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Chestnut Hill College v. Pennsylvania Human Relations Commission

Commonwealth Court of Pennsylvania

April 7, 2017

Chestnut Hill College, Petitioner
Pennsylvania Human Relations Commission, Respondent

          Argued: February 7, 2017



          ROBERT SIMPSON, Judge

         This case involves an issue of first impression, whether a Catholic college's expulsion decision is reviewable by the Pennsylvania Human Relations Commission (Commission). A former African-American student, Allan-Michael Meads (Student) filed a complaint with the Commission, alleging Chestnut Hill College (College) expelled him based on racial discrimination in violation of the Pennsylvania Human Relations Act (Act)[1] and the Pennsylvania Fair Educational Opportunities Act (PFEOA).[2] This Court granted College permission to appeal from the Commission's interlocutory order that denied a motion to dismiss premised on a lack of jurisdiction. College argues the Commission lacks jurisdiction because it is not a public accommodation; rather, it is distinctly private based on its religious nature. College also contends the religion clauses of the First Amendment[3] preclude the Commission from reviewing its expulsion decisions.

         Upon review, we affirm the denial of the motion to dismiss. Further, we conclude College did not identify any religious doctrine so as to trigger entanglement. Accordingly, we remand the matter to the Commission.

         I. Background

         College was founded by the Sisters of Saint Joseph in 1924 as an independent, non-profit educational institution affiliated with the Catholic church. College is staffed by lay faculty and the Sisters of St. Joseph. At least one-fifth, plus one, of its Board of Directors is composed of members of the Sisters of St. Joseph. The congregational president of the Sisters of Saint Joseph serves as vice-chair of the Board. Although College acquaints all students with Catholicism and holds Catholic services that are open to all students, students are not required to attend religious classes or services.

         During his senior year at College, Student collaborated with the African-American Awareness Society and directed the first African-American play at the College. He directed four plays over three days during Black History Month in 2012. The College hosted rehearsals and funded some play expenses. Student advertised that proceeds would benefit the Lupus Foundation of America (Foundation). Of the proceeds, Student donated $500 to the Foundation, and he expended $800 for a cast party. The total amount of the proceeds was unknown.

         In March 2012, College administrator Krista Murphy investigated Student's use of the proceeds, alleging he improperly retained them. Student provided receipts and his bank statement. Nonetheless, College charged Student with theft and forgery. The College held a hearing on the charges, in which Student fully participated.

         The hearing officer recommended Student's expulsion for misappropriation of funds. Student appealed the recommendation to the College Appeals Board (Board).

         In the interim, Student offered to pay restitution to the College in any amount it believed he owed. College rejected his offer.

         In April 2012, the Board unanimously supported expulsion. College found Student liable for theft and forgery and ruled to permanently expel him. College ordered Student to pay $2, 248. After he paid the funds, College donated the funds to the Foundation.

         College expelled Student a few weeks before his scheduled graduation. As a result of his expulsion, Student was unable to graduate, he lost his employment as a resident assistant, he lost his internship and he was evicted from his housing in Fitzsimmons Hall.

         Subsequently, Student filed a complaint with the Commission against the College, alleging his expulsion was based on his race in violation of the Act.

         The Commission investigated whether Student's expulsion was a pretext for discrimination. In the course of its investigation, it reviewed the College's disciplinary records from 2007 through 2012. The Commission determined that African-American students were punished disproportionately higher than other College students.

The College's Sanctions policy provides:
The following factors will be considered in determining sanctions: present attitude, past record, both positive and negative, the severity of the damage, injury harm or disruption or the potential for such, the student's or group's honesty, cooperation and willingness to make amends.

         Reproduced Record (R.R.) at 332a. Student had no prior disciplinary actions.

         In December 2015, the Commission found probable cause to credit the racial discrimination claims in Student's complaint. College filed an answer and new matter to the amended complaint, which added violations of the PFEOA. Four years later, in March 2016, after Student filed his complaint, College challenged the Commission's jurisdiction (Motion).

