Civil Rights Commission exceeded authority in upholding complaint

Finding the Indiana Civil Rights Commission overstepped its authority, the Indiana Supreme Court has vacated the organization’s final order regarding an “intra-group squabble” over a dinner menu.

The split decision issued in Fishers Adolescent Catholic Enrichment Society, Inc., v. Elizabeth Bridgewater O/B/O Alyssa Bridgewater, 93S02-1310-EX-704, concludes a dispute where the appellate bench disagreed as to whether a dinner was an educational activity.

The discrimination claim originated when Elizabeth Bridgewater requested that the Fishers Adolescent Catholic Enrichment Society serve her daughter a special meal for the group’s All Souls’ Day Masquerade Ball dinner dance. FACES denied the request but approved Bridgewater’s subsequent suggestion that her daughter be allowed to bring her own dinner.

However, Bridgewater later went back to her original request and when she was again turned down, she filed a complaint with the commission. Bridgewater charged FACES discriminated against her daughter due to her disability of a food allergy. After FACES expelled the Bridgewater family, the mother filed another complaint, alleging the expulsion was an unlawful retaliation for filing the first discrimination claim.

On the first complaint, the commission ruled FACES did not commit an unlawful discriminatory practice because it provided a reasonable accommodation for Bridgewater’s daughter’s dietary needs. On the second complaint, the commission did find FACES discriminated by booting the Bridgewater family from the organization.

The Indiana Court of Appeals agreed the dinner dance fell under the purview of the commission because the activity was related to education.

Three justices and the chief justice of the Supreme Court took a narrower view of the statute’s language which gives the commission the authority to review discriminatory practices as they “relate to…education.” The majority held the dinner dance was a “quasi-religious social function” rather than an educational one and, therefore, fell outside the commission’s mandate.

“Here, the claim of retaliatory discrimination is predicated on Mrs. Bridgewater’s assertion of a claim that the failure to provide special food constituted disability discrimination,” Justice Brent Dickson wrote for the majority. “Because this disability discrimination claim is not related to education and thus falls outside the Commission’s enforcement powers, the derivative retaliatory discrimination claim is also beyond the Commission’s authority to impose any remedial sanctions against FACES.”

The court concluded the Commission had exceeded its statutory authority because neither the disability discrimination claim nor the retaliatory discrimination claims were related to education.

Justice Robert Rucker concurred with the majority’s ruling that Bridgewater’s disability discrimination claim must fail because the alleged discriminatory practice does not relate to education. However, he dissented with the majority view that the retaliation claim depends on a discrimination claim.   

“The facts of this case make clear the Bridgewater complaint was certainly not ‘meritless’ as the majority contends,” Rucker wrote. “And the Commission was quite correct in entertaining and providing remedy in favor of the Bridgewaters when FACES expelled the family in retaliation for filing the complaint in the first place.

“Second the retaliation language in the statute itself says nothing about an alleged ‘meritorious’ complaint,” Rucker continued. “Instead it tasks the Commission with the responsibility of ‘investigat(ing) complaints alleging discriminatory practices’ and giving it authority to prevent retaliation ‘because the person filed a complaint, testified in any hearing before this commission, or in any way assisted the commission in any matter under its investigation.’ I.C. § 22-9-1-6(d), (g).”


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