the action, if it no longer presents a live case or controversy. See Hickman v. Missouri, 144 F.3d 1141, 1142 (8th Cir. 1998). Harris, as the party invoking federal jurisdiction, has the burden of establishing both standing and a live case and controversy. See Lujan v. Defenders of Wildlife, 504 U.S. 555, 561 (1992).

The WCHR's standing and mootness arguments are premised on the fact that Harris has filed a discrimination complaint with Iowa Civil Rights Commission at the state level, and has cross filed with Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) at the federal level. These agencies, the WCHR contends, are the equivalent to filing with the WCHR. The Court does not, as an initial matter, believe these filings render Harris' complaint moot where her claim in this Court is premised on her due process right to file a formal written complaint with a city agency. First, the Court has already discussed her established property interest in doing so, and does not believe filing with state and federal agencies is by definition tantamount to filing with a local agency. Cf. Lemon, 695 F. Supp. at 968 (finding "the presence of alternate remedies to redress civil rights violations does not relieve the state from complying with the due process clause").

In order to meet the standing requirement, Harris must have suffered an "`injury in fact'; that is, an `invasion of a legally protected interest which is (a) concrete and particularized . . . and (b) actual or imminent, not conjectural or hypothetical. . . .'" Mausolf, 85 F.3d at 1301 (citing Lujan, 504 U.S. at 560 (internal quotation marks and citations omitted)). Harris maintains her injury stems from not being afforded the opportunity to have her discrimination claim investigated and resolved at a local level. In this regard, however, the Court does find Harris' subsequent filing of a discrimination complaint with the Iowa Civil Rights Commission and the EEOC diminishes any actual injury she may have suffered due to the WCHR's actions. Having filed these complaints, Harris has preserved her right to have her claims adjudicated and redressed under both state and federal law. See Iowa Code § 216.15(12); and 42 U.S.C. § 2000e-5(b), (c) and (e); see also Shannon v. Ford Motor Co., 72 F.3d 678, 684 (8th Cir. 1996). It is unclear what actual injury Harris will suffer by her inability to file a written formal complaint at the local level, and, more importantly, Harris has offered no evidence to prove she has suffered an actual injury.

That said, in Carey v. Piphus, the Supreme Court recognized that a plaintiff whose procedural due process rights have been violated is entitled to "nominal damages without proof of actual injury." 435 U.S. 247, 263-66 (1973); see also Peery v. Brakke, 826 F.2d 740, 747 (8th Cir. 1987). Accordingly, Harris is entitled to nominal damages for the WCHR's failure to follow its statutory complaint procedures, namely to allow her to file a written formal complaint.

Finally, the Court addresses Harris' claim for injunctive relief. In order to have standing to seek injunctive relief Harris must demonstrate "a real, [and] immediate threat that [she] would again suffer similar injury in the future." Harmon v. City of Kansas City, 197 F.3d 321, 327 (8th Cir. 1999) (internal quotations omitted), cert. denied, 529 U.S. 1038 (2000); and Adarand Constructors, Inc. v. Pena, 515 U.S. 200, 211 (1995). There is no indication Harris is under an immediate threat of future harm, and again, Harris has proffered no evidence to that effect. Accordingly, her claim for injunctive relief is denied.


In conclusion, this Court finds Harris has a property interest in having her grievance heard and redressed by the WCHR, that McGovern's investigation did not violate her right to due process in that regard, but the WCHR's refusal to allow her to file a formal written complaint did violate that right. Nevertheless, Harris has failed to show she suffered an injury as a result of this violation. In accordance with Carey v. Piphus, Harris is, however, entitled to nominal damages for a due process violation without showing injury in fact. In all other respects, as to all other forms of relief, the WCHR's motion for summary judgment is granted.


For the reasons stated herein, the WCHR's motion is DENIED in part and GRANTED in part. (Doc. no. 14).

Summaries of

Harris v. Watyerloo Human Rights Comm.

United States District Court, N.D. Iowa, Eastern Division
May 24, 2001
No. C00-2017 MJM (N.D. Iowa May. 24, 2001)
Case details for

Harris v. Watyerloo Human Rights Comm.

Case Details


Court:United States District Court, N.D. Iowa, Eastern Division

Date published: May 24, 2001


No. C00-2017 MJM (N.D. Iowa May. 24, 2001)