         In the Motion, College argued the Commission lacked jurisdiction because it was not a "public accommodation" under the Act. College also asserted any adjudication would require decisions regarding the application of the First Amendment, which exceeded the Commission's subject matter jurisdiction. College claims that by assuming jurisdiction, the Commission jeopardizes its First Amendment rights.

         The Commission issued an interlocutory order denying the Motion pursuant to 16 Pa. Code §42.131(c)(1) without granting a stay (Interlocutory Order). In accordance with 42 Pa. C.S. §702(b), it provided "this Interlocutory Order involves both constitutional issues and a controlling question of law as to which there is substantial ground for difference of opinion, and that an immediate appeal may materially advance termination of the matter." R.R. at 346a. College filed a petition for permission to appeal the Interlocutory Order pursuant to Pa. R.A.P. 1311.[4]

         By order dated July 26, 2016, this Court permitted appeal from the Interlocutory Order. Specifically, this Court granted a petition for permission to appeal limited to three questions:

1) Whether Catholic colleges and universities are 'public accommodations' under the Act;
2) Whether the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution precludes application of the Act to discipline and expulsion decisions of Catholic colleges and universities;
3) Whether the PFEOA is unconstitutional as applied to the disciplinary and expulsion decisions of College as a Catholic college.

Id. We also stayed the matter before the Commission pending resolution of this appeal. Student intervened. The Commission and Student sought reconsideration of our July 26th Order, which we denied.

         The Philadelphia Commission on Human Relations filed a friend-of-the-court brief supporting the Commission. After briefing, the matter is now ready for disposition.

         II. Discussion

         College argues it is not a public accommodation under the Act; rather, it is distinctly private as a Catholic institution. Consequently, it is not subject to jurisdiction of the Commission. Further, College asserts that because Student's claims implicate religious entanglement under the First Amendment, the Commission lacks subject matter jurisdiction. In addition, College contends Student's claims under PFEOA are time-barred.

         The Commission counters that College did not properly appeal to this Court, and it challenges our jurisdiction to address a non-final order. The Commission emphasizes that the Act and the PFEOA are both neutral antidiscrimination laws. Also, the Commission asserts the First Amendment is not a jurisdictional bar; rather, it offers an affirmative defense. Since College did not timely raise it, the Commission contends the defense is waived.

         Student asserts College is a public accommodation because it is open to the general public. Further, he argues the Act and PFEOA do not violate the First Amendment. He contends the resolution of this case does not involve issues of Catholic doctrine so as to lead to entanglement between church and state. Student also argues the First Amendment does not bar decisions on racial discrimination claims because elimination of racial discrimination is of paramount concern.

         A. Jurisdiction

         1. Appellate Jurisdiction

         At the outset, we address the Commission's challenge to our jurisdiction to review the Interlocutory Order. The Commission claims our review is limited to only final orders under Pa. R.A.P. 341. In so doing, the Commission ignores the procedural posture of this appeal, whereby this Court undertook review of the Interlocutory Order by permission pursuant to Pa. R.A.P. 1311.

         Then, the Commission claims that College did not satisfy the criteria of Rule 1311(b) because it did not seek an amendment of the Interlocutory Order. This argument presumes such an amendment was necessary. An interlocutory order may be appealed by permission provided it contains the statement required by 42 Pa. C.S. §702(b). Section 702(b) of the Judicial Code provides:

When a court or other government unit, in making an interlocutory order in a matter in which its final order would be within the jurisdiction of an appellate court, shall be of the opinion that such order involves a controlling question of law as to which there is substantial ground for difference of opinion and that an immediate appeal from the order may materially advance the ultimate termination of the matter, it shall so state in such order. The appellate court may thereupon, in its discretion, permit an appeal to be taken from such interlocutory order.

42 Pa. C.S. §702(b) (emphasis added). Rule 1311(b) does not require a party to apply for amendment of an order unless such a statement is missing.

         Here, the Interlocutory Order contained the requisite statement. R.R. at 346a. Thus, we may assume jurisdiction over College's appeal.

         2. ...

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