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Vermont Human Rights Commission v. State of Vermont

November 2, 2012

VERMONT HUMAN RIGHTS COMMISSION
v.
STATE OF VERMONT, AGENCY OF TRANSPORTATION



On Appeal from Superior Court, Washington Unit, Civil Division April Term, 2012 Geoffrey W. Crawford, J.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Skoglund, J.

Vermont Human Rights Commission v. State of Vermont, Agency of Transportation

(2011-343)

2012 VT 88

Supreme Court

PRESENT: Reiber, C.J., Dooley, Skoglund and Burgess, JJ., and Howard, Supr. J., Specially Assigned

¶ 1. The Vermont Human Rights Commission appeals a trial court decision interpreting 9 V.S.A. § 4554 as requiring all lawsuits brought by the Commission against the State of Vermont to be filed within a six-month conciliation period. The trial court held that because the Commission failed to file within this six-month period, its suit against the State was time-barred. We affirm the trial court's decision and dismiss the Commission's claim.

¶ 2. Under 9 V.S.A. § 4552, the Human Rights Commission has jurisdiction to investigate and enforce various discrimination complaints across the state. Where the complaint is against the State itself, the Commission also has jurisdiction over discrimination matters that would normally be addressed by the Attorney General, including claims of employment discrimination. 9 V.S.A. § 4552(b). Such is the situation presented in this matter.

¶ 3. In 2008, the Commission received a complaint against the Vermont Agency of Transportation (AOT) by an employee alleging workplace discrimination on the basis of a disability. Pursuant to 9 V.S.A § 4554, which governs the Commission's procedure for discrimination claims, the Commission reviewed the employee's claim and determined on July 2, 2010 that there were reasonable grounds to believe AOT had discriminated against him in violation of the Vermont Fair Employment Practices Act (FEPA).

¶ 4. After a determination of reasonable grounds for a discrimination case against a state agency, § 4554(e) directs the Commission to "make every reasonable effort to eliminate the discrimination by informal means such as conference, conciliation and persuasion." In this pursuit, the Commission initiated conciliation efforts with the State that ultimately failed. As a result, the Commission filed a complaint against the State in Superior Court on April 11, 2011--over nine months after deciding there were reasonable grounds to pursue a case.

¶ 5. In response to the Commission's complaint, the State filed a motion to dismiss, arguing that the Commission's case was time-barred by § 4554. That section states:

If the case is not disposed of by informal means in a manner satisfactory to a majority of the commission within six months, it shall either bring an action in superior court as provided in section 4553 of this title or dismiss the proceedings, unless an extension is necessary to complete ongoing good faith negotiations and all parties consent to the extension.

¶ 6. 9 V.S.A. § 4554(e). The trial court agreed with the State, holding that the six-month time period applies to the Commission and that by failing to bring a lawsuit within this period, the Commission's case must be dismissed. *fn1 The Commission appeals.

¶ 7. As with all questions of law, we apply a non-deferential and plenary standard of review to issues of statutory interpretation. Our Lady of Ephesus House of Prayer, Inc. v. Town of Jamaica, 2005 VT 16, ¶ 10, 178 Vt. 35, 869 A.2d 145. The sole issue in this case is whether the Commission is bound by 9 V.S.A. § 4554 to bring claims against the State within six months. The Commission offers two arguments in support of finding the six-month time limit does not apply. First, the Commission argues that the time limit is directory rather than mandatory, and ...


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