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Mokwenyei v. Rhode Island Hospital

Supreme Court of Rhode Island

December 20, 2018

Augustina Mokwenyei
Rhode Island Hospital.

          Providence County Superior Court (PC 16-3967) Associate Justice Maureen B. Keough Judge.

          For Plaintiff: Bradley M. Orleck, Esq.

          For Defendant: James A. Musgrave, Esq. Francis A. Gaschen, Esq.

          Present: Suttell, C.J., Flaherty, Robinson, and Indeglia, JJ.



         This appeal presents the issue of whether a plaintiff's request for a right-to-sue letter from the Rhode Island Commission for Human Rights (the commission) can be timely made only when submitted in the form requested by the commission. This case came before the Supreme Court pursuant to an order directing the parties to appear and show cause why the issue raised in this appeal should not be summarily decided. After considering the parties' written and oral submissions and reviewing the record, we conclude that cause has not been shown and that this case may be decided without further briefing or argument. For the reasons set forth in this opinion, we vacate the judgment of the Superior Court.

         I Facts and Travel

         On August 23, 2016, the plaintiff, Augustina Mokwenyei, filed a complaint alleging that the defendant, Rhode Island Hospital, terminated her employment in 2013 "because of her race, ancestral origin, and age[, ]" in violation of the Fair Employment Practices Act, G.L. 1956 chapter 5 of title 28 (FEPA), and the Rhode Island Civil Rights Act, G.L. 1956 chapter 112 of title 42 (RICRA). The plaintiff alleged that she had been employed by defendant from 1989 until March 15, 2013, when she "was forced, under threat of being fired, to sign a resignation letter which she did not write."

         The defendant moved to dismiss the complaint on the basis that neither of plaintiff's claims were timely initiated in Superior Court-the RICRA claim because it was filed more than three years after plaintiff's termination, and the FEPA claim because she had not properly and timely requested a right-to-sue letter from the commission as required by § 28-5-24.1. The defendant attached three exhibits to its motion: a copy of plaintiff's complaint; a September 20, 2013 letter from the commission to defendant requesting a full response to the charge of discrimination that plaintiff had filed with the commission on September 11, 2013; and a March 30, 2015 letter from the commission to Rhode Island Hospital advising it that no probable cause had been found to support plaintiff's charge of discrimination. The latter letter included a one-page insert entitled "Options for Complainant Following a No Probable Cause Ruling - Co-Filed Cases."

         The commission moved to intervene in the case as a party defendant pursuant to Rule 24(a)(2) and Rule 24(b) of the Superior Court Rules of Civil Procedure. At the same time, the commission filed a motion to dismiss plaintiff's FEPA claim on the basis that plaintiff had neither appealed from the commission's finding of no probable cause nor complied with the required timeframe for requesting a right-to-sue letter. The commission attached one exhibit to its motion: its faxed response to plaintiff's request for the right-to-sue letter, including a form for plaintiff's signature and a request that it be signed and returned to the commission.

         The plaintiff's objection to the motions to dismiss simply stated that plaintiff had timely requested a right-to-sue letter from the commission and, once she received the letter, subsequently timely filed a complaint in Superior Court.[1] The plaintiff attached one document to her objection: a copy of her counsel's April 10, 2015 letter to the commission requesting the issuance of a right-to-sue letter, which was accompanied by an affidavit signed by plaintiff stating that she wanted her counsel to prepare a right-to-sue letter.

         A hearing on these motions was held in Superior Court on December 15 and 16, 2016, [2]and focused primarily on defendant's and intervenor's arguments that plaintiff's FEPA claim must be dismissed because plaintiff had failed to properly and timely request the right-to-sue letter on the form prepared by the commission for plaintiff's signature. The plaintiff argued that the right-to-sue letter was timely requested from the commission on April 10, 2015, but that the request had not been submitted in the form preferred by the commission, so the commission faxed the proper form to plaintiff's counsel for plaintiff's signature. The plaintiff's attorney admitted that plaintiff had not returned this completed form because this task "fell through the cracks" at the attorney's office. After plaintiff's first attempt to initiate litigation in Superior Court was dismissed by stipulation (see footnote 1, supra), plaintiff received a right-to-sue letter from the commission on July 22, 2016. In addition, plaintiff conceded that she did not have a tenable objection to defendant's argument that the statute of limitations had expired on her RICRA claim.

         After reviewing the submitted written communications between the parties pertaining to the processing of plaintiff's charge of discrimination with the commission and plaintiff's request for a right-to-sue letter from the commission, the hearing justice granted Rhode Island Hospital's and the commission's motions to dismiss. The hearing justice reasoned that plaintiff had not timely requested the right-to-sue letter because plaintiff had allowed more than one year to elapse between receiving the proper form for the request of the right-to-sue letter from the commission and returning the form so she could obtain the letter and proceed to file her complaint in Superior Court. Final judgment entered in favor of defendant on January 3, 2017, and plaintiff timely filed a notice of appeal to this Court.

         II ...

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