Today, the Indiana Supreme Court decided the case of Fishers Adolescent Catholic Enrichment Society, Inc. (FACES) v. Bridgewater and concluded that, because the Indiana Civil Rights Commission had no jurisdiction over a complaint, it never had power to do anything except dismiss that complaint and that, by extension, a retaliation claim based on the underlying complaint could not proceed either.
FACES was, in effect, a social group formed by homeschoolers. One of the kids was allergic to food that was being served at a masquerade ball being held as an alternative to Halloween. The group said that they wouldn’t ask the venue to provide anything else and told the parent of the allergic kid not to contact the venue but the kid could bring a meal from home. The kid’s parents filed a complaint with the Indiana Civil Rights Commission. The group kicked the kid out of the group. The ICRC’s Administrative Law Judge concluded:
that FACES did not commit an unlawful discriminatory practice because it had provided a reasonable accommodation for Mrs. Bridgewater’s daughter’s dietary needs—but that FACES did commit an unlawful discriminatory practice when it expelled the Bridgewater children after they filed the disability discrimination complaint. The administrative law judge ruled that Mrs. Bridgewater’s daughter should be awarded $5,000 in damages and that FACES should take corrective action.
The ICRC apparently reduced the damages somewhat but otherwise affirmed the ALJ. The Indiana Supreme Court found that the ICRC shouldn’t have been doing any of this because it doesn’t have jurisdiction.
The Indiana Civil Rights Law explicitly conditions the Commission’s exercise of its enforcement powers to incidents where a person has “engaged in an unlawful discriminatory practice.” To be “unlawful” under the [Indiana Civil Rights] Law, the discriminatory practice must relate to “the acquisition or sale of real estate, education, public accommodations, employment, or the extending of credit.” Ind. Code § 22-9-1-3(l) (emphasis added).
Education was the only one of those items at issue here, and the Supreme Court found that to read the statute broadly enough to conclude that this claim related to education would be to convert almost every occasion of parental guidance and training into an activity “related to education.” And, by extension, the Indiana Supreme Court determined that the retaliation claim should also fail inasmuch as the ICRC didn’t have jurisdiction in the first place. To hold otherwise would invite and incentivize the intimidating technique of bootstrapping a retaliation claim onto a meritless complaint alleging discrimination not subject to the [Indiana Civil Rights] Law.
I like legal fees more than the next guy, but I shudder a little to think of the fees that were spent in this matter that could have been saved by a prompt ICRC order stating, “this doesn’t belong here – take it somewhere else.” There were probably fees responding to an investigator, asking for a determination of no probable cause, possibly mediating the case, then at a hearing before an ALJ, then petitioning the ICRC for review, then going through the Court of Appeal process, then going to the Indiana Supreme Court. And these are big time Indianapolis lawyer fees, not the sort of reasonably priced, sound legal advice you get from, say, an attorney in Tippecanoe County.